The educational landscape is shifting, and new, exciting learning opportunities are coming to the fore. Formal education used to be the gold standard but is a four-year degree really the best way for students to develop skills and competencies?

No, is the short answer.

High school students now have the option to gain hands-on experience and training through an innovative new system called Portal Schools. Ivan Cestero spoke to us about the benefits of this program as an alternative to a traditional college.

What are Portal Schools?

Ivan explained that the Portal School program aims to provide on-job training with personalized education as an alternative to higher education.

"Portal schools is an early college high school using a dual enrolment program that is also focused on career connected learning. They do that by co-locating with a corporate host, so physically co-locating the campus of the small school inside the corporate campus." - Ivan Cestero.

Instead of high school and then a four-year college bachelor's degree, this system combines the two. It is a five-year program that combines high school and college with a microschool system. By working in collaboration with a host company, this system offers valuable experience and training programs for young adults.

According to Ivan, Portal grew out of da Vinci's Charter Academy, one of the best charter school networks in terms of learning and career-connected learning.

The job market is changing, and traditional education models are not equipping students with the skills they need for the job market or entrepreneurship.

Is University the Only Path to Success?

Alternatives to college are becoming increasingly popular as kids contemplate what interests to pursue after high school. Self-directed learning gives students the opportunity to explore the world around them and discover what the right path is for them.

Young adults are looking to pursue more than entry-level job opportunities but instead want to dive into business and entrepreneurship. This is where vocational education plays such an important role. Rather than checking the college attendance box, students can explore other alternatives to help them succeed in their chosen career path.

"So there's a bigger picture here of all of us, either on the education side or the industry side, of thinking about the continuum between education and employment, rather than thinking of them as two different worlds." - Ivan Cestero.

Learning New Skills for Business and Beyond

Ivan explains that the Portal School system is exciting because it combines valuable experience for students with career focus and personalized classes. It is a unique design that allows each student to develop skills through classes and hands-on business training.

"We're looking for families who are excited about getting a personalized experience with more attention to individual students and an education that is a bit more personalized. Because in addition to the career-connected piece and the dual enrolment model, there's also a high degree of personalization around student needs around projects. This is the kind of luxury that comes with doing project-based learning. The ability to differentiate among learners as a teacher." - Ivan Cestero

The Case for Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning has long been used in a self-directed education setting. It is the application of academic and vocational skills and knowledge within a project. It is open-ended inquiry that approaches a problem holistically.

Project-based learning allows students to build on their knowledge rather than learning in isolation. It gives students space to apply their knowledge and engage in research. Project-based learning has many benefits that translate to the workplace, and these are not commonly found in university or even schools.

Student-Driven Learning and Private Schools

Private schools like Portal Schools offer students programs that allow more teacher-student interaction and smaller classes. In addition, they have the option to create a schedule that works for everyone and encourages optimal learning.

"So right now, the portal schedule includes one Flex Day in which students can decide whether they want to come into campus or not. The day is spent working and consulting directly with teachers, but it's an informal, open atmosphere which creates a lot of options for teachers to spend more time with individuals or groups who need it and for students to do their thing and develop a sense of independence." - Ivan Cestero.

This kind of personalized learning allows students to learn and grow at their own pace in an environment that caters to their interests and talents.

A Focus on Career and Skills Development

Education should not be one-size-fits-all because each child is different and has unique learning needs and interests. Students need more than rote learned knowledge after high school. Unfortunately, colleges still use standardized tests to measure students' knowledge and skills.

Pat Farenga explains that many colleges want to do away with the SATs, but this will be a slow system to roll out. Standardized testing provides a sense of security because it is 'proof' of learning. But it is not a fair representation of all the knowledge and skills a student has. It looks at recited facts rather than the person with varied interests.

University is not the only way to be successful in the workplace. In fact, there is a solid argument for why university and a degree are a waste of time when it comes to practical life skills.

"A lot of college graduates are not adequately prepared for the workplace, despite having a college degree. And that has to do with the archaic nature of most undergraduate schooling". - Ivan Cestero

Career Connected Learning

Programs like Portal offer an integrated way for students to experience the kind of college life that will benefit their future careers. They are also benefiting the businesses that are partnering with Portal.

"What's really exciting about the model and what's really outstanding about the value proposition are those two pieces. The way that the opportunity that colocation with a campus allows a school to provide for its students on the one hand, but also its corporate partners have the opportunity to develop a talent pipeline".

Corporate businesses are seeing a change in the workforce dynamics, and a new way of educating could change that.

"So there is this employee churn, but then there's also young employees values. And I think it's getting harder for corporate employers to dance around the world of diversity, equity, inclusion, and social impact. These are things that are more important than ever to young employees and young people," says Ivan.

The idea of students getting hands-on business experience is the best kind of training there is. At the end of their five-year degree, they will not only have the skills they need to go after the job they want successfully, but they will understand where their interests lie.

"If you can get the company to say yes, then you have the possibilities for unlocking all of these project-based experiential opportunities, from internships to mentorships to project consults. The opportunities are just incredible."

But How Does it Actually Work?

Ivan explained that Portal students could graduate with a BA in five years with the Early College Program, which is done with Southern New Hampshire University. High school and college are completed in tandem, all while experiencing hands-on business learning. The academic model is Competency-Based Education.

The college courses have been broken down on a platform that is accessible to students. Ivan says, "They have broken them down to competencies that can be shared between classes sometimes. And what that allows you to do, is meet those competencies in multiple ways. In our case, the students can do that through different projects. So our students can do projects that fulfill competencies on the SNHU platform without just taking different classes."

This innovative educational approach is based on academic work, in-person interactions, and collaborative problem-solving. It is a multi-dimensional approach to learning and what that looks like today.

Ivan gave a concrete example using the project consults they were introducing to students and company employees. The task "is being framed as a design challenge to the students to help them, to challenge them to develop solutions to the problem they're facing in different areas. One is around the product lifecycle and one around a project management challenge. So they are specific and real issues that Belkin employees are experiencing."

This competency-based approach to learning means that students can learn at their own pace without the traditional time-bound limitations of conventional college.

Self-Directed Learning and Alternatives to College

The world of alternative education is an exciting one. There are so many change-makers, innovators, and dreamers working to create alternative systems and ways of learning.

Learning is forever and for everyone, yet our traditional institutions don't reflect that. Careers today don't rely on the four-year college experience or bachelor's degrees. Careers in the internet age can be built on skills, knowledge, and life experiences.

Alternatives to college offer students a broader horizon for learning opportunities. It is an exciting time to be exploring the diverse range of learning options available. When you decide to embark on a life of learning freedom, a whole world of alternatives opens up.