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How schools are pointing children toward careers
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Students and their parents make their way through the halls during an open house at Johnson High School on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

Eighth grade marks a pivotal time for students at Hall County and Gainesville City Schools. 

This is when most middle schoolers choose their future career — sort of.

Hall offers 14 categories of careers, including its most popular, health care science. Within those categories are career pathways, which include fields like information technology, early childhood education, marketing and management, broadcast/video and small business development. There are 10 pathways within health care science. 

Each pathway includes three to four courses focused on that field. For example, those pursuing an information technology pathway may take web design, introduction to digital technology and digital design. 

Gainesville offers 15 career pathways. 

Career pathways

“I think the career pathways are essential because we have so many students that want to go straight into a career field, whether it be welding, preschool or becoming an administrative assistant,” Stacey Hulsey, who teaches the business and technology pathway at Johnson High School, said. “This gives them a lot of experience and networking, and some students leave high school with jobs.”

Each year Rhonda Samples, Hall’s executive director of career technical and agricultural education, said the district offers new pathways to reflect industry in the area. 

Samples said this year people can expect to see pathways in biology technology research and development, automobile maintenance and light repair, and manufacturing. 

If a student completes a pathway, Hulsey said they receive a certificate, which helps enhance job and college applications. 

“Students have the opportunity to select more than one career pathway before they graduate,” Samples said. “They lay the foundation for them to help ensure that they’ll have the skills they need to thrive in the future workforce.”

Terry Sapp, high school improvement specialist at Hall, said students receive academic advisement multiple times a year, starting as early as sixth grade. 

Students aren’t stuck in their pathway once chosen, but Sapp said straying from the course isn’t common. 

Connie Cherry teaches career courses at Gainesville Middle School for each grade level.

By the end of eighth grade, she said they’ll know how to make a resume, write a cover letter, fill out an application and have some idea about the career they want to pursue. 

Cherry said many students who take her courses are either adamant about their desired career or feel they need to drop out of high school. Oftentimes, she said students will eliminate college as an option because they can’t afford it. 

“It’s really important for them to know that if you’re not a kid that wants to go to school for another four years, you can go for nine months and become a welder,” Cherry said. “If you want to be in construction, you can get an apprenticeship. You don’t have to worry about having student debt. If you get good grades, there are scholarships.”

Cherry also teaches about nontraditional careers, especially with her female students. She encourages them not to turn away from a manufacturing job just because it’s male-dominated. 

Cherry said many of those taking her courses who were sure they couldn’t find a suitable job end up saying, “Oh, I think I might know what I want to be.”

“It’s only because they haven’t heard it from anyone in their family,” Cherry said. 

One piece of advice she gives all of her students is not to base their decision on the money. 

“The worst thing you can do is having to get up every morning and hate going to your job,” Cherry said. “If you hate going to your job, what good is it?”

When eighth graders finish her class, Cherry said around 50% know what career pathway they want to take and the other half have no clue. 

Aiden Salgado, who is starting eighth grade this year at Gainesville Middle School, said he thought he knew what he wanted to do at the beginning of middle school, but now has “no idea.”

“We have to make a decision in eighth grade, no pressure,” Saldago said with a laugh. “I don’t think about it (career) all the time — that’s not my first concern.”

Jarrett Atwill will begin his first day at Johnson High School on Wednesday, Aug. 7. He said he chose the culinary pathway because he took some cooking courses in middle school and loves to prepare food at home. 

His mom, Sara Atwill, said she’s glad her children can opt out of their first pathway decision. 

“I want my kids to follow their passions,” she said. “Nothing is set in stone at this point, but I think that it will be interesting.”

James Dean, Nevaeh Riddle and Abbie Lepkoske are all students following a fine arts pathway at Johnson High School. Dean said they consider themselves “theater kids.”

Although it may seem like a career pathway keeps student on a set course, Dean said they have space in the schedules to do a lot more. 

“I don’t feel locked in,” Riddle said. “You can try multiple pathways at once. You don’t have to feel confined.”

Riddle encourages upcoming ninth graders to try out different pathway options before making a final decision.  

Cherry said she tells her eighth graders to focus on their strengths and interests.

“If you love math, find a career that’s math-oriented,” she said. “Use the pathway to lead you into what you’ll do. You don’t have to go to college.”

Sapp said over the years, the career pathways have become more sophisticated and aligned to industry standards. She advises middle schoolers to look through the high school planning guide, which is offered for Hall and Gainesville schools. 

“For parents, take the time to talk and discover what the student’s interests are,” Sapp said. “Make careful choices, but know that you’re not always stuck with the choice that you make.”

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