LONG BEACH - In a freshman classroom at Cabrillo High School, California Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg sat down with a few students to talk about their plans for the future.
"So what do you want to be?" he asked one teenage girl. "You said you want to be a pediatrician? I love it."
More than two dozen of the state's 40 senators spent the day visiting classrooms at Cabrillo on Tuesday for a two-day conference in Long Beach focusing on the importance of career training in high schools and community colleges.
As part of the conference, senators visited several of Cabrillo's career academy classrooms and talked with students and teachers about the various programs. The senators today will visit Long Beach City College to hear about the college's unique partnership with the Long Beach Unified School District.
Steinberg, who represents Sacramento, said he organized the bi-partisan field trip as a way to give his fellow senators a chance to talk with students, teachers and administrators in a successful school district.
The trip is costing taxpayers around $27,000 in travel and lodging expenses for the senators and their aides, according Senate officials. Steinberg called it a "good expense of public dollars" to educate senators about linked learning.
Steinberg said he chose Long Beach because of the school district's reputation as a leader in linked learning programs, which are small learning communities within a school that prepare students for careers in an industry, such as engineering.
"We know Long Beach Unified is one of the recognizable leaders in linked learning, and it serves as a model for other school districts throughout California," he said.
Long Beach Unified, the state's third largest school district, began incorporating linked learning programs into its high schools several years ago as a way to engage and challenge more students. The district today has programs in nine of its high schools with focuses in fields including engineering, arts, multimedia, medical, law enforcement, health and public services.
Students typically enroll in linked learning in the ninth grade and will stay with the program through their senior year. Officials said the popularity of linked learning is growing and Long Beach Unified, with its variety of successful programs, serves as a mentor for more than a dozen other school districts.
Cabrillo, located in a low-income neighborhood on the city's west side, has faced significant academic challenges, but the school has shown recent gains on state standardized tests.
Cabrillo Co-Principal Alejandro Vega said the school's focus on linked learning programs has helped in part with improvements in test scores and an all-around boost in school spirit.
Last year, the school's state-issued Academic Performance Index grew 25 points to 657, though the number still sits well below the state's target of 800.
"We're not a perfect school, but we're a school that's making a lot of changes," he told the senators.
While touring Cabrillo, the senators had a chance to meet students like Braian Tapia-Delgado, a sophomore in the school's law and legal services academy. Tapia-Delgado, who wants to become a police officer, said he chose Cabrillo for its law program.
"It's a great opportunity because it gives you the chance to focus on your future career in high school, and most high school students don't get that chance," he said.
State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said she was impressed by the efforts at Cabrillo.
"Education needs to change to accommodate the needs of the 21st century economy and workforce," she said. "It's very interesting and exciting to see what looks like a cutting-edge approach."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.