How 5 middle schools are giving students an early start on career exploration

Experts say schools, government and industry need to work together more closely—and sooner—on career paths.
By: | December 16, 2021
Uxbridge High School’s new multipurpose lab building hosts an elective program that enables middle school students to start working on industry-recognized credentials and technical training.Uxbridge High School’s new multipurpose lab building hosts an elective program that enables middle school students to start working on industry-recognized credentials and technical training.

Even high school is now too late to start comprehensive career exploration given the ever-evolving needs of the workforce. That’s why a growing number of middle schools are offering more robust career-connected learning so students can begin mapping out their future pathways.

In one recently launched initiative, project-based learning connects Broward County Public Schools middle school students with outside professionals, says Tanya Thompson, project coordinator for the district’s Re-Imagining Middle Grades program. “Career exploration has broadened the perspectives of our students, as they are now able to learn about fields they did not previously know existed,” Thompson wrote in an analysis for the Association for Middle Level Education and American Student Assistance., two nonprofits that support enhanced K-12 career preparation efforts. “When you enter a classroom and observe students learning from a field expert, you can see the WOW in their eyes.”

Here’s a snapshot of Broward’s program and of model career initiatives in four other middle schools:

Barnstable Intermediate School (Hyannis, Mass.): A half-day each month is devoted solely to career exploration at Barnstable Intermediate School on Cape Cod. Students participate in activities designed to help them identify their skills, passions and talents. This includes guest speakers, career days and interactions with high school students. The school also introduced a new 7th-grade elective called Pathfinder that provides a deeper dive into career exploration.

“Career exploration at the middle school level is not having students select a path for their future; rather, career exploration in middle school provides students an opportunity to make their learning relevant as they explore connections to careers and, ultimately, may open doors to their future through exploring their skills, passions and talents early on in their educational journeys,” Julie DiPilato, grants project manager, and Jen Perry, director of teaching and learning, wrote in a blog.

Broward County Public Schools (Fla.): Reimagining Middle Grades, which launched in 2018, expands project-based learning, social-emotional learning and extracurricular activities. Margate Middle School, for example, has integrated career exploration and project-based learning. Junior Achievement students develop a profile of their interests and create plans for their future as they engage virtually with professionals in various fields. Professionals also critique student projects.

Cajon Valley Union School District (El Cajon, Calif.): Teachers are integrating the World of Work career development framework as early as kindergarten. “Across the district, the work of helping every child know themselves, know their options, and make informed choices is becoming a reality,” Chief Innovation and Engagement Officer Ed Hidalgo wrote in a blog.

In 2019, the district teamed up with the San Diego Workforce Partnership to transform space in a middle-school library into a career center called the “Launch Pad,” where students complete missions to identify career interests.

Miscoe Hill Middle School (Mendon, Mass.): The school’s Inspired Innovation Center opened in 2019 to offer career exploration in an “open lab” maker space. Teachers schedule time to bring in their classes and students can make videos or work on 3-D printing projects, among other activities. The school invites outside experts and professionals to consult on project times and also welcomes families into the maker space. The district is also developing training modules to show students how to use the tools in the space and encouraging students to use social media to find and share ideas.

Uxbridge High School (Uxbridge, Mass.): Uxbridge High School’s new multipurpose lab building hosts an elective program that enables students to graduate with access to industry-recognized credentials and technical training, advanced academic coursework, and a guided academic pathway. The school also has revamped its counseling program to align with a five-year model that enables students to make purposeful decisions about their futures, Principal Mike Rubin says.

The school has recently added pathways in biomedical science, manufacturing/engineering, business and finance and offers students access to industry-standard equipment. Eighth-graders can embark on career pathways that have been shown to drive better academic outcomes, “particularly as students examine the connection between their interests, general course of study, and selected pathway,” Rubin says.

Some more CTE ideas

Also of interest to administrations are two new CTE-development reports from Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders.

The first report, “The Role of State Governance in Supporting Learner Pathways” details how state and local governments can create a well-coordinated approach to CTE governance that blends educational attainment and economic development goals. The second report describes the role that intermediary organizations can play in building effective CTE partnerships that lead students to higher-wage jobs.

One key will be better leveraging data to connect K-12 CTE programs with career outcomes, Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee says. “When students graduate from high school and go directly into the workforce, they disappear as far as K-12 systems are concerned,” Magee says. “Nobody knows whether they got a good first job or are earning a living wage or if they’re on a pathway to career advancements.”

Schools, state and local governments, industry and other stakeholders must work together to give employers in-depth information about the skills students are developing. These entities must also create more apprenticeship programs that will bring back students who may have dropped out to work during the pandemic.

“With unprecedented amounts of federal Covid aid for K-12 education, leaders have a historic opportunity to establish new and better CTE models and significantly improve their existing programs,” said Magee.