When Samantha Morales grows up, she wants to be a vocalist, a music teacher, a lawyer or maybe even a fashion designer.
A seventh grader at Chamblee Middle School in metro Atlanta, she like many middle schoolers juggles numerous interests. And, she has a hard time identifying her best and her most challenged skills.
“I like to learn new things,” she said. “Last year we learned about dental, nursing and technology careers. They’re all interesting.”
Whether or not she’s identified a single right fit, Morales may be choosing her career as early as this fall when the state’s Career Pathways program is expected to begin.
Through Career Pathways, eighth graders will choose one of seventeen career concentrations to follow throughout high school. The goal of the program is to prepare kids for work life. Implied in that goal is the aim of raising graduation rates by better engaging students in their studies.
A boost for immigrant students
Pathways are especially promising for immigrants, according to Deborah Santiago, Chief
Operating Officer and Vice President for Policy & Research at Excelencia in Education, a
national nonprofit working to improve educational attainment for Latinos. She says immigrants need additional direction in schools to clarify the options that exist after high school.
“The pathways approach tends to be effective because [education] institutions and organizations are aligning to create one seamless educational experience,” she said. “For students of color and first generation immigrants this is even more important because it can take the pressure off of how to progress. The process is clear.”
DeKalb county schools, where Samantha Morales goes to school, may prove to be a good indicator of the impact the pathways program can have on Hispanic immigrants.
In the 2013-2014 school year, 15 percent of DeKalb students were Hispanic. At the state level, 13 percent of Georgia’s PK-12 students are Hispanic, according to the Georgia Department of Education. In total, Hispanics are the third largest ethnic group in the state’s public school system, after whites and African Americans.
Still, they account for the largest number of dropouts in the state. In 2010-2011, the high school graduation rate for Hispanics was just 57 percent, compared to 59 percent for black students and 75 percent for whites.
Pathway to prosperity
Currently, Georgia officials are developing a system-wide curriculum aligned with the pathways program. This includes high school career cluster preparation coursework, middle school cluster exploration, elementary cluster awareness and alignment with the new Common Core standards. They hope to finish by this fall.
When ready, officials say the new curriculums will be focused around students’ career pathway of choice. General education courses like math and English, for example, will contain lessons that relate directly to healthcare science or engineering.
“Each pathway has a minimum of three courses that have been developed by K-12 educators in collaboration with the business community, technical colleges, universities, the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce,” said Lynn Plunkett, Career Pathways consultant for the Georgia Department of Education
According to Robert Schwartz, Professor Emeritus with the Harvard Department of Education and a leading figure in the national push for career pathways, the strategy in Georgia is geared toward channeling students into two-year programs.
“The focus is on building career pathways that start in high school and connect to post-secondary education, usually two year programs,” he said.
In 2011, Schwartz co-wrote the Pathways to Prosperity report, which launched state level conversations about how to best prepare students for the workforce. Today, nine states are part of the pathways push. Many, like Georgia, are using the Career Technology Education (CTE) format, which begins with 16 career clusters that range from health sciences to energy. Each cluster is expected to funnel out to at least four different job types.
Pathways proponents point to the success of Germany, England and Switzerland, countries where pathways type programs have been active for years under the Vocational Education and Training (VET) umbrella.
Of these countries, Germany has the most impressive training-to-employment transfer rates. This is due in part to in-school vocational training, the apprenticeship and internship experience required of each vocational student, and a business environment that encourages business to hire young and inexperienced workers at lower cost and often on temporary contracts.
Comparatively, Georgia does not currently have an internship or apprenticeship component and the business sector support is only now in development.
College or career ready?
Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation, is both optimistic and concerned about the pathways project.
“Is it college and career ready? Or, is it college or career ready? Are the pathways of equal value? And who is monitoring that progress? That sequence, the path, could come un-done if kids aren’t following the track [and no one is watching].”
Georgia officials say that students can turn to their counselors and teachers along the way. And they note that students will begin exploring careers at an early age.
But, no additional funds will go to the program. Georgia’s career pathways will be funded with existing staff and related agencies. Comparatively, South Carolina’s program will receive $28.6 million, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Morales has already attended career fairs and knows of the options. But, she may be a ways from choosing her career.
The daughter of a single-mom and a first generation immigrant, her career options depend in large part on the guidance counseling that she will receive, how much preparation and support her teachers and counselors can obtain and the clarity of the new curriculum.
“I’m planning to attend Juilliard with a full scholarship,” she says. “After graduating high school of course. But I could also be a lawyer. I like how confident they are.”