By the ninth grade, students already should have a grounding in career exploration and be ready to take a more serious look at their options, school counseling professionals say.
Ninth grade can be rough. In most cases, ninth-grade students must become familiar with a new school, new teachers and administrators, and new peers. Now they're freshmen and soon the question, "What do I want to be when I grow up?" takes on new meaning.
Right about eighth and ninth grade is when young people start making decisions based on their preferences and abilities, according to American Counseling Association (ACA) research. In a 1998 report on school counseling and psychology, researcher Roger Herring wrote that "vocationally, [students'] choices pass from the general, fantasy stage into the tentative stage; that is, they begin to make meaningful choices based on their current self-knowledge."
"The ninth grade becomes reality testing," says Nancy Perry, executive director of the American School Counselor Association. "At the middle school level, we're saying explore, explore--don't put yourself in a box, but explore all the options that are out there. In the ninth grade, we say it's time to start thinking seriously about your life and your future."
Getting a head start
In most U.S. schools, the entire time-flame for career exploration has been moved up, says Kathy Jo Elliott, vice president of the guidance division for the Association for Career and Technical Education. Most incoming freshmen already have participated in interest and ability assessments and career exploration activities at the middle school level, and even earlier.
Oklahoma's Sand Springs Public School District 1-2 has two junior high schools that serve grades 7-9, so 10th grade is the first year of high school for students there. Rising ninth-graders already have taken assessment tests and studied up on career majors during junior high school, says Tana Garrett, director of vocational programs for the district.
Occupational or career clusters or majors--broad groups of industry-related jobs--are how many high schools organize their career exploration activities. For example, a student in Fairfax County, Va., who is interested in becoming a licensed practical nurse would research the health, human and public services career cluster.
At Salem High School in Salem, N.H., all ninth-graders are required to take a course called "Research, Career and Study Skills." The course--recognized by the National School-to-Work Office as a promising practice--is based on the school's career development competencies.
The course begins with interest assessments and personal values inventories, and counselors teach students to use a software package called Choices that includes interest assessments, descriptions of more than 3,000 occupations and information about postsecondary education and financial aid opportunities.
Pat Nellor Wickwire, president of the American Association for Career Education, says such freshman courses are a good idea, but adds that educators should see that career education activities progress throughout high school.
"To give people the impression that effective career education is going to happen as a result of one yearlong course is wrong," Nellor Wickwire says. "A large part of the platform of career education is infusion throughout the whole education system."
But a one-time course is rarely the case, she adds. …