By Susan Riddell
Martha Layne Collins High School (Shelby County) teacher Stephanie Robinson was nearly beside herself with excitement. Recently, while her related arts business class was researching careers as part of their work on the Individual Learning Plan (ILP), one of her students proclaimed, “So, this ILP stuff isn’t just for school, it’s for life.”
“It was music to my ears,” Robinson said. “He gets it.”
Schools and districts across Kentucky are hoping more students “get it” as the result of Operation Preparation, a community-based, volunteer, college-/career-advising week scheduled for March 12-16, 2012.
“The earlier students make the connection between school and their future, the better their chance for success and the more likely they are to graduate from high school college-/career-ready,” said Sharon Johnston, a program consultant in the Office of Next-Generation Learners with the Kentucky Department of Education.
College/career readiness is the goal for all Kentucky students. Effective advising is one of the strategies identified to help schools and students reach that goal.
“Operation Preparation will focus attention on the importance of planning for college and/or career by engaging students, parents, schools and communities in the process of effective advising,” Johnston said.
During Operation Preparation, trained volunteers will meet one-on-one with 8th- and 10th-grade students to talk about the students’ career aspirations and required education/training; whether the students is are track to meet their goals; and whether the students are taking the courses recommended to prepare for a successful future, she added.
“I’m not sure if students see those connections without somebody explicitly saying, ‘Here are your EXPLORE scores. You’re really strong in math, but you haven’t planned on taking any advanced math classes in high school,’” Johnston said. “Maybe the career choice is engineering. That student clearly needs those advanced math and science courses. Hearing that advice from someone who may have related career experience is an important part of the college- and career-planning process for students.”
Reaching out to the community
Recruiting community volunteers to serve as mentors will be critical to the success of Operation Preparation.
“We have 18 school districts in our area, so we are competing for advisors, and we want the best ones,” said Connie Pohlgeers, director of school improvement for the Campbell County school district.
Pohlgeers and other district staff have been hard at work getting ready for Operation Preparation since the event was announced in August. Flyers have been sent out to recruit advisors, and Pohlgeers said a huge community forum was held in October.
“There are so many people we want to get,” she said.
With an average student-to-counselor ratio of 450:1 in Kentucky schools, getting the community involved is one of the best ways to meet the need, said Johnston. Schools and districts are encouraged to reach out to partners in the community to help with Operation Preparation and recruit volunteers, she added.
“We are establishing a challenge to our community groups (Rotary, Chamber of Commerce, ministerial association) to commit at least one hour per day during the week to volunteer,” said Beth Sumner, assistant superintendent for the Trigg County school district.
“I am also challenging our board of education and school-based decision making members to make this same investment in our students,” added Sumner, who also hopes advisors will be granted paid release time to work with students.
Sumner said she hopes Operation Preparation builds stronger relationships and partnerships within her district’s community, including with businesses of all sizes.
“We have strong community support for our schools, and we want to really show them the types of activities our students are doing, and how we are helping them plan for the future,” Sumner said. “I think this will help community members and especially parents see that our students have access to a wide variety of information about college and careers.”
Flexibility in implementation
Schools and districts have a lot of flexibility in implementing Operation Preparation. A toolkit with some ideas and support materials is available online.
The Campbell County school district is focusing on students who are most at risk of dropping out. Research shows warning signs that a student may not finish high school appear as early as the elementary and middle grades.
“We have got to target certain groups first,” Pohlgeers said. “Based on the EXPLORE and PLAN scores, there’s an early intervention roster. The kids we want to partner first are the ones who are on that roster as ones who don’t plan to finish (school). Then we want to pair the ones who will finish school but don’t have plans after school.
“The first mentors we sign up will go to those groups of kids,” Pohlgeers added. “It’s just smarter to start with the students who have the highest needs.”
Pohlgeers said her district will be encouraging community advisors to make a longer-term commitment.
“We hope it turns into more (volunteer) time, too, after the week in March is over. A student can’t just see this person, and then he or she is out of the student’s life. We’re looking at this as more than just an event. It’s a continuous process.”
Raising awareness of the ILP
While Operation Preparation is aimed at helping students better understand their options for life after high school, other benefits include increasing awareness and use of the ILP.
“Even though the Individual Learning Plan is a requirement for students in grades 6 through 12, a lot of teachers don’t realize what a great tool it can be,” Johnston said. “The planning and self-reflection prompted by the ILP goes hand-in-hand with academic preparation in getting students college-/career-ready.”
Johnston hopes Operation Preparation will get more parents involved in the college/career readiness process too. Currently only about 4 percent of parents look at their children’s ILPs, she said.
“Schools strive to share ILP information with families,” she said. “This effort will engage parents in supporting their students in college and career planning.”
Creating a college-going culture in the home makes it more likely students will go to college and enjoy better futures, she added. According to projections, more than half the jobs in Kentucky in the next 10 years will require at least some postsecondary education or training.
That’s just one reason Stephanie Robinson is so focused on making sure the students in her classes “get it,” she said.
“Students need to be aware and informed of the tools that are available to them for their future success whether it is college, career or both. The Kentucky ILP and Career Cruising are invaluable tools for these young people,” Robinson added.
Preparing for Operation Preparation
In addition to making sure students are up to date on their ILPs, teachers can be preparing students now for a successful Operation Preparation experience in March, Johnston said.
“They should be having regular conversations in their classrooms about how the content relates to a student’s future. You can make those real-world connections in any content area,” Johnston said. “The ILP also is a great resource for projects or additional assignments and can be used just as you would a textbook or any other resource. Lots of connections can be made with it.”
Teachers in grades 7 and 9 also are encouraged to begin discussions with their students to get them thinking about Operation Preparation in 2013.
“We are looking at this as becoming an annual event,” Johnston said.
“I think it’s a really good idea for engaging the community and enhancing the relationship between the school, parents and the community,” she added. “Obviously for students, it’s another person validating that connection between academics and life after high school.”
MORE INFO …
Sharon Johnston, firstname.lastname@example.org, (502) 564-2106, ext. 4517