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Life 101: Career Guidance for At-Risk Youth

When School-to-Work-Coordinator Teri Redl came on board with the Medina County School District in Ohio, she was handed a unique challenge. The district had inherited a failed training and employment program for at-risk youth from the county, and Teri was expected to get it up and running on all seven of the district's high school campuses.

Initially run by the county as a pilot, the program's goal was to help potential drop-outs finish school and acquire training and jobs. But after two years at a downtown location that was inconvenient for high school students, it was clear the services were not being utilized. When they were utilized, the absence of any kind of support system made it difficult for participants to be successful.

The new plan was to deliver the services to the young people at each of the seven high school campuses in the district. Funding would still be provided by JTPA for an "in-school youth" program, but coordination would be under the district's vocational school, the Medina County Career Center. In making the shift from a community to school-based program, administrators hoped to reach more young people and to provide an adequate support system to help them overcome obstacles to success in their lives.

Needs of At-Risk Youth

Thirty students were targeted the first year, most of whom were high school seniors, some in their fifth year. All were struggling with a full load of academic classes because they had either failed or avoided classes that were required for graduation. Sixty-five per cent were expected to graduate within the school system, while the others would get their GED, or return another year to finish through a correspondence course. Ninety percent were employed part-time.

Teri and her one staff member assessed the situation: "They needed tutoring for academic subjects in order to get through school, and they needed a system of support to help them deal with their lives outside of school. They also needed guidance in making decisions about what they were going to do when they finished school."

With that in mind, Teri decided to redesign the program from the bottom up. A key to the program's success, she believed, was a structured curriculum that addressed the need for individual support and, yet could be used in the classroom setting as well. Each student seemed to have unique needs, such as dealing with frustration and failure, becoming more responsible, acquiring financial support, or gaining confidence and self-esteem. All clearly needed help in making plans for the future and in learning to face the world more realistically.

The curriculum would also have to be flexible enough for use in the variety of settings Teri encountered as she traveled from school to school: classroom, one-on-one, and group or cluster situations.

When Teri came across the Career Choices curriculum, she found it fulfilled both teachers' and students' needs. "It was perfect for us because of the different avenues we were using to reach the students, and it allowed us to adapt to the individual needs of each student as well," she told us.

Teri ordered all five books of the series: the text, Career Choices; the literary anthology, Possibilities; the math workbook, Lifestyle Math; the student Workbook and Portfolio, and the Instructor's and Counselor's Guide. The books soon proved more useful than she had expected.

Academic Skills Improve

Teri attended a Career Choices Workshop in Columbus and discovered how the books could be used as an integrated package. "I learned that the Career Choices books offered a wealth of opportunities to help our students improve academic skills," she told us. "The language arts book, Possibilities, and Lifestyle Math made it easy to implement the reading and math portion of our program." The curriculum she had expected to meet the need for individual support and guidance now had the potential for playing a double role, meeting the need for academic skills improvement, as well.

"Many of our students had a real bad feeling about math," Teri told us, referring to the math anxiety that's typical of at-risk youth. "Yet, they were in tremendous need of having these skills to use in their lives in the coming years." Many wanted to move out of their homes and be on their own immediately after finishing school, but hadn't thought realistically about the expenses they'd be facing, such as maintenance and insurance on vehicles, gas and electric bills, food and entertainment costs.

"It seems that a lot of my students had a lifestyle that consisted of going to work, then partying, then work, then party again," Teri told us. "They were not prepared to make any changes in that pattern once they were living on their own earnings."

Teri realized that her first task was to get these young people to be more realistic about life. The activity of creating a budget in Chapter 4: What Cost This Lifestyle? of the Career Choices text, supplemented by the more expanded exercises on budgeting in Lifestyle Math, was an eye-opener for her students, forcing them to confront the "hidden" realities of life on their own.

One exercise from Lifestyle Math that was particularly effective was "Find a Job That Will Support Your Lifestyle" (p. 88). Combined with the Earning Potential Quiz from the Career Choices text, which provides insight into what earnings are possible with present skill levels, the activity made students think twice about getting more training after school.

Several students had minimum wage jobs in food service or auto mechanics, which seemed sufficient as long as they were living at home. When they took the Earning Potential Quiz and realized what positions and income were available to them with their limited skills, they were in a state of shock. "It helped them come to grips with the fact that maybe they weren't finished with school yet," Teri reported.

The activities in Lifestyle Math also impacted students' academic needs by reinforcing skills they already had.

"At-risk students are very frustrated by always trying to climb a hill that they can't ever seem to reach the top of," she said. "These exercises helped them feel more satisfied with themselves and their current abilities." The experience also proved to be motivating for the students: "I often saw them leafing through the book to see what else was in there," Teri reported.

Improvement in reading skill was another result of doing activities in Career Choices. Each day, Teri required certain students to read out-loud for one hour from Possibilities. Many had levels too low to do silent reading, but by following along and receiving extra prompting, they could understood what the selections were about and participate in discussions about their meaning. "They didn't even realize they were reading the best authors - the classics!" she exclaimed.

Class discussion, prompted by the questions and project suggestions at the end of each selection, showed that these stories "really hit home with the kids, because they could relate the situations to their own lives," she said.

Skills for Life

Students completed activities in the Career Choices text that were especially relevant to their own individual needs. Chapters 8, 9, and 10, which focus on setting goals, dealing with roadblocks and detours, and changing attitudes, were the most helpful for the majority of students. "These areas are where my students typically fall down in their lives, and need the most support," Teri reported.

Goal-setting was one skill Teri's students were very much in need of learning. Few had had any exposure at all to the concept of planning for the future, a fact that showed in their lack of plans for life after graduation.

To help them get into the planning habit, Teri gave her students pocket calendar planning books and required they use them to keep track of their assignments, getting their teachers to sign off on them daily. This turned out to be a strong tool for teaching time management and accountability skills. She followed up by rewarding those who used the planners successfully with donated prizes from community businesses, such as concert tickets or audio tapes of favorite musicians.

A Sense of Belonging

When students did the Maslow Triangle exercises in Chapter 3 of the Career Choices text, they learned something about themselves that changed their lives. Based on Abraham Maslow's theory of a "needs hierarchy," the activity had students take a quiz to determine their sense of security, survival and safety, belonging, self esteem and self-actualization. All gave themselves generous ratings in every category, except one, a sense of belonging. Class discussion revealed that they all had the same problem: no one felt like they belonged anywhere-not in school, in their families, or in their communities.

"It triggered something in them," Teri told us. "They expressed hope for finding someplace where they could belong, and it became a question of where do I even fit in this society, this world?" The honesty her students expressed in their discussion surprised Teri and made her realize that belonging was one of the key issues of the program.

Teri was determined to create an opportunity for them to experience belonging and a sense of community. At the Career Choices workshop, she had heard of a program in a neighboring county called "Leadership Weekend" that targeted at-risk junior high students. The young people were taken on a retreat weekend and, with the assistance of older students, helped to see the connection between staying in school and their futures.

Teri's students had often expressed the belief that if only someone had helped them when they were younger, their lives would be different today. Now, she could offer them a way to help younger children, and have the experience of being a part of a worthwhile effort.

With "Leadership Weekend" programs scheduled for the fall in Medina County, Teri can count on a large group of enthusiastic volunteers to help with the effort. Many of her students jumped at the chance to work as a team for the entire weekend and help the younger students with career development plans and activities.

"So often at-risk kids don't feel like they're worth anything, or feel like they have a place in life that means anything, whether it's a job or at school," Teri told us. "This kind of a program can make that connection for them."

When asked if she believed that the Career Choices curriculum had helped her students to stay in school and look towards more realistic futures, Teri told us, "Absolutely! It has helped make life more manageable for them, especially their personal lives, which is so often where the real problem is. Career Choices gave them the chance to say: Here is something I can do! It's truly geared for life - Life 101!"

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