Connecting Careers and Academic Achievement at LEAP for Education

Posted on March 22, 2015
by FeliciaOctocog

High school reformists incorporate the 3 R’s for student success: rigor, relevance, and relationships. Students need to be challenged academically, must understand how that challenge relates to life in the “real world,” and they need to know that adults in the system care about them and are invested in their success. Most urban high schools offer a range of rigor in course selections including honors and AP level courses. However, too many students miss the connection 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 issue of relevance.

At LEAP for Education we first piloted two career exploration programs (one in Salem and one in Peabody) for our high school students. 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 each career.

One student’s love of animals lead him to select veterinarian. However, when exploring this career, he found out that the required post-secondary education would take 8-years; acceptance to vet school was far more difficult than med school; and that an interest and academic achievement in the sciences was a requirement. He was stunned. You can ask yourself, how could he not know that medically caring for animals would entail science? How could that disconnect occur? I saw this over and over again with other student career selections including nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, architecture, social work and engineering. However by digging deeper we were able to identify an allied field that better matched the student’s temperament and skill set and developed 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 few frames of reference, other than television, when thinking about professional careers. Unlike those of us who grew up in middle class or affluent homes our parents, neighbors and family members provided us with a looking glass into a wide range of diverse careers.

Students take Biology in 9th grade. It can’t 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 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.

Our success in these pilots led us to formalize this in our College Success Program and we will soon be adding this to our middle school programs as well. By starting in middle school we give our students a process with which to explore interests as they mature and work their way through high school.

About 40% of LEAP students start their college journey at North Shore Community College. For many of our students their community college experience will include at least one semester of remedial coursework and many require more. Having a career goal they are passionate about helps students focus on the end goal rather than get discouraged with the remedial coursework, take a leave of absence “to figure out what they want to do” and eventually drop out.

Linking academics to college and career seems obvious and it has become the focus of many state and federal education initiatives, including the new Common Core State Standards. We just need to start making the connections between college and career in our classrooms everyday.