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This High School Used to Leave Seniors’ Career Planning to Chance. Not Any More

“What are your plans for next fall?”

It’s a question that high school seniors start to hear frequently around this time of the school year.

At Sheboygan South High School, a majority-minority school in an urban area of Wisconsin, , the estimated 300 seniors scheduled to graduate each year used to get the question far later—in an exit interview survey as they were leaving high school. About 80 percent of respondents would check the box “four-year college.” The responses, it turns out, were grossly overestimated.

In reality, only about 45 percent of the school’s graduating seniors went to four-year colleges in the fall. Between 5 percent and 10 percent enrolled in two-year technical colleges, 1 to 2 percent enlisted in the military, and the remaining graduates presumably entered the workforce. The trends in post-graduation paths haven’t changed much over the years at Sheboygan South, said Steve Schneider, a school counselor at the school, which now has a more accurate way of tracking the data.

“A good chunk of students were undecided,” said Schneider. “I think they figured: If I put that on the exit survey, it gets everyone off my back.”

The survey’s results weren’t only misleading; they indicated just how ill-prepared the school’s graduating seniors were to face their future.

That was over a decade ago. Now, Sheboygan South students get those questions in November of their junior year during a student-led conference that includes the student’s parents and counselor. The meeting is a pivotal point in a lengthy student-centered planning process for life after high school that aims to ensure that students know all the options available to them and how best to prepare for and access them before they graduate.

“We are very deliberate about making sure there are four different pathways for students, all legitimate: the military, workforce, four-year college, and two-year technical school,” Schneider said.

Laying the groundwork

A state law passed in 2013 offered the push that Sheboygan South and others in Wisconsin needed to jumpstart change. The legislation allocated funding toward academic and career planning for all middle and high school students. Out of this came the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s Academic and Career Planning process, a framework for developing individual learning plans to guide students toward future career possibilities.

While the process provides guidelines to all secondary schools, it’s not intended to be a one-size-fits-all approach. Individual schools can customize the process for their specific needs, Schneider explains.

Now, in the Sheboygan Area school district, conversations related to career paths start as early as middle school, when students learn about their own skills and preferences and how they might align with careers, Schneider explains. That way, once students reach high school, a sharper focus on the future shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Starting in freshman year of high school, all Sheboygan South students are assigned to an advisory group (by grade level) with about 20 students to each adviser-teacher, who remains with them for all four years. The advisory period is built into the school day, occurring four days per week, 25 minutes each session.

Typically, the counseling department uses four to six of those advisory periods per quarter to work with students on academic and career planning, Schneider explained. Ninth and 10th graders spend a lot of that time exploring their own talents, preferences, and options.

“Junior year is the area we put the most focus on planning and accessing opportunities to give students an advantage toward their post-secondary plan,” Schneider said. “Senior year is the nuts and bolts of making sure students are actively engaged in making their plan come to reality.

Junior-year meeting provides a road map

This approach is designed to help students recognize and channel their post-high school goals well in advance of senior year deadlines so they can avoid last-minute cramming. If they follow the plan’s guidelines, college-bound students facing college application deadlines as early as October of their senior year won’t be caught off-guard. Students anticipating entering the workforce immediately after [high school] graduation will have a sense of what opportunities are available to them and how to access them.

At the pivotal post-secondary planning meeting that occurs in November of junior year, students, their parents or guardians, and their school counselor meet one-on-one for about 30 to 40 minutes. The school averages about 70 percent parent attendance. That’s a dramatic improvement over the estimated 20 percent parent participation the school used to get for these meetings when parents’ presence was optional. Now, Schneider said, an invitation letter sent home to parents comes with a specific date and time.

The meeting, Schneider explains, gives guidance counselors an opportunity, with a parent present, to share available resources and timelines, and, in his words, “to walk that family unit through the process, letting them know that they have a year-and-a-half to prepare.” Students get a Google slide presentation that contains guidelines for all four possible tracks (four-year college, two-year trade school, military, or workforce). While guidance counselors give students access to the Google document, it’s up to them whether they share it with their parents.

“The process is labor-intensive up front,” Schneider said. “But it’s well worth the time.”

Families express appreciation

“Crazy beneficial” is how Brenda Binversie, a parent of four children, describes the planning process that kicks into high gear during students’ junior year.

The program wasn’t in place for her oldest daughter, who’s now a college graduate and, according to Binversie, a “natural planner.” But she said it was a godsend for her second daughter.

“She flies by the seat of her pants,” Binversie said. “The process really helped her to see what she needed to do to get where she wanted.” That daughter is currently a senior in college studying food science.

Planning isn’t just for college

For students at Sheboygan South entering the workforce after graduation, the pathway relies largely on partnerships developed with local employers.

Students often begin these partnerships with a one-on-one conversation with an employee of an area company. Fourth quarter seniors also can participate in a paid internship with local companies.

Underpinning much of this process is the Inspire Wisconsin Network, a nonprofit that supports career readiness with services for high school students including job shadowing, career-pathway bus tours, and more. To date, the nonprofit has connected over 300 employers to students in more than 70 school districts throughout Wisconsin.

At Sheboygan South, post-high school planning now culminates with a signing day celebration in June of students’ senior year. Unlike other similar events held by high schools across the country that celebrate students’ academic or athletic scholarships to colleges, this one recognizes all the paths students choose, Schneider explained.

“On our gym floor, kids sign a certificate of commitment to their verified plan,” he said. “This event celebrates all of their accomplishments to come.”

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