The Helena School District is providing many ways for young people to earn a diploma.
For years, the district has funded an alternative high school. For decades it has offered adult education. Two years ago it started Access to Success, an opportunity for those who have dropped out to return in a college setting. Most recently, it rolled out Career Pathways.
“Career Pathways is in the best interest of kids,” David Strong, adult basic/career technical education coordinator, said during a presentation to the Helena School Board Tuesday night.
In Montana there are 16 career pathways, called “Big Sky Pathways,” based on broad occupational areas called clusters. The program aligns academic studies and classes with technical preparation and hands-on experiences so students find relevance in their schooling.
Strong said the program is yet another way to increase student engagement. As students go through high school their school schedule and curriculum are organized to give them a more personal experience — a seamless education through secondary schooling.
“With today’s world and career choices with technical nature, having a high school diploma isn’t enough,” Strong said. “There’s something beyond the high school experience.
Strong notes a recommendation from the Institute of Education Sciences to reduce the dropout rate — an endeavor the district is embarking on — is to have rigorous and relevant instruction.
“If we can engage them, they are less likely to drop out, so this becomes an avenue of dropout prevention,” Strong said.
Strong hopes to implement seven of the 16 pathways this school year. Superintendent Bruce Messinger said those were selected because the district is most “internally ready” for them.
The pathways program will begin in elementary school with awareness about profession options through career days, career fairs and guest speakers. In middle school, students will be able to take exploratory classes and begin a portfolio with a four-year plan by the end of eighth grade.
Strong said laying this groundwork will put students in a better position and with more direction at the start of high school instead of students having no idea what career direction they are interested in.
“It’s a real comprehensive planning tool for students,” he said.
In high school students will experience job-shadowing and internships that correlate to their future interests while meeting all requirements for graduation.
Trustee Libby Goldes is supportive of the endeavor and is pleased to see the conversation begin in early grades.
Cherche Prezeau, on the other hand, said 13- or 14-year-olds are not mature enough to make such long-term decisions about their professional careers.
“I worry that identifying a course of study early on, are we resigning them to a certain fate?” Prezeau said.
Strong said that’s a natural reaction and students can change their minds throughout.
And even students learning they don’t want to pursue at certain career can be a positive experience, Strong added.
“I really want to make sure we aren’t putting kids in a pigeonhole too young,” Prezeau said.