Connecting Career To High School Achievement

Posted on January 27, 2010
by FeliciaOctocog

High school reformists incorporate the 3 R’s for student success: rigor, relevance, and relationships. Students need to be challenged academically, to understand how that challenge relates to life in the “real world,” and to know that adults in the system care about them and are invested in their success (what I have called in previous blogs, social capital).  Most urban high schools offer a range of rigor in course selections including honors and AP level courses.  However too many students lose the connectedness between their learning and the real world. How many times have we all heard the pitiful question: why do I have to learn this – how does this relate to my life. This, of course, speaks to the relevance issue.

At Salem CyberSpace we experimented with two programs (one in Salem and one in Peabody) with introducing career exploration for our high schoolers.  Each student went through an exercise of self-exploration to determine what kind of career might fit their interests, personality and skill.  We allowed each student to choose one career they wanted to research and one that came out of these various tests.  What resulted was an interesting and enlightening discussion about what academic skills and knowledge would be necessary for a particularly selected career.

One student’s love of animals chose him to select veterinarian.  However when exploring this career, he found out that the post-secondary education would be 8-years, that college acceptance to vet school was far more difficult than med school and that an interest and achievement in the sciences was a requirement. He was stunned. You can ask yourself, how could this child not know that medically caring for animals would not entail science? How could that disconnect occur?  I saw this over and over again with other career selections including nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, architecture, social work and engineering.  However in digging deeper we were able to either (1) find an allied field that met the student’s temperament and skill better or (2) develop an educational plan that would put that student on course to meet the college entrance requirements for that field.

I struggled with the appropriateness of career discussions so early in high school (and even in 8th grade). Shouldn’t our students just enjoy learning for the sake of learning? Shouldn’t we allow free exploration and not have to focus on careers. Most of us, including myself, had no idea what our majors would be let alone our careers when we were 14 years old!  However, I believe both ideals can peacefully co-exist.

Low-income teens have no frame of reference, other than television, to think about professional careers. Unlike those of us in middle class or affluent homes our parents, neighbors and family members provide us with a looking glass into a wide range of diverse careers.

Students take Biology in 9th grade. How would it hurt to tell a student – “you know you need to really do well in Biology to get into a school of nursing, medicine, or any allied medical field.” Learning that in 11th grade is kind of too late.  We can tell them to work really hard at Biology in order to leave their options open. If they later decide medicine or life sciences are not of interest, they have lost nothing.  In fact, they have learned for the sake of learning.

In looking and researching careers, we have also given them a process with which to explore other interests as they mature and work their way through high school.