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New Berlin - For helping each sixth-grader target a career field and devise an academic plan that will get them there, the New Berlin schools are recognized as leaders in the state in career planning.

Lots of sixth-graders don't have any idea what they want to do when they grow up and most change their minds anyway, as they go along. So, career and academic plans get changed as students get older. However, New Berlin kids are thinking about careers at an early age and realizing there is a tie in between what they want to do and what they have to learn to do it.

Getting students that far is one of the reasons New Berlin schools are regarded by state education officials as among the leaders college and career readiness.

"Students are taking classes based on informed decision-making for students' futures," said Robin Kroyer-Kubicek, state career planning consultant and co-leader of the academic and career planning project of the state Department of Public Instruction. "They really are a model and a wonderful resource for other districts in the state to show what is possible."

The New Berlin schools are particularly good model for leadership and staff development to make academic and career planning part of everyday life in the classroom, she said.

During the last school year, New Berlin was picked to be in the highest group the state Department of Public Instruction studied in terms of how to get students ready for either college or careers. The DPI is looking for ways schools can help students in one of the most important quests they will make in their lives - figuring out what they want to be when they grow up.

The study involved 25 school districts from those like New Berlin that are the farthest along in helping students plan to districts that are just starting.

"Everything we produced, we shared with the other districts," said Laura Schmidt, strategic adviser to the superintendent who helps coordinate New Berlin's college and career readiness initiative.

Chosen for panel

Superintendent Joe Garza  also will do some sharing. He has been invited to participate in the All-Conference Keynote Panel at the Academic and Career Planning Leadership Conference in Madison sponsored by the DPI. This panel will be moderated by DPI Deputy State Superintendent Mike Thompson.

Also, Garza and members of his team have been asked to speak at conferences, colleges and universities, at business gatherings and to other school districts across the state on career and college readiness.

The way the academic and career plans link school studies with potential life goals might become a force for good, Garza said.

"Students who see the relevance in what they are learning are more likely to pursue rigorous learning experiences that challenge their understanding and develop their unique talents in ways that would otherwise not be possible," he said.

Beyond the plan

However, the district goes far beyond the college and career plans.

"We have substantially increased the number of opportunities for exploration, preparation, and mentorship," Garza said.

Not only does New Berlin's career planning process help students find their life's work, but it gives them a step-by-step roadmap they can use to tackle any problem. That map stretches from research to goal setting to planning how to reach those goals.

For example, sixth-graders study 16 fields of work and then create their own academic and career plan, complete with an initial six-year plan for what classes they should take in school to take them in those directions.

In seventh grade, they complete inventories to identify potential career fields. In eighth grade, they start looking at what they have to do to graduate from high school. In ninth grade, they learn about aligning their high school classes to what they want to do after high school and about financing post-secondary education.

Tenth grade brings structured research on potential careers including using market projections for future job prospects and learning how to research job opportunities.

The sophomores also learn the importance of building a resume and how to create one. Juniors do a college search and apply to a college, if that is their direction. They also start thinking about the cost of post-secondary education. Seniors develop a financial plan to support their post-high school plan.

"This is truly a life skill that will serve all students well in their life after high school.," Schmidt said.

Only a tool

The structured approach to academic and career planning, begun in 2013, is meant to encourage students to think about the future, not push them into it, Schmidt emphasized.

"We are passionately against tracking students down a single path because that can close doors too early," she said. Students are expected to change and refine their plans, she said.  "We walk students through the process of how they could align secondary and post-secondary coursework to a career of interest, however, they don’t have to."

"Some students are ready for that, however many would prefer to keep their options open and explore a wide variety of interests," Schmidt said.

About 92 percent of New Berlin graduates aspire to complete a two- or four-year degree. It is important for students to know what they want to get out of that post-secondary education, she said.

Bang for buck

To help students tell whether a college or technical education would be worth their investment in time and money, New Berlin has been expanding opportunities and supports to help them be informed consumers she said. That includes how to get the most of our their college investment.

"Some of our local and/or regional programs are designed to expedite time to degree," she said.

At the same time Schmidt reported to the board on the district's participation in the DPI 25-district pilot study, the board approved a broader target than the state uses for determining whether a student is ready for additional schooling or for work.

The state uses standardized tests scores to determine readiness.

More than tests

"Mastery of content is the easiest to measure," Schmidt said. "However, performance on tests is not the only predictor of future success."

The New Berlin schools take a more holistic view of readiness. Under the understanding the board just approved, readiness for college means having the necessary college entrance exam performance and grade point average, having done college-level coursework while still in high school and having an academic and career plan.

Career ready means having a national career readiness certificate, having career awareness, having demonstrated interests and skills, being engaged and again having an academic and career plan.

All students are to be life-ready, defined as having financial literacy, knowing the attributes and qualities needed for success and having an academic and career plan.

School Board President David Maxey said: ""In the School District of New Berlin, our motto is 'Expect Excellence'. Our students have the opportunity to demonstrate excellence in a variety of ways. The board's approval of the 'Redefining Ready' resolution indicates our collective commitment to support and measure student progress in a variety of ways so that all students graduate high school confident in their ability to achieve the goals they set for themselves."

Finally, Garza said, "I am very proud of the progress our staff has made over the last several years to support a broader definition of college and career readiness for the benefit of all students."

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