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Pathways help teens navigate career choices
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GHS junior Salena Griffin meets with guidance counselor Tracey Wilson. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Navigating the path to a career is a tricky process, and it’s one that Georgia teenagers are being asked to start learning about early.

For school districts, navigating the path to a good College and Career Readiness Performance Index rating is tricky, too — and it depends partly on whether students choose to dip their toes into a career path, and if they follow through.

In Georgia, high school students are given the option of completing career pathways — career-oriented areas of academic focus that require the completion of specific courses, almost like a trial version of a college major.

Students don’t have to complete the pathways to graduate, but they’re strongly encouraged to do so, and the number who do affects each district’s College and Career Readiness Performance Index.

Local district officials say that encouragement is not just about Department of Education ratings; it’s about giving students a head start.

For students who plan to go to college, the pathways may give them a better idea of what they want to major in. Those who don’t have college plans can complete high school with career skills — and sometimes even certifications — already in hand.

“What high school is about is preparing kids for the future,” said Kevin Bales, director of middle and secondary education for Hall County Schools.

Misty Freeman, director of college and career readiness for Gainesville City Schools, said that is what the pathways are designed to do.

“I think it’s important for our parents to understand that the pathways, especially in (career, technical and agricultural education), provide skills for life,” Freeman said.

The number and exact types of pathways available to students varies from school to school, but they fit into several basic categories: career, technical and agricultural education, advanced academics, world languages and fine arts.

To complete high school in Georgia, students have to earn 23 credits, but it’s possible to earn as many as 32, meaning some students may complete multiple career pathways.

“We do know that students change their minds about what they (want to) do,” said Sarah Bell, chief academic officer for Gainesville schools. “In every job and every course you take, you learn something.”

In other words, students not only learn skills they can use in future jobs or in college through career pathways, they can also learn more about what they want to do.

While there aren’t any specific incentives encouraging students to complete career pathways, Freeman said she thinks the pathways are incentives in themselves.

“We hope that there’s intrinsic motivation,” she said, “and we will encourage them to (complete pathways) rather than take 10 introductory courses.”

In advanced academic pathways, students can complete AP classes and get a head start on college, Bell said, and in career and technical pathways, students may have the opportunity to earn industry credentials in things ranging from construction to Microsoft programs.

Freeman said it’s even possible for students to graduate high school with their Certified Nurse Assistant license through dual enrollment at Lanier Technical College.

The most popular pathways in both Gainesville and Hall County are in allied health.

“Health science pathways have a lot of momentum right now, (students) have a vision for becoming a physician or an RN or an LPN,” Bales said. “ That’s probably driven by the world we live in as far as where the jobs are. There’s definitely a market sensitivity toward what we see students showing an interest in.”

In Georgia, the pathways began in 2010 as part of legislation known as the Bridge Law. Statewide, there are 17 career clusters into which career and technical pathways are organized. Within those clusters, students can explore interests in careers ranging from veterinary science to fashion marketing.

While students don’t formally begin their career pathways until the end of the eighth grade, when they create a graduation plan, the emphasis on careers in Georgia schools begins earlier. In elementary school, students take career exploration classes, and they engage in career planning during middle school.

The earlier career education, Bell said, “hopefully drives what they choose on their graduation plan.”

Bell said 60 percent of graduates completed a pathway in Gainesville in 2013, and that she hopes this percentage will increase.

However, she said it’s just one thing the district looks at when trying to best serve its students, and just one part of the college and career readiness ratings.

“Graduation,” she said, “is our main goal.”

In 2013, Gainesville had a College and Career Readiness Index score of 63 out of a possible 100 for its high schools. Hall County had a score of 68.3, with 71 percent of graduates completing a pathway.