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Jefferson Students Seem Content With Career Academy Choices

Rockford's Jefferson High School continues in its first year of career academies. Students here are getting the first true test of the district’s approach to career-themed learning. WNIJ’s Mike Moen has been hearing from students about their experience. In his latest visit, he found a statistic that surprised just about everyone at the school.

School administrator Judy Gustafson can count on one hand the number of Jefferson sophomores who switched career academies during class registration for next year.

“I wish I had a good explanation as to why [there were] only four,” Gustafson said,

That’s right, of the roughly 400 sophomores currently enrolled here, only four decided to leave the career academy they are in and choose from the other three the school has to offer.

The career academy model has been around for decades, but Jefferson is the first high school in Rockford to fully integrate these classes with traditional learning. During their high-school tenure, students here only have one chance to switch academies. That comes during their second year.

Juliana Solis is one of the students we’ve been following. Like administrators, she says she was surprised that only a small number of students had a change of heart.

“I thought there would be a lot more students, especially because it’s new, and I would hear people complaining about it. But I think, as the year has gone by, they’re realizing how much it is helping them, and how everything they’re taking is going to help them in the future,” Solis said.

Senior Gerardo Castillo has also been providing his thoughts on the academy. He was a little shocked to hear the results.

"You would expect to hear kids say 'Oh, I don't know what I'm doing, I'm just gonna switch classes. I don't even know why I signed up for this academy'," Castillo said.

But Castillo says it shows that while, on the surface, high school students might not be as concerned about their future, they really do put some thought into it.

Like she said earlier, academy and readiness coach Judy Gustafson doesn't know why a majority of students eligible to make the switch didn't. But she says she's hopeful the program puts them in a good position to make an informed decision the first time around.

"I'd like to believe that they, while in their freshman year and had their seminar class, that they made a choice appropriate to them and that there was little need to change," Gustafson said.

But until she can quiz all the students, Gustafson says, it will remain somewhat of a welcomed mystery.

Sophomore Huda Aluibady was one of the few students to switch academies. She wanted to get into nursing, and was taking courses that gave her a sense of what it would be like. But, after a while, Aluibady says she felt it wasn’t for her. She says there was nothing wrong with the classes themselves. But Aluibady notes that, when she made up her mind, it took a lot of work to get her request approved.

“It took me a long time to finally convince the counselor to switch me because she wanted a lot of good reasons. I had to write a big essay to get her approval,” Aluibady said.

Aluibady also needed consent from her academy principal and the school principal. Still, she says, she doesn’t have a problem with the process. And school officials say that, while there are some hoops to jump through, the extra layers are needed to prevent too many students from changing academies for just about any reason.

Mary Visher is a senior researcher with the MDRC organization, a non-partisan education and social policy group. She says the low switch-rate at Jefferson stands out. Vischer says it does raise the question whether students are informed enough that they only have one chance to change their minds. School administrators say that message is strongly conveyed during the freshman seminar. They also say there are opportunities for discussion during one-on-one sessions with counselors.

Outside of that, Visher says, the statistic is an indicator that the model Jefferson is using -- where students are divided into separate learning communities -- is making them feel more comfortable in the classroom.

“Students get to know each other better. I’ve seen academies where students feel they’re part of a family – that’s their words, not my words,” Visher said.

And Visher says that’s a key component of high school career academies like this one. She says it’s not necessarily about making sure all students end up in the vocation they are learning about, but rather opening their eyes to different opportunities.

Jefferson officials agree. They say it's about giving these teens a clearer pathway toward success, whatever that pathway may be.

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