Majors for high-schoolers aim to focus learning

More states are requiring 'career pathways' to lower dropout rates and engage students better.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

If three years ago you had told Latasha Jackson of Brighton, Mass., that she would go to college, she would have scoffed. Now a high school senior, Latasha has applied to some of the best business colleges in the state and intends to be the first generation of her family to pursue a postsecondary education.

"When I first got here," she says, "I thought there was no way I'd want to do another four years of classes after high school. But after I chose the business pathway, I realized there are some days I can't wait to get to accounting class."

This class, which helped cultivate La­tasha's interest in school, is one of the courses she takes through Brighton High School's business and technology pathway program. Brighton has four other school-to-college-to-career pathways for ninth-graders to choose.

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"When I got to high school," Latasha says, "I didn't know what my pathway should be. Health? No, I'm too squeamish. Law? I like to talk, but I have my shy moments, too. Then I thought, [rap performer] Jay-Z's an entrepreneur, and he does all right."

Brighton is not the only high school trying to captivate students like Latasha and encourage them to plan for life beyond high school. Dropout rates are on the rise because, according to surveys of these dropouts, classes are "boring" and unrelated to their lives. Thus, high school educators and state officials are focused on improving the three R's of retention, relevance, and relationships.

As the new school year progresses, a growing number of schools across the United States are trying new approaches to move students from feeling like anonymous drones with an ambiguous destiny to focused learners.

In some schools, such as Brighton, students are in broad topical clusters, while in others, such as Sarasota High School in Florida, students must think about what specific job they aim to achieve, and choose a relevant major.

Even as more states and individual schools adopt this "major" approach, critics say high school should be a place for gaining general knowledge and communication skills. Students aren't ready to narrow their career options yet, they say.

Regardless, Florida and Mississippi are now requiring all students to choose a major or specific career track. Other states have variations on the major requirement.

In the case of Florida, students in every district must choose one of 443 state-approved majors, ranging from forestry to fashion design. Mississippi and South Carolina enacted similar pilot programs this year. Similarly, West Virginia and Louisiana require students to choose an area of concentration, according to Jennifer Dounay, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

In fact, 1,200 high schools in 32 states require similar specialization, according to the Southern Regional Education Board.

Ms. Dounay says the trend toward declaring major areas of interest began a few years ago. It's too early, though, to tell if this approach will lower dropout rates and produce engaged learners, she says. However, she does say high school majors do encourage all students to set career goals and focus their academic effort on achieving success in a certain area.

Not everyone is happy with the prospect of teens making a decision that could affect their future opportunities.

"This is a colossally bad idea," says Debra Humphreys with The Association of American Colleges and Universities. "I think the motivation behind the program is to get students more engaged with their work, and that's perfectly legitimate.... But businesses are telling us that the jobs that today's ninth-graders will eventually have don't even exist yet and that the specific training needed for technical professions is changing rapidly."

In a survey of business leaders, the association found that rather than desiring specific technical skills in students, employers in the global marketplace are most interested in good communication skills and analytical thinking.

In Florida, half of each student's eight elective courses each year must be in their major. Eighth-grade students take a survey to determine their interests and strengths.

This survey identified law as an interest area for Sarasota High School freshman Taylor Paige. In a phone interview, she said the survey gave her a better sense of what she wants to do in the future and now finds it easier to choose courses. "I wanted to do a law major, because I like [the TV show] 'CSI:,' " she says.

Fellow Sarasota freshman Craig Thompson said by phone that he has known he wants to be a commercial airplane pilot since he was 11 years old, so the career survey wasn't as useful for him. However, he says a relevant major will "probably look extremely good on for my résumé or college application."

Florida students can choose a new major each year or keep the same one. But not all districts or schools offer the same majors. Those decisions are made based on staff skills, student interest, and local needs. For example, in areas hit hard by hurricanes, schools more frequently offer majors such as architecture and construction.

"We were hearing back from students that they didn't feel their high school courses were very relevant, so we wanted to engage them more in setting their educational priorities," says Lillian Finn, the state's director of secondary reform.

She expects the concept of majors will continue to spread. "We're excited to be in the lead of what I think is going to become a nationwide idea."

Yet, as far as improving students' ability in college, research has shown that a rigorous, liberal arts-style core of education is more important than narrow, discipline-specific knowledge, Dr. Humphreys says. Instead, she lauds creating learning communities and broad career clusters like the program at Brighton.

Brighton headmaster Toby Romer says the school needed to try something different to boost its academic record. And the pathway program is yielding results.

At the large urban school, 20 percent of students have disabilities, 20 percent are learning English as a second language, and more than 90 percent are minorities. Since the pathways were implemented in 1998, the school has seen an increase in the percentage of its students that pass a state-wide exam, from 10 percent to 75 percent. Two-thirds of Brighton students go on to two- or four-year colleges.

Increasingly, the pathways are partnered with local businesses and universities that can provide curriculum advice as well as internship and job shadowing.

Health professions pathway senior Jasmin Santana requested to go to Brighton for its pathway program, even though her commute is an hour each way. Not only has she learned more about healthcare careers, she also spends one evening a week at Harvard with other Advanced Placement biology students. Jasmin says the experience has helped her envision attending the university in the future. Although no one in her family has gone past high school, she will apply to Harvard, as well as other local universities, to achieve her goal of becoming a pediatrician.

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