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TED Talks by Kindergarteners? It’s All in the World of Work in Cajon Valley.

David Miyashiro, superintendent of El Cajon Valley Schools, discusses his district's World of Work initiative. Photo by Silas Bryant.

The leaders behind one innovative San Diego-area school district may have received top billing at the Thursday afternoon conference session “Career Development Begins in Kindergarten,” but it was a group of their high school and middle school students that stole the show.

Five students from Cajon Valley Union School District in California took the mic to give elevator pitches about themselves, discuss their own career goals and explain how their school is empowering them to achieve their aspirations. All five exuded poise and polish that seemingly defied their youth.

But coming from a district where students participate in career explorations and even learn to give Ted Talks about themselves as kindergarteners, perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising.

“When you come to Cajon Valley, you’re excited because you can have a conversation with a student in a way that you’ve never had a conversation with an adult before,” said Ed Hidalgo, the district’s former chief innovation and engagement officer who still serves as an adviser.

Hidalgo joined David Miyashiro, Cajon Valley superintendent, and Nerel Winter, CEO of the TK-14 school Bostonia Global — the one high school within the district — on how they’ve implemented a vision of exploring students’ strengths, interests and values while developing a career identity in children from a young age.

They’ve done so in a community that can feel very far from San Diego’s booming tech economy that hews to the coast. The city of El Cajon is a diverse, working-class community east of San Diego. It’s become a resettlement community for refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere; Hidalgo noted that as many as 40 languages are spoken within the district.

So what’s the secret to success in Cajon Valley?

The speakers introduced district programs such as World of Work, which started as a one-off day trip to local tech giant Qualcomm. It since has been expanded into a comprehensive program that allows students throughout their schooling to explore career paths and meet professionals from industry partners in their workplaces.

“Our students matriculate through a journey that is focused on change and is focused on the idea that what the students care about does really matter,” Winter said. “That relationship starts in kindergarten. Vocational identity is not just a class you take in the 11th grade, it’s the entire system.”

Bostonia also operates on an advisory model that starts in middle school and smooths the transition into high school. Students meet with advisers twice daily to create a caring community, promote open communication and track their academic progress.

“The most important thing is to feel known, to feel cared about and to feel someone in the world is there for you,” Winter added.

(Michael Klitzing is a freelance writer in San Diego and a reporter for Conference Daily Online.)

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