OPINION: Boston Public Schools are exposing students to career options as early as middle school, and it’s paying off

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Middle-grade students have a wealth of ideas about who they are and what they want for their futures. At the same time, they too often find themselves having to reconcile their hopes and dreams with messages about what “good” careers look like, what is possible for them and what it means to be successful.

At this critical stage in students’ development, their future success can be profoundly impacted by how their school approaches career-connected learning and if it is using a coordinated approach that combines academics with awareness, exploration and preparation for postsecondary education and career.

In Boston Public Schools, we have been using a coordinated approach in middle school grades. We use the Massachusetts’ individualized learning plan, known as My Career and Academic Plan (MyCAP), which is both a process and a tool that helps students engage in career and academic planning over several years based on their interests, skills and talents.

We believe this is a breakthrough effort that will provide students, even at this young age, with transformational learning experiences that support self-exploration. Such experiences are especially important for historically marginalized students, including Black and Latino youth, multilingual learners and students with disabilities.

This is a breakthrough effort that will provide students, even at this young age, transformational learning experiences that support self-exploration.

Studies commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor have concluded that individualized learning plans, usually implemented in high school, represent a “promising practice” for college and career readiness. The next logical step, we felt, was to begin this process earlier in a young person’s development.

Most students don’t even think about careers until well into their high school years; some believe from an early age that their options are limited. The earlier we reach these students, the greater the chance of breaking down barriers and opening their minds to a wealth of options based on a better understanding of themselves — their skills, their interests and their potential.

Related: The path to a career could start in middle school

MyCAP is now available to more than 25,400 Boston students districtwide, including 9,600 students in grades 6-8. With investments at the school and district levels, and support from business and community partners, philanthropy, higher education and the local school improvement organization EdVestors, Boston Public Schools has been able to create a wide variety of offerings for these young students.

The citywide effort to use MyCAP in the middle grades has made Boston a leader in career-connected learning in Massachusetts. We believe that Boston’s approach will provide other districts with an example to replicate.

When used effectively, MyCAP fosters students’ motivation to persist in school, higher attendance, greater clarity about their postsecondary options and understanding of their own interests.

The MyCAP process encourages students to seek out opportunities for building college, career and life skills in high school, including dual enrollment, early college and capstone projects. MyCAP activities also connect students with real-world experiences that can spark interest, elevate strengths and expand their awareness of what they can do after high school, in college and beyond.

For example, students in one eighth grade classroom took the Myers-Briggs indicator assessment to learn more about themselves and their interests. They later reflected on the results and the suggested best-fit college majors and careers for their personality types.

One student who was assessed as “extroverted” had never considered that their outgoing personality could inform a future job or career in fields like sales, real estate and education.

Expanding MyCAP to middle school has been a collective effort, with teachers, counselors and partners all helping design the foundational experiences. Together, with students as our focus, we’ve identified priorities including skill building and goal setting, high school selection and transition and career and academic pathways.

Ensuring that caring adults are prepared to create welcoming environments for all students is an essential component of the plan. Training adults in anti-racist practices that disrupt biased beliefs about which academic pathways and careers are right for certain students supports that goal.

Our coordinated approach has led to trusting relationships between students and adult staff, including counselors, administrators, teachers and those who work with special education and multilingual learners. We’ve also worked with community partners, such as the 3Point Foundation and College Advising Corps.

One result: A school counselor in our district reports that she’s now having more meaningful conversations with families thanks to exploration activities and skill-building experiences like Personal Roadmap, the Naviance Scavenger Hunt and Road Trip Nation videos.

More states, including Kentucky and Rhode Island, are using individualized learning plans in the middle grades, but the momentum needs to keep building.

Districts should realize that positioning middle-grade students as the drivers of their own educational journeys by connecting their course options with their career choices is a worthy investment.

Mary Skipper is superintendent of the Boston Public Schools; Marinell Rousmaniere is president and CEO of EdVestors, a Boston-based nonprofit school improvement organization.

This story about career-connected learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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