Skip to content

Innovative College and Career Readiness in Appalachia

By Dr. Rebecca Roach, Associate Director, Kentucky Educational Development Corporation

D.J. was a new student, and like many students attending a new high school, he was not doing well.  Although he demonstrated academic potential, he showed little interest in school and even less interest in college.  Then Lana Sowders, the Youth Career Connect (YCC) Career Counselor at Casey County High School stepped in.  She knew D.J. had the skills and passion to build a successful future.  He only lacked opportunity.  Working with a local industry, she placed D.J. in a short-term, unpaid internship while she held ongoing one-on-one meetings with him to track his progress and provide individual career counseling.  D.J. thrived under her counseling and loved his new work environment.  As a result, he selected his career pathway.

Map of YCC high schools in Kentucky

Figure 1: YCC high schools in Kentucky

D. J. exemplifies the success of the YCC Project, a five-year program under the leadership of the Kentucky Educational Development Corporation (KEDC) and funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s YCC Program.  In order to strengthen the workforce pipeline, YCC funded proposals designed to provide students career coaching, integrated career and academic learning, real-world work experiences, and post-secondary education opportunities (U.S. Department of Labor, 2018).  In 2014, partnering with ten Kentucky high schools (figure 1) in high-poverty, rural, Appalachian communities, KEDC’s YCC Project was funded for $5.52 million.  As a result, over the past four years, the project has provided 1,525 students (855 females and 670 males), grades nine through 12, equitable access to one-to-one career counseling, work-based learning experiences, and early college courses (figure 2).

Figure 2: YCC – Year Four

YCC Career Counselors

Dedicated career counselors are at the heart of YCC’s success.  YCC provides funding for career counselors in each of the 10 participating schools. Most of these counselors have been selected by the schools and are from the communities they serve.  Although the career counselors play a role similar to that of traditional guidance counselors such as assisting students in selecting career pathways,

completing college applications, and obtaining soft skills, YCC Career Counselors go beyond, leveraging resources in both school and community to create work-based learning opportunities for students.  They also invest substantial time working one-on-one with students to teach students to reflect on their work-based performance and the relevance of work-based experiences to their future career goals.

Career Pathways

Preparing for a successful transition from school to career is a gradual process.  Each YCC student is enrolled in an intentionally structured plan, or pathway, that provides classes and experience designed to increase the likelihood of success in a chosen career. Oftentimes, these pathways are developed to address a workforce need in the community. YCC counselors first work with students to assess and identify career areas compatible with student interests and aptitudes.  Then the career counselor identifies the classes and work-based experiences that will set the student on the path to successful post-graduate transitions.  In some cases, this means enrolling students in programs that provide certifications or credentials in addition to their high school diplomas.  Quite often students change their pathways as they learn more, through counseling, work-based experiences and coursework, about their chosen career.  This is often a positive step, because it allows students to explore potential career opportunities early instead of later.  Doing so may avoid wasted time and money on university or technical school.

Work-based Learning Experiences in Rural Environments

With the help of KEDC, YCC career counselors establish mutually beneficial relationships between school and local employers to provide essential work-based learning experiences for students.  Because YCC counselors and KEDC staff actively engage employers and teachers in decision-making, both are able to see the benefits of internships and job shadowing.  Employers have come to understand YCC can strengthen the workforce pipeline from school to work, assisting them in identifying and training potential employees.  According to one YCC Career Counselor, Mary Adams, “I knew our community had wonderful people and I learned to appreciate them even more.  We have the most caring professionals who welcomed high school students into their practices and lives” (KEDC, 2018).

Additionally, work-based learning experiences are flexible.  The duration and intensity of the experience depends on each student’s level of maturity, school schedule, and career pathway, as well as the needs and expressed wishes of the employer.  Over the past four years, students have completed work-based learning experiences with employers in the fields of health, engineering, computer technology, and even tourism.

Collaborating closely with school faculty has a positive impact on the program.  Teachers are flexible in assignments and attendance to accommodate student internship and job shadowing schedules, sometimes seamlessly integrating work experiences into classroom instruction.  Moreover, employers provide students individual performance feedback, yielding additional real-world opportunities for students to reflect upon and improve their essential career skills.  Overall, the program has become a win-win for both schools and employers.

Work-based learning supports students.

Project-based Internships

Jeanette Brandenburg, the YCC Counselor in Lee County, an isolated, low-income, rural community, found that work-based experiences “can help students develop skills, make connections, strengthen their resumes, learn about a field, and assess their interests and abilities” (p. 47, KEDC, 2018).  However, establishing contacts for work-based learning is often challenging in rural settings where the school’s only businesses may include two fast-food restaurants and a small medical clinic.

To address these challenges, YCC schools collaborate with industries to bring work-based experiences into the schools through project-based internships.  Employers design creative, challenging STEM-based projects that students complete from the school grounds.  Throughout the duration of the project, employers provide digital guidance and supervision through Skype or email.  At the end of the internships, students showcase their results at a culminating event hosted by the company.  This innovative model provides students with work-based experiences without leaving the school and reduces travel to and from the workplace to a single field trip for the culminating event.

Local Area Workforce Partnerships

YCC schools benefit from partnerships with organizations that create and support employment programs in their communities.  These include Career Centers, Chambers of Commerce, and Cabinet for Economic Development Centers.  In the YCC program, workforce partners serve as liaisons between schools and employers, attend school career fairs, identify special scholarships for students, and attend school meetings to provide insight and advice on how to engage local employers.  In return, YCC Counselors attend partner meetings and maintain close communication with organizations.  Because YCC and workforce development organizations share mutual goals, both benefit from collaborative partnerships.

Early College and Dual Credit

KEDC collaborates with Morehead State University’s (MSU) previously established Early College Program to design a dual credit program, specifically for high school students.  Joel Pace, MSU’s Director for Early College, identifies faculty who show an interest in working with high school students and demonstrate an understanding of their developmental needs.  Once the students are registered for courses, YCC Counselors partner with faculty to ensure student success.  If students fall behind in their coursework, the faculty member contacts the YCC counselor who then follows-up with the students, providing advice on time management and self-efficacy.  This feedback allows students a gradual release of responsibility, developing essential personal and interpersonal skills before embarking on a fulltime college experience.  YCC students enrolled in dual credit have on average, earned approximately 11 college credit hours.

These courses are also selected to provide students flexibility.  Classes are online so that students can complete work during school hours or at home.  In addition, MSU selects general education courses transferable to any university in the state regardless of major.

Infographic of credit hours post-secondary per student

Figure 3. Average hours post-secondary per student

KEDC Support

Much of YCC’s success is the result of ongoing support from KEDC, Kentucky’s oldest and largest educational cooperative which serves over 60 school districts. KEDC’s Projects and Operations Director, Clabe Slone, drafted the grant proposal, and since KEDC serves as the fiscal agent, Clabe oversees the project budget.  KEDC also collaborates with stakeholders across the state, including local businesses, postsecondary institutions, the Kentucky Department of Education, and the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, on grant goals and activities.  At the school level, the Cooperative plans and facilitates educational seminars on essential skills and career building activities for groups of YCC students in all ten high schools. The Cooperative also assist YCC Career Counselors with strategies to provide services for YCC students in the areas of career exploration, individual learning plans, college preparedness, job shadowing, and internships.

Knowing that flexibility is the key to school buy-in and the creation of services that will be sustainable after grant monies are spent, KEDC employs a model of shared and collaborative leadership. Within the parameters of project goals and grant compliance, schools are empowered to make decisions based on the needs of their communities and students.  In order to facilitate this shared, collaborative leadership model, Jennifer Sloan, the KEDC YCC Coordinator, plans and facilitates regional advisory meetings.  These meetings, hosted by the YCC high schools, draw on the collective experience of attending career counselors, teachers, local employers, and workforce partnership agencies that discuss challenges, successes, and brainstorm solutions according to individual needs of each region.  Over the past four years, these advisory meetings have generated a wealth of valuable information and advice on career counseling as well as best practices for establishing college and career readiness programs.  In order to share this success with other schools, this information was collected and published by KEDC in a booklet, Achievement in Career Engagement: Career Counselor Info-Guide (KEDC, 2018).  Each counselor authored their own chapter based on their areas of expertise.  This guide, published online on the Department of Labor’s GPS Workforce Resource Library (USDOL, 2018b), can also be viewed and downloaded for free from the KEDC YCC website at

The rest of the story

D.J.’s YCC story does not end with high school graduation.  During his internship program, he showed so much promise that his work-based learning experience at the company grew from unpaid internship to paid internship, and finally to full-time employment.  After high school, he enrolled in college with a sense of purpose.  Moreover, the employer continues to invest in D.J., paying his tuition and scheduling his work hours around his class schedule.  Now D.J. has a standing offer with the company as a full-time engineer.  According to Lana, his YCC Career Counselor, “Career Counseling changed D.J.’s future, helped him reach his full potential, and ushered him into post-secondary education and a promising career” (KEDC, 2018). More information about YCC can be found at

Facts about sustainability


 Kentucky Educational Development Corporation (2018). Achievement in Career Engagement: Career Counselor Info-Guide. Ashland, KY: Kentucky Educational Development Corporation.

United States Department of Labor Division of Youth Services (2018).  Youth Career Connect: Program Summary.  Retrieved from

United States Department of Labor (2018b).  Workforce GPS Resource Library.  Retrieved from


Dr. Rebecca Roach, Associate Director, Kentucky Educational Development Corporation

She can be reached at

Scroll To Top