Erika Faircloth is only 14, but the high hopes of Arkansas leaders are riding on her shoulders.
That’s because the 8th grader skipped class on a rainy spring day to get a glimpse of her future. Erika spent the day at a local veterinary office, watching intently as the vet and her technicians spayed a tabby cat and cleaned a golden doodle’s teeth.
Nearly all of Erika’s 8th grade classmates at Wynne Junior High School participated in this “job shadow” day, too. In this small eastern Arkansas town, they fanned out to drug stores, medical suites, banks, lumber yards, soybean farms, police headquarters.
Arkansas is betting big that this kind of early career exposure—embedded in a career-planning process that spans middle and high school—can launch more students into its workforce and its college classrooms with a clear idea of where they’re headed.
To make that happen, the state has dispatched full-time college and career coaches to the middle and high schools in 34 of its 75 counties. The coaches work with students to craft college and career plans and shepherd them through the nitty-gritty details that are necessary to bring those plans to life.
“We’re hoping that we can help students be more realistic about everything that’s required to get where they want to go,” said Christine Williams, the coach who organized Wynne’s job-shadow day with the middle school’s career-development teacher. “They have a lot of ideas about what jobs are like, but getting out there in the workplace makes it real.”
Williams, for instance, threw a cold dose of reality onto Erika’s dream of becoming a veterinarian. She had to tell Erika that Arkansas has no veterinary schools, so she would have to leave the state to complete her graduate studies. That set Erika back for a bit; paying out-of-state tuition wasn’t in her plans. But now she and Williams are researching her options.
Spending the day at Cross County Veterinary Clinic helped Erika rebound from that unexpected twist. She was a little nervous in the morning: Would she faint at the sight of blood? But she was tough and didn’t miss a beat.
“I just loved it,” she said. “This day made me want to be a vet even more.”
Sharpening a Career Focus
Career advising has often gotten short shrift in schools as the country embraced a “college for all” mantra and focused on strengthening schools’ college advising.
But now career and technical education is getting renewed attention as a powerful tool to keep students interested in their studies, help them imagine their futures, and boost their chances of finishing high school and pursuing more training.
With the renewed attention has come a recognition that good career advising can mean the difference between a scattershot sampler of classes in high school and a coherent, meaningful course of study that sets students up well for their next steps. The major career-technical-education groups identified higher-quality advising as a top goal when they came together last year to rework their priorities.
It was a resonant choice, given the history of old-style vocational education, which too often categorized minority and low-income students as poor college candidates and tracked them into blue-collar jobs. Used well, good advising can be a weapon against such practices.
This story is the last of a three-part series on key challenges facing career-and-technical-education programs as they attract a new wave of attention and support in schools across the country.
Part 1: Tennessee is working to improve program quality by ensuring that all pathways lead to higher education and jobs in growing fields.
Part 2: Read about efforts to create a demographically diverse student enrollment in New Jersey’s Marine Academy of Science and Technology, an elite career-and-technical-education program.
Part 3: The old “vocational education” system too often categorized low-income and minority students as poor college candidates and tracked them into blue-collar jobs. Read about Arkansas’ placement of career coaches in more than half its schools, a move that could circumvent tracking.
“We are very careful to make sure we’re not doing that now. The idea is to open students’ eyes to all opportunities,” said Sonja Wright-McMurray, who oversees Arkansas’ college-and-career-coach program. “If you do the process right, if you provide the right information, all students will get a fair chance at the paths they need to be on.”
The state has created a suite of interlocking programs to reach that goal. In addition to hiring coaches trained in career advising, it set up an online career-planning system that middle and high school teachers use to help students explore employment fields, with the salaries, skills, and education they require. Schools with coaches also conduct spring “career cluster” camps, where dozens of industry professionals visit and discuss their work with students.
To reinforce the idea that most good jobs need higher education, the coaching initiative also includes a push to increase college applications and conduct summer “ACT academies” to boost college-admissions-test scores and reduce remediation.
The coaches’ work has made an impact. Between 2009—the year before the coaching program began as a pilot—and 2015, college enrollment in districts with coaches rose by 22 percentage points, compared with 4 points statewide. Coaching districts saw a 32 percentage-point increase in the completion of financial-aid applications, while statewide the increase was less than 16 points.
In a sign of the way college focus often overshadows career focus, the state hasn’t collected career-related outcome statistics for the coaching program. But Wright-McMurray led a charge to change that. So this school year, coaching districts will also report on additional metrics, such as how many students earn industry-recognized certifications or get work-based learning opportunities.
The coaches’ impact reflects a lesson that Arkansas learned the hard way. At first, the state tried a pared-back approach to coaching. It paid for teachers, counselors, or administrators to earn their career-development certificates and gave them one class period per day to use their new skills. But too often, they were sidelined into lunch duty, test proctoring, and other nonadvising tasks. State officials saw that the coaching position needed clear boundaries and full-time intensity.
A Full-Time Focus
As a result, Williams devotes all her time to advising the 200 8th graders at Wynne’s junior high and the 875 students at its high school. Her large office is smack in the middle of Wynne High School, making it easy for students to pop in. Her work shifts with the seasons; fall and spring are heavy with college applications and financial-aid support, while career-planning work is woven throughout the year and spikes in the spring when students are scrambling for summer jobs and internships.
On a recent spring day, Williams’ office is crowded with students clamoring for her help to sort out last-minute financial-aid crises or sign up for courses at the local technical college. She tells another student that there’s no news yet on her application for a $12,000 summer internship doing roadwork for the state department of transportation. Then the coach turns to her plans for next week’s career-cluster camp. Are all her speakers lined up?
Grabbing her car keys, Williams takes advantage of a lull to make a quick visit to the junior high school, where Kelly Vaught, who teaches the state-required career-development course, is preparing her 8th grade students for the next day’s job-shadow event.
“Remember to call your people tonight and remind them you’re coming,” Vaught says. “Confirm your time of arrival, the appropriate attire. And remember, tomorrow you’re not going to be on your phone, or chewing gum, or anything like that.”
The students are taking worksheets to their job sites. They’ll have to ask prepared questions, such as: Do you have to take work home at night? Is advancement possible? How much education is required for this job? They’ll have to turn in written responses, and later, make an oral presentation in class about their experience. Their supervisors will also evaluate them on whether they arrived on time, dressed appropriately, and conducted themselves professionally. All of this will count toward students’ class grade.
At other points in the year, Vaught’s students use online databases to explore the requirements and compensation of various careers. They learn application and interviewing skills, even how to calculate paycheck wage deductions.
Back at the high school, Williams visits the “freshman seminar,” a class that blends career and college exploration. Students research and visit colleges and learn skills such as note-taking. They dive deeper into exploring job options and requirements, including monthly meetings with local business professionals. With Williams, they take career inventories and assessments that help them identify job interests. They compose personality profiles, like the one Mario Whiteside is working on in his textbook.
It asks him to complete statements like this: “I’d like a job that lets me work with. ...” Mario runs his finger down the list of possible answers. “Computers,” he says out loud.
Amerrah Cooper is doing the same thing a few desks away. Her textbook asks her to reflect on the social side of the workplace: “Do you like to work alone or with others?” She marks “alone.”
Keeping the College Connection
Williams’ office is at the high school, but, like most of Arkansas’ college and career coaches, she is an employee of the local community college. Before she started coaching three years ago, Williams was the director of recruitment for East Arkansas Community College. She thought that working in that transition zone between high school and college gave her a good knowledge base for the coaching position. With a 120-hour course conducted mostly online, she earned her credential from the National Career Development Association.
All year long, she keeps in close contact with her supervisor, Michelle Wilson, the community college’s associate vice president for student affairs. Williams returns to the college campus in the summer to stay abreast of changes in financial aid and other areas and to plan for the following school year. The ongoing connection is valuable both for Williams and her students, Wilson said.
The coach brings her students to the campus for visits. For some, it’s a first taste of college life. She also holds summer ACT academies there. And throughout the year, she has the brain trust of the admissions and financial-aid offices at her disposal.
A little tougher, though, has been building the myriad connections she needs for the career-development side of her job. Williams is forging partnerships with local businesses, but that takes time. And in this rural area, business variety is limited. Education, health care, and agriculture dominate. “I’m always asking myself, what other kinds of placements can we find for our kids?” she said.
Vaught, the 8th grade career-development teacher, confronts a related capacity problem each time she and Williams organize their annual job-shadow event. They don’t have enough connections to arrange those visits for all 90 students or the transportation to get them there. So she has to rely on the teenagers to set up their own job-shadow placements. And that usually means that about half go to work with their parents.
“Not ideal,” Vaught said, wincing, “but it’s the best we can do.”
Getting exposure to new job possibilities is an important quality in career-awareness programming for younger students, said Tamar Jacoby, the CEO of Opportunity America, a Washington think tank that advocates for programs that support economic mobility. But job-shadowing by itself isn’t enough. It must be part of a continuum that provides students with internships and work-based learning as they get older, she said.
That work remains challenging for most schools, however, Jacoby said.
“There’s the question of how do I get them there. How do I make all those connections with employers? And what about liability?” Jacoby said. “The school has a million reasons to say no. It’s too much trouble. The employer has a million reasons to say no: What am I going to do with a 16-year-old in my factory? But for kids, it can be mind-stretching.”
At the very least, getting a taste of the workplace can be clarifying. Trinity Peeler, a freshman at Wynne High, said she thought she wanted to be a veterinarian until she spent her 8th grade job-shadow day at Cross County Veterinary Clinic.
“The meeting and petting animals was OK. The prescriptions were OK. But as soon as they brought out the cauterizing iron, and I smelled the scent of burning flesh and hair, I was done,” she recalled. Now, Trinity is thinking about becoming an art teacher or band director.
Jessica McNatt had the opposite experience. Spending the day with an occupational therapist at a pediatric clinic in Wynne a decade ago solidified her dream of working in that field. That certainty bolstered her as she chose high school courses, arranged OT observations in different settings, and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in nutrition. Now 24, McNatt is halfway through her two-year graduate occupational-therapy program.
“That day in 8th grade really sparked that passion for me,” she said. “And now I’m really on my way.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Where Career Plans Start Early