Preparing for life after high school

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By April Wright, Reporter

For many high school students, finding the right college or career path — or just filling out a financial aid form — can be overwhelming.

But now, the Virginia Community College System provides high schools with career coaches to help students make future plans. Wytheville Community College offers the career coaches program throughout the area, including at Galax High School.

Career coaches are on hand most school days.

"Our career coaches bring a lot of experience to the area," said Roger Halsey, of workforce development services at WCC. "Career coaches are a major help to students."

VCCS began the career coaches program in January 2005, with 11 coaches based at 13 high schools. Today, more than 80 career coaches serve students in more than 110 high schools throughout Virginia. The career coaches program began at GHS last March, when former Carroll County High School teacher Pat Burkholder took the position.

The program was originally formed for the "middle majority" students, who aren't failing, but are not excelling. Once the diploma is in hand, these students usually do not have any idea which direction to go. However, the program prepares these students and others for careers and a postsecondary education.

"This program captures that middle third that's not planning on college or is really not sure what to do," said Halsey. "But a career coach can be that person that the student looks back on and says, 'I'm glad Ms. Burkholder helped me decide to do this.’"

According to the VCCS analysis for the 2006-2007 school year, community college enrollments are 6.5 percent higher at high schools that have a career coach, compared to those that don’t.

And 40 percent of students, who previously did not expect to go to college, planned to enroll in higher education after working with a career coach.

Helpful Advice

Burkholder helps students find colleges, guides them along their career path, informs them about dual enrollment courses, searches for scholarships, fills out financial aid forms, provides mock interviews or just provides someone to talk to. She also keeps a file on every student who is counseled, so she and the student can reevaluate plans if the student has concerns in the future.

"Learning interview skills are good for students our age, because we're either applying for jobs or we're going to apply for jobs, and it also helps for college interviews," said GHS senior Leah Truitt. "[Burkholder] gets things lined up for us with what we can do now, and she tells us the steps we need to take to get things lined up."

Although most high schools provide guidance counselors to aid in career awareness, they usually have such tight schedules that spending the adequate amount of one-on-one time with a student can be difficult. However, a career coach is able to specifically devote time to helping students with these issues.

Burkholder said some students have already begun taking advantage of the program on their own. They have come to her for assistance in filling out college applications or for career advice. Recently, Burkholder referred three students to colleges.

"I help them research colleges, and I help them determine if they want to attend an in-state or out-of-state college," said Burkholder. She also tells students to keep an open mind about attending WCC as a fallback plan.

Burkholder has even given education and career advice to students at the request of their parents, who are invited to bring her any concerns they may have about their children.

"I'll tell students 'choose a career you'll enjoy every day of your life.' I thought I wanted to be a horse trainer, a teacher or a nurse [when I was in high school]," said Burkholder, who went on to become a food occupations teacher at Carroll County High School for 36 years.

Burkholder said some students don't know what scholarships are available or the scholarship application requirements, such as writing essays.

"A career coach is good for some of us who don't understand the necessary steps for applying for colleges," said GHS senior Jessica Maxwell, who said Burkholder has aided in filling out financial information and has helped her find local scholarships.

This year, all ninth grade students participated in the Kuder Assessment test. With categories based on skills, work values and interests, a series of test questions matched students with possible career choices.

"Students need to be in a career pathway from the ninth grade on," said Halsey about the reason the school encourages participation from the ninth grade class.

After determining where they fell in these categories, students researched their "dream job," finding out about required experiences needed for the position, salary information and any challenges they may face in the profession. Most students matched a teaching occupation.

Burkholder said the test seemed to be fairly accurate. In fact, she decided to experiment with the test herself, answering all the questions and finding that the result was a career in teaching.

Preparing for the

‘real world’

On Nov. 14, 115 ninth grade students participated in the "reality store" at GHS, which was organized by Kim Brown, director of the Twin County Prevention Coalition. Based on the student's career choice from the Kuder test, each student was given a pretend paycheck equal to one month's salary.

In the scenario, students were 28 years old, and they had to decide if they were married and how many children they would have by that age.

For the students to determine living expenses based on their virtual careers, 15 merchants from around the community set up tables at GHS, with each one representing a different type of living expense, such as rent or house payment, electricity, car payments, insurance, heating, water, groceries and entertainment.

Walking from table to table and spending their imaginary money, students did the calculations and grew concerned as the cash ran out.

Students also had to visit a table and pick randomly a positive or negative situation that could happen in real life, such as having to put shingles on their house or winning the lottery.

"The kids were really excited about the reality store," said Burkholder. "There was lots of talk of 'I went bankrupt' or 'I'm not having kids because they're too expensive.' I think the student get really excited about it because it's about themselves and their future. It's real to them."

After completing the activity, students wrote an evaluation of their experience. Most were shocked at the cost of living expenses.

Burkholder said after attending the reality store, some students went home more appreciative of their parents.

"Some saw that they had to have a high education to live like they wanted to," said Burkholder. "They saw that it does take a lot of money to live and found out it does cost."

"The reality store gives kids a working example of how hard it is to get out in society and make ends meet," said Bill Sturgill, GHS principal. "I think they saw how beneficial it is to go to college."

Seniors will soon be able to participate in a short synopsis of the reality store. Also, Burkholder is bringing in guest speakers, who are merchants from the community, to explain the cost of insurance, housing, transportation, etc.

Burkholder said she plans to make the reality store an ongoing project. Other grade levels will be participating in Kudor Assessment, and other students can take the test anytime.

In addition, the program is coaching and guiding students toward a career as young as eighth grade. During the summer, eighth graders participate in a summer camp, in which Burkholder takes them to WCC, where they have a chance to look at different career programs, such as photography or allied health.

Although Burkholder hasn't been a career coach long enough to see a drastic change in high school graduates or students pursuing college, she said her goal is to see a high percentage of student going to college.

"I'm anxious to see how ninth graders will do," said Burkholder. "Hopefully they will go on to college, and this program should make it easier for them."

Halsey said other states are interested in setting up the career coach program.