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Majors for high-schoolers aim to focus learning

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

By Caitlin CarpenterCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 4, 2007

Brighton, Mass.

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.

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"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.

"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."