The Means to Grow Up: The Role of Apprenticeship in Preparing All Youth for College and Career Success

The Means to Grow Up: The Role of Apprenticeship in Preparing All Youth for College and Career Success
The Means to Grow Up: The Role of Apprenticeship in Preparing All Youth for College and Career Success


This AYPF forum reflected the growing national dialogue about how to ensure that youth receive the skills and experiences they need to be productive, successful members of the American workforce and society. In particular, the focus was on the use of apprenticeships to provide youth opportunities to practice what they may do in their adult lives. The forum showcased various approaches to providing students with high quality work experiences.

Robert Halpern, Professor, Erikson Institute for Graduate Study in Child Development, drew upon research captured in his 2008 book, The Means to Grow Up: Reinventing Apprenticeship as a Developmental Support in Adolescence. His work stems from the premise that young people remain isolated from the complexities and the fullness of the adult world and that they often feel as though they are disconnected from meaningful activity. He views apprenticeships as an effective, developmentally-appropriate approach to helping youth gain social and emotional attributes that are a vital part of regular adolescent growth.

Halpern framed apprenticeship as a way for youth to work with adults as mentors and peers simultaneously and learn together. Different than internships that may offer exposure to the work world through an isolated project that may or may not be related to a potential career, apprenticeships are steeped in a history of training participations for a future occupation. In apprenticeship settings, youth are challenged to contribute to a specific outcome where their work has real meaning and use in the world. Adults control the difficulty of tasks and provide direction and discipline. Youth learn by doing, and also by observing adult mentors in action.

In apprenticeships, youth learn a variety of skills through experience. In particular, youth:

• Learn about themselves in new contexts, in situations that exist outside of school where perhaps they can feel more comfortable being themselves and gain confidence
• Learn to use care in their work
• Understand the cycle of work
• Learn what it takes to prepare for tasks
• Become adept at working with uncertainty
• Move forward in the face of obstacles and understand that to be the nature of work
• Contribute to a larger effort

Halpern believes that apprenticeships have a solid place in school reform efforts to help students transition from school to work. Specifically, apprenticeships:

• Offer a conceptual model for good learning design for youth, which meets young learners’ developmental needs related to how time is organized, who teaches, how learning is accomplished, and how experiences are organized.
• Can be an actual learning experience that is part of high school curriculum.
• Can create bridges across institutions and sectors in society to foster mutual learning between school and non-school institutions.

Darla Burton, Regional Coordinator, Youth Apprenticeship Program, Southwest Wisconsin Consortium, shared knowledge of how Wisconsin has implemented a rigorous, results-oriented apprenticeship program since 1991. The apprenticeship program has had bipartisan support from various governors and the state legislature and policies have been in place to provide funding over the years.

Wisconsin’s commitment to supporting apprenticeship began by meeting the needs of the local paper industry and now responds to increasing opportunities in new fields such as biotechnology. Almost all Wisconsin high school students have an opportunity to participate in an apprenticeship program, and the state offers 19 programs which local schools may offer. Each year 2,000 students participate and earn money while doing so.

Burton discussed the high level of satisfaction that participating employers express from their involvement with students in the program and indicated that 83% of surveyed employers repeat their participation. Furthermore, 85% of surveyed employers agreed that student apprentices add value to their organizations. Wisconsin helps to engineer this success by aligning the required competencies for apprenticeship programs with what employers want in future employees, creating a real world experience.

To be aligned with federal accountability efforts, including the No Child Left Behind Act, apprenticeship programs have learned to incorporate and present academic content to students in ways to help them meet the proficiency requirements of the law. Program administrators are now exploring how apprenticeships can find support through the federal Carl Perkins Career and Technology Education Act (Perkins) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and how these federal laws might provide incentives for employer participation.

Diane Postoian, Learning Through Interest Partnership Coordinator at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (the MET) in Providence, RI, spoke about her belief in the importance of experience to learning, and her work to help place the MET’s 700 students into internships annually. Postoian believes that such experiential learning brings to life students’ curiosity and play, foundations upon which they can explore their passions and find success in life.

At the MET, students are charged with being active participants in their learning, and in designing individual internship experiences specific to their interests. At the MET, workplace learning is continually linked back to academics. Students must do an “exhibition” on their internship experience where they state how they will meet Rhode Island’s math, language, and science requirements through their work-based experience, and each student’s advisor ensures that these requirements are met. Students must also explain to parents, teachers, and peers what they have learned and how they think that they have met the challenges of the internship. Ultimately, students take internships seriously as the experiences are woven into daily learning rather than being an add-on to the school hours. Postoian explained that, above all, the MET strives to bring back the joy in learning and to respect each individual’s path into adulthood.

Jinel Brito, 2009 Graduate of The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (the MET) in Providence, RI, brought the student perspective to the forum. Brito indicated that she was very unhappy in 8th grade and was hopeful of finding a different learning environment at the Met. While at the MET, Brito found herself challenged to manage herself as a learner and to overcome her previous years of apathy with education. However, Brito grew to understand that learning should be a challenge.

At the MET, Brito had the freedom to explore different ways of learning and was given the opportunity to make choices about her own education. She opted to learn through working with local community groups and organizations. Brito learned how to listen to and trust adults, how to be an independent student, and how to engage with peers and adults in her community. Her internship experience allowed her to share her passion for art as a summer art school teacher for middle school students in Providence.


As school reform efforts seek to expand the ways students learn and prepare themselves for the workforce, apprenticeships offer best practices and data that show that exposing students to structured, work-based learning experiences can produce positive results for students, employers, and society. The three approaches shared in this forum show that a variety of programs and funding mechanisms can be used to bring meaningful work-based learning experiences to students that empower them to be active learners.

Question and Answer Period

Betsy Brand, Executive Director of AYPF, asked how apprenticeship programs and models could be expanded, and what policy levers or mechanisms could be put in place to support more work-based learning experiences for more young people. Halpern responded that it is important to figure out how to incorporate apprenticeship into the current efforts around school reform, not necessarily through federal policy but rather through a cultural shift that acknowledges that there is more than the one college-going pathway to success. Burton shared that more people need to know about available apprenticeship programs to raise awareness of and opportunities for these experiences. Postoian commented that the high level of respect that once existed for all types of learning leading to work, whether it was through earning a college degree or completing on-the-job training, had now vanished. Apprenticeships offer an opportunity to show that learning through a variety of ways still leads to meaningful work that is valuable in society.

A question was asked about whether Wisconsin’s approach, which echoed a European style program, created tensions with federal work-based learning programs. Burton responded that there is not much tension since the federal Perkins requirements mesh with the elements of Wisconsin’s approach.

A question was asked about how apprenticeships align with students’ requirements for graduating high school, including meeting seat time requirements. Postoian responded that at the MET, students must design their learning to incorporate meeting state standards, which, while a challenge, is achieved. At the MET, students also complete enough work so that they are eligible to receive a certification for their work, pending employer approval. Brand added that Rhode Island’s performance-based system means there is a smaller focus on standardized tests, making such requirements less prominent. Burton stated that student apprentices in Wisconsin receive high school and college credit.


Robert Halpern, is a Professor at the Erikson Institute for Graduate Study in Child Development in Chicago and a Faculty Associate at Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.  He is the author of The Means to Grow Up: Reinventing Apprenticeship as a Developmental Support in Adolescence (Routledge, 2008), Making Play Work: The Promise of After-School Programs for Low-Income Children (Teachers College Press, 2003), Fragile Families, Fragile Solutions: A History of Supportive Services for Families in Poverty (Columbia University Press, 1999) and Rebuilding the Inner City: A History of Neighborhood Initiatives to Address Poverty (Columbia University Press, 1995), as well as numerous articles and chapters on the effects of poverty on children and families, and the role of services in poor  families’ lives.  In recent years Dr. Halpern’s research has focused on after-school and youth programs.  His current work focuses on the value of apprenticeship-like learning experiences during adolescence.

Darla Burton, is the School to Work Project Supervisor for the Cooperative Educational Service Agency #3 (CESA #3) and the Executive Director for the Wisconsin Association for Leadership in Education and Work (WALEW). Darla has been in the Human Services field for 20 years, graduating with a B.S. and M.S. in Rehabilitation Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her background includes assisting with employment for people with disabilities and working with children at risk.  Her current position includes serving the 35 school districts in Southwest Wisconsin as the Youth Apprenticeship Regional Coordinator, participating on such advisory boards as the Project Lead the Way State Advisory Council, the STEM Equity Pipeline State Team and the Southwest Wisconsin School to Work Advisory Council.

Diane Postoian, is currently the Partnership Coordinator at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (the MET) in Providence.  She loves the students, advisors and the relentless energy taken to find the appropriate internship program for each and every of the 700 Met students. Three decades of fieldwork as an arts educator, performer, theatre director, and active proponent of alternative education, earned Diane Postoian an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Rhode Island College in 2006. Postoian has received grants from funding sources nationwide for her innovative work of educating from the stage and in the classroom.  As an advocate for the preservation of the creative spirit, Ms. Postoian has enlightened and entertained thousands of children and adults by delivering her two driving passions:  Pretend and Literacy in Early Childhood Development and Fighting the Hype in an Overly-Popped Teen Culture. When Postoian became Executive Director of Rhode Island’s venerable Looking Glass Theatre, a touring company for school audiences, she vowed to keep books ‘fun’ by scripting books on the reading level of her audiences instead of typical plays. Postoian created The Olga! Project in 1999.  A powerful, no-nonsense comedy routine, The Olga! Project plows through a number of social taboos helping teens to hold on to their identity and to communicate their feelings.  Diane Postoian has made children her business for 30 years. Her lasting energy is fueled by her need to keep the child-like spirit alive in a child’s education. Visit Diane Postoian’s website at:

*Additional Comments

Jinel Brito, 2009 Graduate of The Met School (A Big Picture School) (RI), attended 2 traditional middle schools knowing high school could not be more of the same.  Finding the Met, Jinel has had the opportunity to explore and experience a variety of art programs, including an internship at The Steelyard an as a student at RISD’s Project Open Door.  She now has a summer job teaching art related classes to middle school students in Providence.  As a child, she cannot remember a time when she wasn’t holding a crayon.  Jinel will be 18 this fall and is attending the Mass College of Art.

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The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.