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Fine-tuning student paths to careers

The focus on career choices sharpens as schools guide students through current programs and brainstorm for new ideas.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003


LECANTO -- One day last week, in a small classroom on the ground floor of Lecanto High School, a group of freshmen were about to take a big step.

The moment had come, their own personal D-day, the day they had to pick their high school "major." But their teacher, Denise Roof, was trying to take the edge off the important choice.

"This is penciled in, so you don't have to be nervous," she said. "It's just a beginning."

And a beginning is just what that choice will be for some of those students: a beginning of preparation for a specific field where they will train, practice and eventually work.

School has always been about preparing students for life. But that focus has grown all the sharper in the Citrus public schools in recent years.

Career introduction courses are now required for all high school students. School officials continue to mull how best to provide specialized training, such as the academies available at the county's three high schools and through the Academy of Environmental Science.

And a task force is hard at work coordinating how to make those efforts mesh with an improved alternative program at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute.

"The idea now is that we are working as a system and not as separate entities," said Denise Willis, the district's coordinator of vocational and adult education. "That means we're working on the same page."

* * *

For about half of Roof's dozen years at Lecanto High, she has been the careers class teacher. The class has a fancier name, but to her the focus is preparing students to be successful in high school -- and making sure they're focused on their area of work interest as early as possible.

Last year, the career class concept was mandated countywide, so all freshmen now must take it as a graduation requirement. The program is designed to help students decide what interests them and what they are good at so a high school curriculum can be designed for them.

The class is part orientation to high school, part introduction to careers and part technology introduction. And then there is decision time.

There are two key choices for students.

Before they leave the class, and before the March deadline to sign up for next year's classes, students must choose whether they plan to work immediately after graduation, attend a two-year technical program or plan for college. That is their pathway.

They also must pick a major, which is the more specific field they wish to study. They must choose from business and information technology, communication and the arts, engineering and industrial technology, human and social services and science and health services.

Roof was telling students last week that one path wasn't better than another, but each required students to make early decisions about the courses they would need. She also explained to them that, for their first two years, they would primarily be in Lecanto High.

After that, when some of their core courses were behind them, they might want to do work-study kinds of programs, or take electives at Withlacoochee.

She was also very specific about students' not picking the easiest path because they thought they might not go to college. Since two consecutive foreign language courses are required to get into a college, Roof encouraged all the students to take those and take them early, just in case they ended up on that path.

She quizzed the teens on what kinds of classes they might want to take if they were interested in a career in business or engineering, making the students connect certain interest areas with the need for specialized training. Then Roof called the students up one by one to talk about which path they wish to follow.

Once those decisions are made, the student is presented with information on the kinds of courses they need to take and those that might complement the "cluster" they have chosen. School officials also suggest extracurricular activities that fit with the student's interests, as well as appropriate opportunities outside school.

For example, a student who wishes to become a nurse would follow the sciences and health services cluster and the professional pathway because she would need to prepare for college.

The school would provide a color-coded pamphlet filled with information that showed the student could stay at Lecanto High taking electives such as child development and nutrition and wellness. Another alternative: transfer to Crystal River High School, which offers a health academy.

Elsewhere in the brochure, the student would see that Withlacoochee also offers a full-time patient-care assisting program. The student also might consider joining the school's academic team, or volunteering, or taking advantage of internships in the community.

"We want to tell you this now," Roof told her students last week. "We're laying out all the cards and getting ready to play."

* * *

Some traditional methods of exposing students to available jobs are still used.

Now and then, the career classes bring in guest speakers. But Roof found that, if she brought a veterinarian into the classroom and 95 percent of the students had no interest in that profession, she lost an entire class for 95 percent of the group. That is not a good thing when she already feels she has far more material to cover than she has time to cover it.

Instead, she said she'd like to bring people representing many fields and allow students to rotate through, taking a few minutes to talk to each representative.

Then there is job shadowing. Last week, Roof talked to many of the 60 Lecanto students who will be job shadowing around the county in the coming week.

"I think most of you are going to have a very, very good time," she told them.

While the shadowing process is for older students, Roof said she would like to see more follow up from the freshman careers class throughout high school. That might happen in the future through homeroom teachers but that is one area that Roof sees as a weakness in the program.

Lecanto principal Kelly Tyler said the career preparation program is working, although he wanted to see more parent involvement. "I believe that the decisions are important, and if the parents are not involved in that decision, then you won't get as good a decision as you could have," he said.

* * *

One keystone of the school district's career preparation plan is the Withlacoochee Technical Institute, which has gotten some attention from the School Board lately.

Board Chairwoman Sandra "Sam" Himmel has argued that the district needs to act, since only about a tenth of its 250 high school-student capacity is being used.

Willis, who heads the district's vocational and adult education programs, doesn't argue with those numbers. "We know it is not meeting the needs of all students, and there are needs," she said.

A member of the task force looking at WTI and career-preparation programs, Willis said it is clear the old Vocational Incentive Program (VIP) is not working the way it should. That program allows high school students to work at WTI on their academics, moving at their own pace for half the school day. The other half of the day, they work on a vocational program.

But Willis said the vocational part of the program is not attracting students, and something else needs to be done. The other portion of the VIP program is interesting to high school students, because it allows them to move through their academic subjects at a pace that matches their abilities.

Himmel had been eyeing space at WTI as a permanent home for the Renaissance Center, the program that serves disruptive students from the county's middle and high schools. But recently the board voted to buy another site to build a new Renaissance Center. Still, Himmel said she supports doing something better at WTI to help the students not focusing in their home high schools.

Just what that program might be, the task force still hasn't identified. But Willis said there are plenty of students who need some other alternative. Those might be the students who, at age 18, have just six credits toward the 24 needed to graduate. So the task force is studying issues such as scheduling classes differently. Some might need a night school or earlier classes because they cannot afford to give up a job later in the day.

One plus for high school students added recently was allowing them to enroll in the WTI cosmetology program. In the past that was not possible, because it was a full-time program. Finding such areas of interest is critical in beefing up WTI's high school enrollment, Willis said.

It also doesn't hurt to get the word out to both parents and students that, as long as the training programs are taken while the student is still in high school, they are free. Later, when taken as adult programs, students pay tuition.

Officials are also always looking at new programs that would open up the job fields most in demand. Adding programs like those that will be popular with students is the key. They also seek ways to improve the image of WTI, which had for years been considered a dumping ground for students who could not succeed in the high school.

Image isn't the only challenge, Tyler pointed out. He said he knows students are creatures of habit and once they get affiliated with their home high school, they are reluctant to move elsewhere even if it is in their best interests. That is why providing students with information about what is available within the school district is so critical at an early stage of their high school careers.

"What we're looking it, these are all steps in the right direction," Willis said.

-- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

Check out the school district career Web site

For more information about the school district's career preparation process, check out its Web site at: www.citrus.k12.fl.us/career_technical/

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