College & Workforce Readiness

Career Prep Moves Into Middle Schools

July 15, 2015 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 5 min read
High school student Andrew Castillo, left, and his mentor, Marco Marraccini, met when Andrew was in middle school, working as an intern at Abramson Teiger Architects in Los Angeles, where the two pose for a recent photo. They have kept in touch ever since.
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Corrected: A previous version of this story had an incorrect spelling and title for Ayeola Fortune, the director of youth success in education for the United Way in Alexandria, Va.

In 7th grade, Andrew X. Castillo was paired with an architect in an apprenticeship program through his school to learn the basics of design and how a firm operates.

“It helped shape who I am today and decide what I wanted to learn for sure,” said the now 16-year-old rising senior at Olga Mohan High School in Los Angeles. He is now applying to several selective schools—Yale University is his top choice—and wants to become an architect and the first in his family to graduate from college.

Middle schools are increasingly looking for ways to expose students to careers so they understand the relevance of what they are learning and stay on track. The hope is that with a goal in mind, they will be inspired to take rigorous classes, be engaged in learning, and increase the likelihood that they will be prepared for college.

To be sure, there are hurdles. Unlike high school students, middle schoolers can’t drive themselves to an office. And employers sometimes believe younger adolescents are too immature to benefit from a work-site experience. However, nonprofit organizations and colleges are investing in mentoring and job-shadowing programs to get students ready to enter high school focused on their future.

Andrew’s apprenticeship was coordinated by Spark, a nonprofit that partners with schools to match underserved 7th and 8th graders with professionals. The organization began in San Francisco over a decade ago and has expanded to Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; Chicago; and Philadelphia.

“Nobody knows what to do with these kids. Developmentally, it’s a challenging age,” said Jason A. Cascarino, the chief executive officer of Spark. “We need to meet middle school kids where they are. They are going through the process of identity formation and finding their place in the world.”

Because research shows that 60 percent to 70 percent of students become “chronically disengaged” in 7th and 8th grades, it’s critical to provide some early sense of career options, said Mr. Cascarino. About 90 percent of the 3,200 students who have participated in Spark programs have entered high school on track (attending regularly, exhibiting positive behavior, and not failing math or English) compared to an average of 70 percent of their peers in the districts that Spark partners with. Students are recommended by their teachers to the program because they have exhibited behaviors that put them at risk and must opt in to participate.

Zeroing In on Careers

Middle schools are moving beyond just hosting a career day to creating programs year-round that are woven into the curriculum, said Dru Tomlin, the director of middle level services for the Association for Middle Level Education, based in Westerville, Ohio.

Sixteen-year-old Andrew Castillo, left, meets with architect Marco Marraccini, who became his mentor during a career internship in middle school. Educators are increasingly working to expose students to such career experiences.

Getting more businesses involved means countering misconceptions that many adults have about middle school students. “They think kids don’t really know about careers yet, that they are maladjusted,” said Mr. Tomlin. “Part of what we have to do is educate business folks that these are your potential leaders.”

Newer career-focused initiatives aimed at middle school students are often part of broader middle school improvement initiatives, such as the United Way’s Middle Grade Success Challenge. The project gave $50,000 grants to each of nine communities that matched the funds to promote deeper student engagement.

As the organization works to cut in half by 2018 the number of students who drop out, research shows that waiting until high school to intervene is too late, said Ayeola Fortune, the director of youth success in education for the United Way in Alexandria, Va. “Although young people physically drop out in high school, they mentally disengage in middle school. That’s where we lose them,” said Ms. Fortune.

Studies by ACT Inc. underscore the importance of students making a successful transition from middle school to high school if they are going to make it in college. In its “Forgotten Middle” study in 2008 and its 2014 follow-up report, ACT found students who enter high school lacking basic math and reading skills rarely ever catch up.

Research is more limited on career exploration in the middle years, but such efforts are most effective when they are “dynamic” rather than one-way, said Becky Bobek, a principal research scientist at ACT, based in Iowa City, Iowa. Mentors can be an important source of information and support, allowing students to explore careers that reflect their personal interests and encourage early postsecondary education planning, she said.

Mentors Expand Options

A mentoring program for 6th graders in Pittsburgh, which received a United Way challenge grant, connects students with caring adults who share their real-life experience and encourage them to think about career options. Business volunteers are trained to understand how to work with this age group and follow a curriculum in their weekly meeting with students over the course of a year, according to Damon T. Bethea, who coordinates the effort for United Way of Allegheny County.

In his fourth year as a mentor with the program, Carl Benjamin said he has learned how to describe his work as an IT manager at Alcoa Inc. in a way that doesn’t sound too boring. He highlights his travel, explains that he talks to people in China at night because it’s daytime there, and describes products his company makes.

He knows not to expect instant results: “It’s not like in a couple of weeks you are going to be tight buddies and turn their whole life around.” But between meeting with the students at school and hosting them at his office, the program tries to give students direction as they enter high school. “We are opening up their minds to thinking they can be somebody big or move somewhere else,” said Mr. Benjamin.

The United Way’s mentoring program in Pittsburgh has grown from eight to 16 schools since it was launched in 2009.

In Santa Monica, Calif., Perry Wallack, the chief financial officer at Cornerstone OnDemand, a cloud-based, talent-management software company, said his office is a “buzz” of energy when it is filled with as many as 75 kids working alongside their mentors in the open work environment. For the eight-week apprenticeship, mentees learn about the company and craft business plans, as well as get free snacks in the cafeteria and play in the arcade. “It’s like a breath of fresh air,” Mr. Wallack said. After recruiting hundreds of mentors in his company over the past four years, now he is trying to get other business leaders involved and work with Spark as it considers new ways of delivering its programs to reach more students.

Andrew Castillo said the apprenticeship helped him become more confident and makes him feel that he had something to contribute. “[My mentor] got me out of my comfort zone,” said the young man, who is still in touch with his 7th grade mentor and recently consulted with him on his college application. “He helped me focus more on the future and what my next step should be.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 2015 edition of Education Week as Career-Preparation Programs Take Root in Middle Schools

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