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Paving Pathways for Future Policy Leaders

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Gretchen Kent
December 9, 2021

When I was in high school, a degree program or career in public policy was the farthest thing from my mind, and not because I was caught up in homecoming or marching band. An array of government, business, history and economics classes were offered to students, but nothing was available related to public policy or civic engagement, introductory or otherwise. Since then, the internet and social media have been game-changers in exposing young people to a continuous stream of policy issues. There is great exigence for the education, training and elevation of youth who wish to see a difference in their communities and world. Any high schooler who reposts inciting content on a social media story in some way is already a promoter of change, but simply might not know where to start. 

School districts are looking to establish new partnerships and ways to integrate innovative policy-focused course content into their master schedules. Policy Pathways, Inc. fills this niche. Richmond Public Schools (RPS), led by Superintendent Jason Kamras, has partnered with Policy Pathways to offer the Policy and Society Year-Round College Preparatory Program. At RPS, the course, Shaping Our Future: Policy Pathways, nurtures students’ passions for public policy education and leadership. 

Course lesson plans guide students through discussions on democracy, American government, policy formation, law, social justice, research methods, statistics and data analysis, international affairs, immigration policy, environmentalism and more. The goals of the course are to prepare young people for higher education and careers in policy studies and policy-related fields and equip them to become more powerful advocates for themselves and their communities within their political systems. The credit bearing course will be offered in four RPS high schools next semester.

Under the mission of developing the knowledge, skills and abilities of individuals who desire to excel in policy studies and policy-related fields, Policy Pathways also offers its Summer Academy for Policy Leadership and Public Service Online (SAO). The immersive two-week course of study introduces youth aged 15-25 to a broad array of policy-related topics and subject matter. All course content is delivered virtually. The SAO welcomes young people from diverse experiences and educational backgrounds, as well as those with little or no policy background, knowledge or experience.

“I have become more invested in learning about public policy, especially related to activism in racial and climate justice,” said a 2020 SAO participant. “Knowing where to start, what to educate myself on first, and how to properly do so are questions that have been overwhelming to tackle on my own.” 

“Our objective is to get young people excited about the dynamic and complex field of public policy and public administration,” says President and CEO Dr. D. Pulane Lucas, “by introducing them to college preparatory-level course content in high school and the early years of college.” Students gain an understanding in myriad subjects including economics, research methods, policy formation and analysis, public administration, statistics, creative and critical thinking, writing strategies and advocacy in our programming. Dr. Lucas states: “We are dedicated to providing equitable access to high-quality policy education.” 

A 16-year-old SAO graduate said, “Policy Pathways show[ed] us that policy was within our reach; there were specific things that we could push against.” The most palpable way Policy Pathways does this is through partnerships for real-world capstone projects. Students are mentored by site representatives to discern how decisionmakers and policy analysts approach problems, formulate decisions and assess policy implications. The following lists this summer’s partners and capstone projects: 

  • Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society: Climate Information for Disaster Risk Management During Monsoon Season in Central Vietnam.
  • The Center for Women and Food Security- Ghana & The Commonwealth (VA) Chapter of The Links Incorporated: Climate Change and the Restoration of Depleted Forests to Build Food Security in Rural Ghana.
  • Hampton Redevelopment and Housing Authority: Understanding the Needs of HRHA Residents.
  • Create One: Your Life Your Destiny Workforce Media Project: Sealing the Cracks in the Pipeline: Increasing the Number of Black Male Doctors in the United States.
  • City of Richmond Office of Community Wealth Building: U.S. Census Data: The Implications of Persistent Undercounting on Communities of Color.

The projects lay a firm foundation for students’ advocacy and leadership savvy. With the professional arena clamoring for internships or knowledge validation of some sort, our program’s graduates come to the table with a competitive edge in terms of what they have put into practice. The capstone cooperative and presentation are immeasurable in providing talking points at an interview regarding practical experience, or a bright spot on a resume as a significant learning opportunity. The experience develops students’ collaboration, communication and citizenship skills, as well as prompting them to view local, national and international issues through the critical lens of competencies nurtured throughout the programs. Both programs benefit from top professors, government leaders and industry experts serving as instructors, 60% of whom have earned doctoral degrees. 

By the end of this year’s College Preparatory semester, students reported a 62% increase in knowledge about who determines public policy and a 120% increase in knowledge about domestic policy, as reported in the program’s Impact and Achievement Report. Participants also indicated a 76% likelihood of pursuing a college degree in public policy by the course’s end.

If students are to benefit from stretching their civic muscles early, exposure to the field of public policy must begin early, as well. At Policy Pathways, we have found that high school and budding college students are eager to learn policy-related course content. Recognizing and expounding upon one’s passion now will afford valuable years of learning, experience and opportunity. For more information, please contact us at: [email protected]; (866) 465-6671; and policypathways.org.


Author: Policy Pathways is a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization headquartered in Richmond, Virginia. Gretchen Kent is communications coordinator for Policy Pathways. She can be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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