|Faced with a severe dropout
problem, Chickasha Public Schools introduced a
mandatory life skills and career guidance course for
8th grade students at Chickasha Middle School using
the Career Choices curriculum in fall 2012. The course
aims to motivate students to stay in school by
helping them explore their personal strengths and
values, careers for which they would be well-suited,
and pathways to those careers.
"We've been struggling with our dropout rate so we went ahead and tried this program," teacher Elizabeth Ketchum says. "We are implementing it in our 8th grade so students understand what's required of them to be able to get a good job."
Chickasha's program, funded with monies from the district's General Fund, expands the school's advisory and support services in an effort to help ALL 8th grade students understand why they need post-secondary training. The development of a personalized plan for college success early in a student's secondary education is aligned perfectly with the goals of GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a federal grant program designed to increase the number of students from low-income families who are prepared for college, and several of the Chickasha students are able to benefit from participation in both the Career Choices course and the GEAR UP program.
"Right now we are working on our budget part so [the students] are getting to see the cost of living as they so desire," Ketchum says. "With that being known, we've looked at the minimum wage and showed that only bringing home a thousand dollars a month is not going to get them the type of house they want and the kind of car they want and things like that. Therefore, they're going to have to have some further education, whether it be technical training or college."
Understanding the financial benefits-and costs-of acquiring a post-secondary education is an important part of the plans students develop.
"We talk about how once the taxes have been done, they need to go ahead and apply for Oklahoma's Promise [a college tuition program for low-income students who show dedication to academics] so there is money set aside for their training," she adds.
Chickasha decided that this class would be most effective in the 8th grade in order to reach students early and prevent dropouts. If students are motivated by a career goal, know the steps they need to take in high school to prepare for that career, and can outline a plan for achieving that goal, they will be more likely to see the value of staying in school. They will also be better prepared for college and, therefore, more likely to complete post-secondary education and become self-sufficient adults.
"We need [to reach] students at this age because they're so lost, they're not really sure what their place is and they don't think beyond today. This course forces them to think beyond the moment," Ketchum explains. "Many of them know what they want but they don't know how to get it, and so with this course being in the 8th grade before they go to the high school, they know...what courses they need to take and how they need to really focus instead of just blowing it off."
Ketchum has observed amazing transformations since the introduction of the semester-long course. Students who previously didn't see the value of education now understand the necessity of acquiring appropriate post-secondary training, and many students who thought they knew what careers they wanted to pursue have reconsidered as they've made new discoveries about themselves.
|"I've had many [students] that had originally
dreamed of being doctors but now realize what their
passions are and that those passions aren't going to
fit being a doctor," she recalls. "So many 8th graders
don't know who they are and so when we go
through those first two chapters of 'Who am I?' they
get to learn a whole lot about themselves and how
their learning styles are different and that their
aspirations are different than other people's and that
they can't live through their parents-they need to
do what they desire."|
A factor that certainly contributes to the course's effectiveness is Ketchum herself and her unique skills as a teacher. Such a course emphasizing selfdiscovery and life-planning requires a teacher who can also act as a counselor, guiding and supporting young people as they contemplate major life decisions.
"I think the nature of the teacher has a lot to do with [a course's success]," she speculates. "It's given me a lot of opportunities to share my mistakes with students and the outcomes of things and how life can be challenging but that with a positive outlook, those little things should not deter you."
When students feel that their teacher respects them, they in turn show respect to their teacher. This leads to more cooperation and less disruption in class.
"I have very little problem with discipline because they see that I'm a real person and so that has been a benefit to this program," Ketchum notes. "Students are required to come in with a smile on their face, we do a handshake when we come into the classroom, students aren't allowed to speak negatively about each other, and we are encouraging at all times, so it maintains a positive atmosphere."
Ketchum involves other faculty in class activities to facilitate greater understanding between students and teachers.
"Kids have to write a letter of appreciation for a family member and for a staff member or someone that has affected them, so that has given the teachers and the staff a whole new understanding and appreciation not only for what they do as teachers but also what impact they're making on students," she says.
She has also invited staff members to come into her class to assist with the Career Choices activity on Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
"It has been such an eye-opening experience for the staff members as well as the students," Ketchum says of the teachers who participated in the exercise. "The kids get to see the staff members have the same struggles that they do with self-confidence and believing that you haven't quite made it to the selfactualization level."
Overall, the course's impact seems to be positive- for students and faculty alike. The introspection and the collaborative environment the curriculum imbues has resulted in powerful relationships and profound personal growth, which Chickasha hopes will translate into a lower dropout rate, a higher rate of college attendance, and higher student achievement.
"I absolutely love the program. I hope that we continue to use it over and over again," states Ketchum. "It's about appreciating who you are- work with your positives and work on your negatives, with joy."