No Wrong Answers

Author: Helios Education Foundation

July 10, 2016

John Choo Chew, a 10th grader at Countryside High School in Clearwater, Fla., was trying to decide between two different postsecondary pathways—cyber security and medicine.  

Then he used Future Plans, an online college and career guidance tool that is helping thousands of 10th graders, in Pinellas County, gain a better understanding of what they’re good at, what kind of postsecondary education option they might want and what field in which they would like to work.

After John answered a series of questions and completed his profile, it became clear to him that studying and pursuing a career in sports medicine would be the best match for his interests and strengths.

“This is a stepping stone for kids. They can take the next step to planning their future, such as applying for an internship,” he says. “I might have been able to arrive at this decision on my own, but it would have been a longer process.  This helped me to make my decision faster.”

Making the right decisions

With support from the Helios Education Foundation, Future Plans was developed by the Pinellas Education Foundation and began with over a year’s worth of focus groups to better understand how high school students feel about making decisions regarding college and careers.

Terry Boehm, the president of the Pinellas Education Foundation, says he learned that when students are asked about what they intend to do after high school, they often give answers that they think adults want to hear, such as “I’m following my dreams,” or “I’m keeping my options open.” But in reality, they just don’t have enough of the right information.

“People are not making the correct educational pathway decisions,” and often end up applying to colleges and universities that aren’t a good fit, Boehm says.

But along with better preparing students to make those choices, Future Plans is also the Pinellas Education Foundation’s response to the gap that exists between the skills and degrees that students are acquiring and the career fields that are actually growing and providing job opportunities.

“You look at the business community and they are concerned because they cannot find workers in specific positions,” Boehm says, adding that educators “buy in to this program because they do care about kids leaving with plans.”

So far, Future Plans has been picked up by 20 Florida school districts, as well as in a district in Georgia and another in Maryland.

“Pinellas County Schools is dedicated to ensuring that every student is prepared for college or career after graduation,” says Michael A. Grego, superintendent of the Pinellas County Schools. “Future Plans helps students set goals while in high school and empowers them to explore globally-competitive careers that match their strengths and interests."
No wrong answers

Many career exploration programs that students experience in high school are not very thorough and don’t actually bring students to the point of developing a plan, Boehm says. Future Plans takes students through a series of 11 assessments, which explore the students’ interests, abilities and attitudes toward work.

The Pinellas Education Foundation also listened to students in deciding on the design features of the program. Boehm says they didn’t want a “gazillion dropdown menus,” so Future Plans moves the users through a linear process as they answer questions and narrow down their choices to three careers.

“There are no wrong answers,” Boehm says. “The whole message in this is we’re trying to find your talents.”

The students’ responses are used to build a profile and match them with the types of careers that fit their preferences but that also have the potential for job growth. The information is then displayed in the form of a poster and also provided in a detailed executive summary report for the counselors.

So in addition to serving students and directing them toward jobs with potential, Future Plans is also helping guidance counselors to have much more productive conversations with students when they meet with them.

“Counselors definitely recognize this as a time saver,” Boehm says. “This is what they went to school for.”

Shannon Akerman, an 11th grade counselor at Countryside High, says Future Plans helps students understand that there are a wide variety of postsecondary options available, including vocational schools, the military, certification programs and two-year colleges.

“Future Plans gives me a starting point when a student tells that they don’t know what they would like to do after school or when they are having trouble choosing electives,” she says. The program has also helped her identify students who would be good candidates for dual enrollment at the Pinellas Technical Education Center.

Some schools have even trained parent volunteers to understand the Future Plans system and discuss the results with students.

“I think the program helps students to start thinking about their futures,” Akerman says.  “For many, this does mean college. Students tend to be more motivated when they know why they are attending college.” 

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