It would be easy to label the District Career and Academic Plan as simply just another document for Iowa school districts to complete -- but it’s actually so much more. It’s a framework, a living document that can help Iowa school districts assess, connect and improve their support of student career exploration at all grade levels.

District Career and Academic Plans, commonly known as DCAPs, were first introduced in 2016 through House File 2392, and with new requirements this year, the initiative has picked up even more steam. Through DCAPs, school districts can map out how they can best support the implementation of career exploration activities for their students’ individual career and academic plans (ICAP) and what overall opportunities are being provided.

“The DCAP process helps school districts focus on what supports they can give to students to truly connect their academic and postsecondary exploration with their future career opportunities,” said Erica Woods-Schmitz, career and academic planning consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. “Although career exploration isn’t new, DCAPs help organize a district’s efforts. It gets everyone to understand what is happening within their schools and gets everyone on the same page.”

ICAPs are established for students in grades 8-12 and outline different career paths and skill sets to explore, based upon the student’s interests and talents. A quality DCAP can help set the groundwork for successful student ICAPs. Thus, it’s important to have an all-hands-on-deck approach when developing the district plan.

“I think having a larger group work on the DCAP process is beneficial,” said Anne Morgan, Regional Planning Partnership (RPP) coordinator for regions 15-16. “Involve academic teachers, CTE teachers, teachers from younger grades and so forth in the group. It doesn’t have to just be the administrator and the school counselor or just those involved in grades 8-12. A collaborative group will give you a bigger picture of what you’re doing and what your vision is as a district.”

Starting this year, DCAPs are submitted to the district’s area RPP, which is charged with ensuring school districts provide high-quality career and technical education programs. RPPs consist of education, industry and community partners who review the DCAPs and provide input on areas to improve or professional development opportunities to pursue on ICAPs and career exploration.

“Part of the benefit of having RPPs review the district plans is that we can help share ideas and resources between school districts,” Morgan said. “We can connect a school district that is further along with their DCAP process and thinking with a school that is just starting out.”

At Central Lee Community School District, high school principal Nicole Herdrich has seen the benefit of developing DCAPs for their career exploration and student ICAP process.

“The greatest thing is that you can see where the holes or the ‘oh, I didn’t think of that’ piece exist within your programming,” she said. “It strengthens the system as a whole, instead of focusing on specific teachers and personnel. It ensures we at Central Lee can continue to provide quality experiences for students year after year.”

Although individual student plans focus on grades 8-12, many DCAPs also connect opportunities where career exploration is introduced in earlier grade levels.

“We need to make a connection to careers from the start,” Herdrich said. “It’s similar to any other subject. You can’t start teaching math in eighth grade and expect students to be fluent in it. Awareness, exploration and preparation at an early age are the keys to student success in career planning.”

Albia Community School District’s elementary principal Joellen Swartz shares Herdrich’s outlook on incorporating early career exploration activities into the DCAP.

“We start early – in elementary school – to introduce science and math-focused careers to students, especially girls,” she said. “Showcasing careers in engineering, architecture and computer science can relay that fields in math and science can be potential career paths for them.”

For Albia, Swartz also notes their group has found the benefit of using the growth mindset when working through the DCAP process.

“The perspective you have going into it affects what you’ll get out of it,” she said. “If you see it as merely a requirement, that’s what you’ll get. If you see it as a growth piece, you can identify where you can improve and get new ideas. It’s a conversation to make sure we are going to be successful for our students.”

To help school districts with the DCAP process this year, resources have been made available. Woods-Schmitz has provided one-day trainings at Area Education Agencies (AEA) throughout the state, and AEAs and RPPs have provided ongoing support.

“We are here to help,” Morgan said. “We know that everyone is invested in providing quality career exploration experiences for their students. This year is just a baseline for DCAPs and understanding how they can help. We can only get better.”