ATLANTA — David Lemcoe Jr.’s high school education included field trips to Georgia’s death row and a lab where he learned how blood flies when a head is struck with a baseball bat.
The 2013 graduate of Centennial High School chose classes that gave him a peek into the work world. Starting this year, all Georgia high school freshmen are required to follow his lead.
Hoping to address a dismal graduation rate and prepare students for the workforce, the state is requiring ninth graders to pick one of 17 broad career “clusters,” such as finance or health sciences. They can opt instead to take more college-prep courses, such as world languages, fine arts or advanced-placement courses, but officials hope college-bound students will voluntarily take career-specific classes as well.
Vocational programs have long been offered in Georgia high schools. But, with the new mandatory clusters, the state is following a national trend to align coursework with the needs of employers.
Students will obtain three of 23 credits they need for graduation through the “career pathways” program, but critics have raised doubts that a high school freshman is capable of making a decision with potentially life-long impact.
Lemcoe is now a freshman at Georgia Tech majoring in industrial and systems engineering and does not regret studying about courts and cops in high school. “You got to see hands on what would be done in regular police work,” he said.
The new mandate comes with no additional funding, so implementation is up to each school. State officials acknowledge that some districts will have teachers with expertise in more pathways than others.
Within the clusters, there are more than 100 career pathways, with differing levels of difficulty and potential earnings. Most of the pathways prepare students to take a credentialing test that can open the door to an entry-level job, such as certified nursing assistant, which pays about $25,000 a year.
Proponents say the mandate will expose students to career options, leading them to think about what they want to do in life. They hope it will make school relevant to those at risk of dropping out and improve the state’s graduation rate while addressing business complaints about graduates not ready for work.
Schools are offering courses that play to regional strengths, said Mike Buck, chief academic officer for the Georgia Department of Education. For instance, Savannah area schools may have a strong maritime logistics focus because of their proximity to shipping and fishing industries, he said.
“The reality is not every district is going to be able to offer every pathway in every cluster,” he said, adding that the state will supplement local offerings with online coursework.
And one potential problem is that students who change pathways might delay their graduation, if they aren’t following one of the college prep pathways, Buck said.
Shellie Caplinger, a school counselor at Centennial High School in Roswell, said she’s glad there’s an option for an advanced academic route.
“A lot of these kids are academic warriors who are shooting for those Ivy League schools,” she said.
Students aren’t going blindly into the career-selection process. Some school systems are doing extensive testing to determine careers that would fit their students’ interests and personalities. Parents are included in the decision-making, which is either guided by a school counselor or a teacher. Grade-appropriate discussions of potential careers are now part of every step of the K-12 experience.
Levi Reece, a junior at Hillgrove High School in Cobb County, worked with his parents and a counselor to choose a business pathway before there was a state mandate.
“I figured it would interest me the most and would look better when applying to colleges,” he said.
Ninth grade is the right time for students to make such decisions, he said. “If they don’t like the pathway they can always switch.”
But J.D. Capelouto, a senior at Grady High School, isn’t sure freshmen are ready to pick careers.
“Students’ occupational interests change over the course of high school — at least mine have multiple times,” he said.
The mandate to study a career may not help all students figure out what they want to do in life, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a useful experience, said Jody Reeves, director of career technical education in Gwinnett County.
“It also helps them figure out what they do not want to do,” she said.