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Rockford District Gives Career Academies A Try

A new way of learning is underway for students at Jefferson High School in Rockford. They’re part of a pilot program that focuses on a establishing a career path well before college. WNIJ’s Mike Moen visits with two Jefferson students as they prepare to make the transition.

Jefferson High School student Juliana Solis has her career planned out. When you ask her about it, she doesn’t fall short on providing specifics.

“I want to study criminal justice, and want to become a federal agent to work in Chicago as a Homeland Security officer,” Solis said.

That was Juliana, who is now a sophomore, on the last day of school this past spring. We spoke with her after she registered for the career academy that will compliment her regular high school studies.

After a student gets the lay of the land in the freshman academy, they get to choose from four sections of career classes that begin when they are sophomores. Each section offers pathways to various careers. For Juliana, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement before she heard of the academy.

“Since I had the example from my aunt, she’s worked in that pathway and it’s gone well with her, it got me interested in it,” Solis said.

But that doesn’t mean Juliana doesn’t have second thoughts about the path she has chosen.

“I think the thing I’m most worried about is that I might change my mind. I’ve always wanted to be a federal officer, but I also love the teaching process,” Solis said.

Still, Juliana says the program has done a good job in laying out the road ahead for her career path. She says that offers reassurance about her choice. She also acknowledges that the process wasn't as easy for some of her friends, who wondered why they had to make such an important decision this early in their high school tenure.

Judy Gustafson is an academy coach at Jefferson. She says while these students are getting a head start in constructing their future goals, there is an opportunity to switch career paths along the way.

Gustafson says a lot of research went in to this effort. She says after realizing the traditional learning approach isn’t getting the job done, they wanted to try something different to meet the needs of today’s students. A key component, she said, will involve working with them in smaller groups.

“Because they are in smaller learning communities, they have a relationship with their teachers, with a dedicated counselor, a dedicated principal, even a dedicated clerical worker,” Gustafson said.

The academy approach is an idea pushed by the Obama administration as a way to increase student achievement and reduce high school dropout rates.

Honors student Gerardo Castillo is an incoming senior at Jefferson. We also talked with him back in the spring, after he signed up for the career academy that covers the medical field. He says he liked the classroom diversity under the old set-up. But he does like the idea of learning with peers who are interested in the same vocation he is.

“I just want to get a better definition of what I’m going to get into. What’s it going to take? How am I going to do in it? I want to learn a little bit more,” Castillo said.

He also likes that it blends in with the traditional learning approach.

“Students can still take core classes like English, but they will have the academy in the back of their mind,” Castillo said.

Castillo jokes that, while he likes a good challenge, he hopes his final months at Jefferson still include the so-called “relaxed” tone that comes with students entering their senior year of high school.

Jefferson is the only Rockford public high school offering the full academy program to all grades this year. The district’s other high schools are offering only the freshman academy as they prepare for the full launch.

WNIJ will touch base with these students later during the school year as we report on the progress of this pilot program.