There had to be a better way. For years, the Wenatchee School District in Washington State had been using their state provided software to help students with college and career planning. It was affordable and gave students access to possible options for their future. But Mike Wilson, a long-time educator in the district, knew something was missing. They needed a partner and a platform with a vision—one that helped connect students with their community, engaged them in the exploration process, and supported all students regardless of background or pathway. Their students deserved more—so Mike initiated an effort to make that happen.
We sat down with Mike to better understand the journey his district took as they embarked on their mission to make every student future ready.
When did you realize that what your district had in place maybe wasn’t the best solution?
At the time, when I looked at our state created software options, I realized they weren’t quite fitting the bill for our vision of what college and career readiness meant. Simply put, we wanted a platform that was more robust and would actually help students see the big picture—all connected together. We also needed a solution that encompassed the entire student community and engaged every student in the planning process. What we had been using just felt very limited. It presented career and school possibilities, but didn’t help the students necessarily connect the dots or help move kids along in the actual planning process. Everything felt so segmented and didn’t seem to excite kids about the process. Our vision was to expand students’ horizons and show them everything that might be possible for their future—getting them energized about the future and able to picture what academic and career success actually looks like for them. Those are really inspiring goals.
How did you go about figuring out what you’d need to achieve them?
We started by thinking about what success for our students really looked like and getting everyone aligned on our vision. I came up with a list of categories and boxes that we wanted to ensure we checked—based on what we felt our students really needed to be ready to succeed in the real world
There were also some guidelines from our department of education. For example in the state of Washington, we have the High School and Beyond Plan (HSBP). It details the graduation requirements for every student in the state. So we looked at that too, and what it would mean to fulfill that mandate. We wanted something that was simple to use but that also provided powerful information for both students and educators. Something that everyone was excited to use!
Then it was just a matter of evaluating our options. We started comparing what our state provided (both a free and a subsidized program) with other services out there. We probably looked at like four or five options. We took a look at how each service stacked up against our checklist and asked “did they help us attain our vision?” If we went with one particular option, what were we compromising? Was there a solution that could tick all the boxes—that required us to compromise the least (or even better, not at all)?
Sounds like a very thorough evaluation. How did price play into your decision making?
It was a factor. I mean—we had a free option on the table—you can’t really ignore the topic of cost.
But, at the end of the day, the conversation actually shifted to be more about value. When we stacked our options up against each other, we realized that, while we’d save money with certain programs, we’d also be seriously compromising on the experience. The state, and our district, were investing a lot of time and effort into setting students up to succeed. If you’re going to make it a priority, you need the right tools to do the job.
The added cost actually felt really minimal for the value we would be getting in return—both in terms of student engagement and based on the expected improvements in student retention and achievement. When we started looking at things based on value—it became a pretty easy decision.
What changes have you seen in your students after bringing on a new program?
Students are now able to make connections. It’s like a lightbulb went on and they’re now able to see how everything relates. They’re more self aware—and with that they’re able to really link together how things like personality, likes, dislikes, skills, interests (all the stuff that makes up who they are) connect with careers and schooling.
It’s really helped make course planning more meaningful. For instance, if a student is interested in becoming an Electrician they can now see what training and skills they need to do that job. They then better understand why they would need to study something like Physics or Trigonometry. It’s a crystal ball into their future. They know they’ll actually use that knowledge. We get a lot less of the “when will I ever use this” type questions because students know how it’s relevant.
Any other benefits?
Students are just more engaged. I actually have to tell students to log-out when the bell rings. It’s not difficult anymore to keep students on task—which just makes our lives so much easier and is really rewarding to see.
What benefits have you experienced at the administrative or educator level?
Well, apart from knowing that we’re giving the students something better to work with, the biggest benefit for us was the ability to meet the High School and Beyond Plan requirements. With just one piece of software we’ve been able to ensure that we can meet that requirement—because it spans both middle school and high school students. We actually were able to get ahead of the curve with it. We had an out of the box solution to help guide the students’ Personalized Pathway Requirement—which changed slightly for the 2017–2018 school year. But because we had already chosen to work with the team at Xello, we were covered. It’s been a win-win for us—good for students, good for us.
What would you tell another district thinking about software as a solution to support college and career readiness?
Don’t settle—it’s not worth it. Look for a service that demonstrates they have a vision, and is a partner (vs. just a provider) in helping students. If you try to patch together something it’ll be a mess. So why have the headache when there are solutions that might cost a little more, but deliver so much more value.
And look for something that all students will actually want to use and get value from. It needs to speak to them on a personal level, teach them relevant real-world skills and help them see all the future opportunities. It should deliver 21st century student friendly stuff and make sense to them. If you compromise on the student experience, or how intuitive it is for them to use, you’ll have to work way harder to get kids to engage with it. It should help make learning make sense—and programs like Career Cruising and Xello do that.