Q&A: Cities Must Look at Education 'Beyond the Schoolhouse Doors'

Eighteen interns graduated from the Summer STEPS program during a ceremony at West Sacramento City Hall in August 2017.

Eighteen interns graduated from the Summer STEPS program during a ceremony at West Sacramento City Hall in August 2017. City of Sacramento / Twitter


Connecting state and local government leaders

West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cabaldon is an evangelist for the idea that mayors can build a “cradle-to-career approach, but all of it outside of the classroom.”

Most city leaders talk about the importance of providing good educational opportunities to citizens, but few have power over the school systems in their jurisdictions.

However, that may not matter as much as one might suspect in this day and age.

Chris Cabaldon, the mayor of West Sacramento, California, is calling for mayors to take a “cradle-to-career approach” to their citizens’ education. This includes a wide range of activities that happen “beyond the schoolhouse doors,” from providing opportunities for citizens to received “micro-credentials” that acknowledge proficiencies to using the power of a mayor’s office to “leverage equity and opportunity across the board.”

Cabaldon is known as something of a guru among his fellow mayors on the topic, with the credentials to go with it. He has served as vice chancellor for the California Community Colleges system, served as chief of staff for the California State Assembly’s Committee on Higher Education and continues to serve on the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. He has also, led, worked with or for a range of nonprofits and foundations that focus on education.

He also walks the walk, having implemented in his city of 50,000 programs that most major cities would envy, from award-winning universal preschool that’s considered a model nationally, to paid internships for high school students, to free community college.

Route Fifty spoke with the mayor following his panel discussion at SXSW EDU, "Mayors & the Promise of College & Career Readiness," about the how education must adapt to our changing economy.

Below are key takeaways from our interview, edited for length and clarity. You can also find a video of our full interview below.

Mitch Herckis: Traditionally, in many cities, schools have been managed through a schoolboard or something like that. You are seeing more mayors take an active hand in education. Can you tell me a little bit of what that looks like and how you would suggest mayors get involved as someone with a background in education?

West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cabaldon: It is true for a lot of American history mayor’s roles in education has been like, recruiting a company to adopt a school, or sometimes trying to take over the school district, and there’s so much more to be done than just trying to deal inside the schoolhouse doors.

So what you’re seeing in America right now is a bunch of mayors—I’m one of them, but in Oakland and in Stockton, in Chicago, Boston—mayors who are trying to wrestle everything outside of the classroom to support educational success and workforce opportunity for young people.

For instance, [West Sacramento is] doing: preschool; plus, college savings accounts for every kindergartner; plus, digital badges for high school students; outside of the classroom learning—community service and skill-building; free community college; paid internships for every high school student in college and career pathways; and, scholarships for every kid based on their digital badges.

Really a cradle-to-career approach, but all of it outside of the classroom.

It’s using the power of the mayor’s office to bring resources to make connections between the private and public sector and schools in order to take advantage and leverage equity and opportunity across the board.

Herckis: We were talking right before this, and you said a lot of the questions at the panel were about digital badges… [something] you said mayors should definitely know more about. What do mayors need to know about digital badges?

Mayor Cabaldon: Digital badges are micro-credentials. They’re a validated way to demonstrate that a young person—or an older person—but a young person, in this case, has done something, accomplished something, or learned something, or can do something. So skills, accomplishments, volunteer things.

One example is you might earn a digital badge that is issued by Habitat for Humanity for coming to volunteer for four weekends in a row building a house. You might earn a badge that you did that; that you accomplished the full range of it, and now that you have level one carpentry skills.

And then that badge might give you an advantage when you apply to a carpentry apprenticeship program that you already have a set of skills that have been validated by Habitat for Humanity.

So the idea is to be able to take skills that our young people are already learning. They’re making their own videos, they are making stuff on Etsy and selling it…

They’re getting skills that … are invisible right now to employers and colleges. So digital badges are a way to make it clear for young people and employers and colleges to see each other with the skills that are needed and what young people have.

For mayors it’s really powerful, because I’ve got companies in my city that need specific skills. I need folks that can work in a laboratory, but, you know, clean the test tubes and manage the chemicals—but they don’t have to have a bachelor’s degree necessarily in chemistry or biology. So can I see just a badge of those skills?

And so what we are seeing in many cities—we’re one of the leading one’s in this space—is the beginning of the development of kind of a national ecosystem of these digital badges, but developed in communities by specific validating organizations.

It’s the cutting edge, the leading edge of workforce development, of transforming education, also preparing young people for a future of work that isn’t just based on today’s style of jobs.

Herckis: It seems your city is running faster towards that educational future than most. Policy, bureaucracy moves slowly … how long is it going to take us to get to a newer version of education that kind of pulls us into new directions where we’re looking at various skills?

Mayor Cabaldon: Part of the point of the digital badge work led by cities is its intended to disrupt all of that [bureaucracy and status quo].

The world of work is changing way faster than education and even some workforce development providers and so where the digital badges are in part of a warning sign to universities and colleges, “Hey, you’ve got to adapt to this, too.”

In our session I pointed out that nearly all the net increase in jobs that’s occurred since the recession? Nearly all of it has been associated with the gig economy, with freelance work, with stuff other than ... going to work for someone else.

But our system of education, and skills development—but also skills signaling—doesn’t reflect that at all. So it’s not like we’re preparing for a future … 12 years from now, it’s already underway and we’ve got to catch up.

Herckis: If mayors and county members and even state officials can take away one thing that they can take a basic step in the right direction, what would you suggest as far as where they start?

Mayor Cabaldon: We have a national network now of cities doing this digital badge work. I think for mayors—and we welcome counties and states as well—but to join that network, and to start issuing a badge, creating a badge, working with employers to value those badges, give benefits to young people who have those badges is a really critical first step, and you can join a community where the work is already underway.

View the full interview:

Mitch Herckis is the Senior Director of Programs for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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