Philadelphia unveils new workforce prep model at three city high schools

Pictured are (from left) West Philadelphia High School Principal Marla Travis, Overbrook High School Principal Dr. Kahlila Johnson, Superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington, Bartram High School Principal Brian Johnson and Ali Robinson-Rogers, deputy chief of the Office of Postsecondary Readiness.
School District of Philadelphia

Philadelphia School District’s latest initiative is merging classrooms and careers together in a very literal way.

On Thursday, Sept. 15, the district announced the 21st Century Schools Model’ program, which will focus on setting high schoolers up for career success post-graduation.

In partnership with local businesses and nonprofits, the program will provide students an opportunity to gain exposure and hands-on experience in sustainable high-demand industries.

School District of Philadelphia

Set to begin in the 2023-2024 school year, the model will first take place at three neighborhood high schools:

  • West Philadelphia High School — will focus on urban development, such as real estate, cultural studies, information technology, and entrepreneurship.
  • Overbrook High School — intends to focus its efforts on entertainment programming, such as music production, digital design film, and television.
  • Bartram High School — will concentrate its model around the logistics and transportation industry, such as automotive mechanics, warehousing, and supply management.

“When the idea came about, we tried to look at the industries that were competitive regionally, and what some of the in-demand careers were,” explained Ali Robinson-Rogers, deputy chief of the Office of Postsecondary Readiness.

Robinson-Rogers says the students at these schools had combined interests in those specified areas of focus, along with the business relationships previously established by long-term staff members within the district.

School District of Philadelphia

“We wanted to make sure the industries allowed for students to obtain a certification that would allow them to move directly into a career upon graduation,” Robinson-Rogers added.

Overbrook High School Principal and alum Dr. Kahlila Johnson says while this program focuses on work readiness, it also offers a different blend from the career and technical education (CTE) programs currently offered to students.

“We want to ensure that our students, once they graduate high school, can seek out employment that has a livable wage where they’re able to take care of themselves and sustain in a demanding profession,” said Johnson. “Overbrook High School has a very rich culture when it comes to music and the entertainment industry. Rightfully so, we would just continue to push that agenda.”

Focusing on both in front and behind-the-scenes production roles, Johnson says the school currently gained two part-time experienced music teachers, more musical equipment, and has established partnerships with The Mann Center, Live Nation, and the DASH program (Destined to Achieve Successful Heights.)

In Southwest Philadelphia, Bartram High School — which plans to focus on automotive mechanics, warehousing, and supply management — will strengthen its relationship with Amazon, which has a new logistics facility being built along Passyunk Avenue. In addition, automotive dealer Pacifico Ford on the 6700 block of Essington Avenue has taken a strong interest in the program.

For many parents, this new initiative provides a sense of optimism given previous budget cuts hindering music and trade programs that many Philadelphia public schools have experienced.

“When you think about trade programs, even CTE students are immersed in that career in particular. What we’re hoping to do with this program is really integrate career and academics together,” Robinson-Rogers said. “Some of their class experience should be with their employer.”

“We aren’t looking at this to be something separate…this is more of a way for students to have options to continue to build upon,” Johnson added.

Johnson and Robinson-Rogers say the goal is for this model to roll out and evaluate its progress before expanding into other area high schools.

Metro is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Phillya collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly