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Jefferson Students Reflect On Year Of Big Class Changes

Mike Moen/WNIJ

Summer vacation. That’s what’s on the minds of most students right about now. But students at Rockford’s Jefferson High School might be thinking a little bit more about their future careers. They’re wrapping up their first full year of learning in a career-academy setting. WNIJ's Mike Moen has been following two Jefferson students, who recently summed up their experience.

It's first period at Jefferson High School. Students in this honor’s English class are getting a taste of the big screen. They're being shown film clips to compare the character Frankenstein to modern creations with unintended consequences. Sophomore Juliana Solis’ eyes are glued to the action flick on the screen.

For Solis and her classmates, this year has been quite a ride. They've gone from the traditional learning setting to one that blends career-themed courses with standard high school subjects. Jefferson is the first Rockford high school to fully implement the program. Solis says it took a while to notice the impact.

"At the beginning of the year, I really didn’t see much difference from last year. But now that the year has gone by, I feel that the [program] has shown an improvement,” Solis said.

Solis, who wants a career in law enforcement, says the turning point for her came when students took field trips this spring. It allowed them to get a taste of the career they hope to enter.

"Being able to go to the jails here in Rockford and the coroner’s office. Just getting a hands-on look on what we could actually pursue here in our city,” Solis said.

Solis says she had always envisioned her career path taking her to Chicago. But she says it's nice to know there might be opportunities locally. That's one thing program creators are hoping for: that more students will learn job skills which could match them up with local companies once they complete their education – at whatever level that might be.

Senior Gerardo Castillo has received some good news since we last caught up with him: He's been accepted into Harvard. Castillo, who plans to work in the medical field, says he doesn't think the career academies would have altered his path, especially since he only got one year of experience in this setting. But, like Solis, he says he loved the idea of going out and learning about some of the things he might end up working on in his professional life.

“We got to go to NIU and the cadaver lab there to just look at them in a scientific aspect,” Castillo said.

Although these two students have made it clear what they want to do with their lives, they say the Jefferson program did get them thinking more about other careers. Even though there are limitations on switching in and out of career classes, supporters say opening a student’s eyes to other possibilities is part of the process.

College and Career Readiness coach Judy Gustafson says administrators will be looking at ways to enhance the program in year two. That includes making teachers feel more comfortable.

“If you’ve taught for many years like I have, and you think you’ve got this down, and then somebody comes in and says we’re gonna transform teaching and learning – that’s kind of scary,” Gustafson said.

Gustafson acknowledges that some teachers have shown some resistance to the new approach. She says that’s why they’re moving at a pace that allows them to make necessary adjustments along the way.

Next year, the other Rockford public high schools will go wall-to-wall with career academy programs. Gerardo Castillo has advice for those other students on what they can expect.

“At first they won’t like it, mainly because of the separation. But it really won’t change much, except for your career focus,” Castillo said.

Translation: They’ll be getting a jump start on their professional life sooner than they think.

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