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Career Guidance Launches Students for Tech Prep

Most guidance counselors today would agree that their jobs could be summed up in three words or less: Scheduling, scheduling, and scheduling!

Often handling up to 500 students each, time-pressed counselors cannot provide the in-depth guidance young people need to make decisions about the future. Their work is considered finished when students are placed in classes that fulfill graduation requirements, and beyond that - good luck!

At St. Marys High School, a public school in St. Marys, Pennsylvania, counselors have a very different role. They enter the classroom to teach a class designed and taught exclusively by counselors, offering students ten months instead of ten minutes of comprehensive career guidance.

Counselor Lorraine Rippey described the unique class: "Personal Development is an opportunity for students to explore interests and abilities, research different careers, and begin a process which allows them to make sound, self-initiated choices about their futures."

Not only does Personal Development enable students to receive more than the customary ten minutes of guidance at scheduling time, it also acts as a launching pad for students to enter the complex Tech Prep setting St. Marys has offered since 1993.


Tech Prep Requires Early Decision-making

At the end of their freshman year, students at St. Marys are expected to choose between a college-bound or Tech Prep pathway which they will travel for the next three years. Those who select Tech Prep must then choose a specific "cluster," or group of career-related classes, from among seven possible areas: health-related occupations, engineering, business, metalworking, building construction and DO, or diversified occupations. Having that solid semester of guidance behind them has made all the difference.

"The goal of the class," guidance counselor Lorraine Rippey told us, "is that students understand themselves and understand what career opportunities are available to them. Then they can choose between a Tech Prep or academic pathway and have a direction while still here at school."

Has it worked? Lorraine reports that when students who have been through Personal Development come to her office at scheduling time, there is a noticeable change. "The 11th graders, who didn't have the class, can't make up their minds about what classes to take, or about what they want to do after school," she reported. "But the 9th graders, who have been through the guidance class, have a place to start, and, at the very least, know what questions to ask."


Counselor Develops Early Class

The growing national focus on vocational preparation increased awareness at St. Marys of the need for students to have some help in making choices they faced. In 1992, administrators approached counselor Wendy Hansloven and asked her to develop a "stand-alone" guidance class for all incoming freshman. The complex Tech Prep setting, they predicted, was going to require a comprehensive guidance component in the classroom.

Wendy knew from her own experience how important it was to assist students in their task of making decisions about the future: "When I was in high school, I knew I was going to college, but beyond that I didn't have a clue," she told us. "My counselor was no help at all, which is precisely why I ended up becoming a counselor myself!"

She also believed that comprehensive guidance was an ongoing, developmental process, involving self-awareness, exploration, and preparation "Combine those opportunities with aptitude testing and interest inventories, and the student can only benefit by knowing more about themselves and about their decision-making process," she stated.

At first, Wendy used her own materials and resources, but when her Superintendent gave her a copy of the Career Choices curriculum, she was surprised and pleased to find how closely it paralleled her own design.

"Instantly, I knew this was a near perfect enhancement to our course," she reported. Thanks to a supportive administration and the resources, it was possible for each student to have a classroom text and their own consumable workbook each semester. The students warmed to the curriculum immediately.

An activity from Chapter 1: "Envisioning Your Future," gave students the opportunity to relax and see in their mind's eye what kind of career they might choose for the future. "The students genuinely appreciated someone caring enough to help them consider all the factors involved in planning their futures, and they really liked having some space for dreaming!" Wendy reported.

In another activity from Chapter 4: "What Cost This Lifestyle?" students got a much-needed reality check when they created a budget based on a lifestyle projected 15 years into the future. When she followed this with an exercise that showed college costs and potential earnings from various careers, Wendy observed that "it suddenly made sense to them, because now they could see what it was going to take to support the lifestyle they had chosen."


Class Demonstrates Success

Now in its third year and under the auspices of a team of three new guidance counselors, comprehensive career guidance has grown in popularity at St. Marys. Counselors have been able to extend the guidance process to include the 8th grade, where students are now given aptitude and career interest inventory tests. Results are transferred to the high school for use with the students in Personal Development.

But the road to success has not been an easy one. Other teachers have wanted to become involved by either teaching the class or integrating the subject into their own classes, and the counselors have had to fight to keep it in their own hands. Standing firmly on the belief that the guidance process is best taught by trained counselors, the team must demonstrate yearly that the program is workable and benefits students.

A logistical problem that counselors had to overcome involved balancing time in the classroom while continuing to meet heavy scheduling responsibilities. By working closely to support each other, the team made sure that everything got covered. They were able to teach four one-hour sections of "Personal Development" each semester - plenty of classroom time to target the approximately 230 freshman who participate each year.

As for evidence that career guidance is enhanced by using counselors in the classroom, Lorraine shared some insights she had when using the Career Choices curriculum.

"Counselors are well-equipped to help students understand themselves when they go through a self-exploration process, such as the Maslow Triangle exercise in Chapter 3," she told us. In this activity, students look at a hierarchy of personal needs - survival, belonging, self-esteem - and find which needs are being fulfilled, or unfulfilled, in their lives. "Those who are not doing well in school are helped by seeing what their real needs are," she continued. "From there, they can decide how to take care of those needs, and then concentrate better on their studies and progress in school."


Motivation Increases with Guidance

Has there been a noticeable increase in student motivation to stay in school as a result of the guidance class? "Most definitely," Lorraine told us. "When students have a direction, they tend to be more motivated. Those who are college-bound are usually motivated already, but others are motivated in different ways by their own personal goals."

This was demonstrated recently by a student who, working on an activity in Career Choices, wrote a mock epitaph to summarize his life. "The one goal he wanted to accomplish by the end of his life was to be first in his family to graduate from high school," Lorraine commented. "For him, this was a goal as motivating as going to college might be for someone else."

For those students planning to go on to college, a strongly motivating factor is the possibility of gaining college credit from taking courses at a local community college while still in high school.

"Thanks to carefully articulated agreements, Tech Prep students are guaranteed a spot in the community college that has their major," Lorraine told us. "They may have to take a remedial course if they don't pass the entrance exam, but just knowing they can go to college has the effect of making them want to finish school and graduate."


Looking Towards the Future

Lorraine predicts that the restructuring movement, which has brought Tech Prep and comprehensive career guidance to high schools, will continue to grow and benefit students at St. Marys.

"When students have so much to choose from, it's very important that they have some form of guidance built right into the core required curriculum," she concludes. "There's such a difference in the students when they do. And it makes our job so much easier when we call them in at scheduling time and ask them what they want to do - and they know!"

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