contact
Alison Lobron can be reached via email at:
alison@alisonlobron.com
  Hurry Up, Grow Up
 
 
The Boston Globe Magazine, May 11, 2008
   
IN EIGHTH GRADE, when she was 13, Breannah Conward-Lewis of Dorchester made an important decision about her professional future. A round-faced girl with glasses and a practical expression, Breannah had spent middle school dreaming about becoming an actress. She had one of the starring roles in the school play, a musical based on Schoolhouse Rock. But when it came time to choose a high school, Breannah, at the urging of her mother, abandoned her acting and applied to the Health Careers Academy, one of a growing number of career-specific high schools within the Boston Public Schools system. Breannah won a spot through the citywide lottery system and decided to take it. Now, as a freshman at the school, she studies anatomy, goes on field trips to see medical professionals in action, and will likely have a paid health-related internship before she graduates. And she's got a new goal: to become a physician's assistant.

""I chose this school because I have a better chance of becoming a PA than an actress," Breannah says matter-of-factly. She no longer acts, she says, because she doesn't have opportunities at her new school. "There wasn't any acting to do, so I just stopped." Sitting in the main foyer of HCA's small building on the Northeastern University campus, she cracks only the slightest of smiles when a classmate reminds her of her thespian days, back in middle school.

""She's really good," the other girl says. "Very funny."

"Breannah just gives a worldweary sigh, as if too wizened for such fanciful notions.

"In focusing on a career so young, Breannah is part of a nationwide movement that encourages students to set professional goals at ages when many are still in braces. With the exception of vocational schools, American students traditionally have waited until their first or second year of college to declare a field of study. Now there is concern that that's about five years too late, and suddenly kids still in the depths of angst-ridden puberty are facing the added stress of having to decide what they want to be one day - a time still far away.

"Citing concerns about disengaged students and the need to compete within a global marketplace, seven states are requiring all public high school students to choose career paths, sometimes as early as freshman year. In Massachusetts, the trend is occurring at the local level, with urban districts increasingly breaking large, comprehensive high schools into smaller institutions with themes such as health careers, public safety, arts, technology, or business. The push for a greater link between school and work is most apparent in low-income communities, where, advocates say, career themes engage kids who might otherwise drop out or lose interest in school.

"But this isn't just an urban issue; upper-middle-class suburban parents are getting in on the act, too. Some are paying top dollar for private "career exploration" programs that will, they hope, help their kids make the most of the crazy-expensive college years.

"More than anything, the trend may reflect adult anxiety about the changing economy. After all, the more Americans who change jobs and careers, the more we all yearn to impose order on the whole confusing system, so that our kids can have a more straightforward path than perhaps we experienced. But pushing careers so early also reflects a growing tendency to see child rearing as a competitive sport. Comparisons and measures begin with birth weight and continue right on through to standardized-test-driven high schools. We are impatient for results, for progress and demonstrable growth. We're proud when our teens have adultlike accomplishments; college admissions folders tell tales of students launching community-service organizations, creating online businesses, and composing operatic arias. Given this new professional push at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, the 20th-century concept of adolescence as a time when you're practically supposed to goof around and annoy your parents may become as outdated as the private, dream-filled, handwritten diary girls used to keep in their dresser drawer.

"AT HEALTH CAREERS ACADEMY, headmaster Caren Walker Gregory isn't worried that students like Breannah will focus too young or fail to do the necessary soul-searching. A petite black woman with a long ponytail, she's much more concerned about preparing her kids for college and work in a growing profession, while also helping to increase the diversity of Boston's medical personnel.

"Researchers and educators at Northeastern University founded HCA as a pilot school in 1995, and it became a Horace Mann charter school in 1998; Health Careers was one of the first schools in Boston to focus on a single career theme. "It was a commitment from health professionals to diversify the workplace," Walker Gregory says of the school's creation. While the impetus for the school was top down - professionals wanting particular kids ready for particular jobs - she believes the school's mission will translate into opportunity for her mostly minority student body. "A lot of times, people go somewhere, major in something, and graduate, and don't have a job - but not in the health professions." She leans back in her chair in HCA's main office and smiles. "Health is hot, hot, hot!"

"Proponents of career education say they aren't just offering an entry point into "hot" professions, and they insist the professionalization of high school will not close doors for kids who realize, at age 23, that they want to be pet psychologists rather than physician assistants. JD Hoye is president of the National Academy Foundation, a network of 510 career-themed public schools nationwide. Throughout her career, Hoye says she's had to fight against what she calls "a fairly well-seeded belief in this country that school and work are different things." Most European countries have long required students to choose a focus in their teens, but for Americans, "career" education has traditionally been something of a dirty word, conjuring up images of kids learning how to dye someone's hair or perform an oil change - but not how to read, write, or think. The career-academy movement aims to change that perception, she says.

""I think that we need to prevent the sole purpose of any educational experience to be employment exclusively," she says. Hoye says that instruction in career academies "aligns with college entrance exams, so the content ensures you have in no way limited their opportunities." She believes the public has "a mind-set that says if it has anything to do with a career, it's not college material. I think that's a very 1950s reality and doesn't have anything to do with today." Today, she says, these new schools have a dual mission: offering a career hook to get kids engaged with a college-prep education while also giving professional skills to students who go straight into the labor force.

"So a student at public-safety-themed Monument High School in South Boston doesn't have to become a police officer or an EMT, says headmaster Jonathan Pizzi. But the student will learn about those jobs through internships, and his or her study of Shakespeare might include a mock trial for characters in Romeo and Juliet. Pizzi and other academy leaders say work connections help students stay motivated by answering the questions that have aggravated teachers since roughly the dawn of time: "But why do I have to know this? What does it have to do with my life?"

"NOWHERE IS THE NEW, professionalized reality of Boston's public schools more apparent than on Peacevale Road in Dorchester. Here, the 1923 brick colossus formerly known as Dorchester High School - whose vast corridors and high ceilings swallowed students into a single comprehensive curriculum throughout most of the 20th century - has been carved up into three small career-themed academies: technology, business, and public service. At TechBoston Academy, on the first floor of what's now called the Dorchester Education Complex, students carry their personal laptops through hallways painted bright red. In the classrooms, they take courses like digital art and information technology and must choose to "major" in tracks such as networking or computer programming.

"Chief academic officer Lisa Martinez insists the school's goal isn't to turn out dozens of webmasters every year for Microsoft, though the school, founded in 2002, is supported in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She says technology is integrated into the curriculum and students use software applications to learn about history and literature. "We use the technology as a bridge to the learning. We're a college prep school, but we also have a school-to-career side."

"The way she sees it, some students will pursue high-tech careers while others will just have a marketable skill in whatever field they choose. "Technology is in every field now. They can walk into any firm and help out with the technology," she says. But in addition to career preparation, the theme also offers students a taste of adult responsibility that many crave, especially as they near the end of high school. Senior Andre Aristy - a cheerful student who describes himself as "17 years young" - reports that the technology theme has upped his confidence in his own abilities. Tall, with cornrows held together by white seashells, Aristy smiles as he describes a summer internship spent "teaching software to fellow workers like 20 or 30 years older" than he is. "It builds your self-esteem," he says, remembering how "amazed" his employers were by his technology skills.

"LIKE OTHER CAREER ACADEMIES, TechBoston is attempting to do two distinct things. On the one hand, teachers push every student to attend college. The school's website cites its goal of 100 percent college attendance, and as one senior puts it, "the minute you walk into the school, it's college, college, college." At the same time, Martinez says they must also acknowledge that not every student will attend college. She gives the example of a girl who gets pregnant - "it happens all the time" - who can get a better job out of high school with IT training than she could with a plain old high school diploma. So the school is trying to provide a terminal degree at the same time as a college-prep experience: professional training for both academic standouts and those who run into difficulty.

"Americans' ambivalence about overt vocational training, and disagreement about how work-oriented high school should be, created the need for career academies, says Anthony Carnevale, an economist at Georgetown University who helped craft school-to-work policies during the Clinton administration. He says focus groups have shown that most Americans believe not everyone needs college and that some kids are better off training at an early age to become, say, plumbers. But there's a twist: Most people also see their own children as the ones who should attend college, not the ones who can skip it. Becoming a plumber or a car mechanic is a fine option - for someone else. "It's always other people's children," Carnevale sighs. "But there are no `other people's children.'"

"Because every child is someone's child, Carnevale says the new political rallying cry has become "College for all!" So career academies, which call themselves college prep but also sneak in vocational training, are both more palatable to parents than regular vocational ed and more practical for society than high schools that leave dropouts with no skills other than an ability to recite the first three words of the Gettysburg Address. Recognizing what the public wants, vocational schools are also rebranding themselves. At Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, students can study auto mechanics, carpentry, or culinary arts, but headmaster and director Chuck McAfee is quick to point out that they take the same core academic courses required of students in all of Boston's public high schools and that they must pass the MCAS to graduate. He estimates that 76 percent of his students go on to a two- or four-year college.

"The notion of professionalizing adolescence has its naysayers, especially those concerned that vocational education in new clothing is still vocational education - and that career academies simply may not have time to offer a real, rigorous liberal education along with a career focus. Debra Humphreys, a spokeswoman for the Association of American College and Universities, says her organization has found that the skills most in demand in the current changing workplace are broad-based ones: criticak thinking, communication, problem-solving and teamwork skills. If academies can teach those skills through a career theme, she's all for them. But she wonders whether academies that provide a lot of vocational training really can do both, given the limited hours in a day. Humphreys also worries that low-income teenagers - who are most likely to attend a career academy - will be exposed to just one career field at precisely the age when they should be exposed to many. "If it's a broad topic that gets you engaged with your work, that's totally on solid educational grounds," she says. "As long as you're not saying to a 15-year-old: `You're going to be a forensic scientist.'"

"AT HEALTH CAREERS ACADEMY, SIX OF the eight students I interviewed did have very focused, health-related career goals in mind. At TechBoston, students predicted their jobs would involve technical work, but saw themselves working in a variety of industries. And at Media Communications Technology High School in West Roxbury, headmaster Sung-Joon Pai says a lot of his current seniors want to be journalists or in TV production. While he predicts his students will be prepared for careers in any number of fields - and he himself switched from classical piano to chemistry to education - Pai also believes in the value of setting specific goals, even if the goals eventually change. "Career training is important, especially for young, urban teenagers, especially black and Latino boys," says Pai. "A lot of them don't see themselves living past 25 or 30, sadly. If you can start to get them invested in what a possible future looks like, that can be a big difference in terms of changing someone's life perspective."

"But one concern several headmasters acknowledge is that students often choose their career academies for reasons that have little to do with the theme. Pai estimates that about half his kids pick the school because they are interested in media and the other half because their parents think West Roxbury is the safest neighborhood to go to school. At TechBoston, the free laptop students get as freshmen and take with them when they leave is a huge draw, says Lisa Martinez. And some students throughout the city choose career academies based on where a sibling went, or because they want a certain sports offering, or, as one freshman puts it, "because my mom randomly brought home an application." Changing one's mind and following one's friends are, of course, hallmarks of middle school behavior - rites of passage like annoying their parents. But these whims are now directing students' exposure to career choices. And most academies are still too new to gauge whether graduates go on to meaningful work in the fields they study or what happens to those who decide after four years studying health that they really want to be accountants.

"Ironically enough, at the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum from most Boston Public Schools students, some families are paying top dollar for kids to have many of the same experiences career academies provide for free. Whether driven by a need to stand out in the competitive college-admissions climate or a desire to make the most of an expensive college education, the parents of these suburban teens are paying for the professional exposure their own high schools rarely offer.

"Career Explorations - a New York-based company that expanded to Boston in 2005 - places teenagers in summer internships that sound like the career-academy themes with a more elite flair. Kids explore "medicine" rather than "health careers" and "law" instead of "public safety." The cost to parents is between $4,000 and $7,000 for a summer, depending on the length of the internship and whether the teen lives at home or in the dormitories at Emerson College.

"Though Career Explorations' internships resemble those of career academies, the rhetoric does not. Students are exploring rather than choosing. There's talk about impressing college admissions officers instead of developing marketable skills. Todd Aronson, who directs the company's Boston internship placements, speaks about helping students "find passion" rather than setting them up for a decent-paying job. But Aronson also cites some of the same benefits that his counterparts in career academies do: a chance for students to see the relationship between school and work and to learn whether they do or do not like a field before paying big bucks in college tuition.

""Especially with a field like law or medicine," says Aronson, "they're about to put in some intense time in college. To get a glimpse beforehand" - by interning in one of those fields - "can be really helpful."

"ABE FRIED-TANZER OF HOLLISTON SAYS Career Explorations proved helpful for him. Now a sophomore at New York University, Tanzer had planned to spend the summer before his senior year at Holliston High School working in the local movie theater. But then his mom signed him up for Career Explorations' New York program, and he spent his vacation interning at a film-production company in Greenwich Village instead.

""It was a fantastic decision," he says, in part because he learned that he does not want to be involved in film production. Tanzer, 20, talks rapid-fire into his cellphone while waiting in line for an advance screening of a movie in New York. His voice speeds up as he nears the ticket counter. "I didn't like working behind the scenes so much as analyzing and reviewing films," he says. Now he reviews movies for NYU's student newspaper and hopes to become a professional film critic.

"Yet while middle-class families may want career exploration, they are likely to resist any efforts to require a career choice, says Carnevale, the Georgetown economist. Some of that resistance has occurred in the seven states that have required students to declare what are sometimes called "majors" and sometimes "career pathways." In Florida, thanks to a 2006 law, students must choose majors during their first year of high school. According to one Florida parent, Dina Phillips, the requirement is very unpopular among families where college attendance isn't in doubt.

""It just adds a little extra stress," says Phillips, whose daughter Amanda is a freshman in a Sarasota County school for gifted students. "These are all college-bound kids. They're making them pick a career path for no reason at all." Phillips says her daughter settled on a "humanities" major because it would allow her to take a specific art class she wanted, not because she was close to envisioning a particular career.

""You want to know how stupid this is?" Dina Phillips asks. "We wrote down humanities only because humanities fits the major for the art class. None of us understand what this major is helping them do." She thinks majors are gimmicky, a way for the state to say it's preparing students for the future without making any real changes in school structure. Her daughter "hasn't got any understanding of why she has to do this," says Phillips.

"The debate over how much and what kind of career education is appropriate may break down along lines of class, much as the debate over MCAS testing did. The most vocal opponents of MCAS were suburban parents and kids, who viewed the tests as an unnecessary, stressful distraction that would stifle creativity; in low-income, urban communities, parents were more likely to support any effort to increase their school's accountability. Similarly, a student who has plenty of financial support may thrive in a school or program that encourages him to explore lots of careers, to find and follow his bliss without thinking about what he'll "do" with it or homing in on one field. But a student who must immediately pay rent and perhaps provide assistance to parents may well be eager for IT skills that promise a lucrative summer job. Yet whether students are exploring or choosing - and whether a school's goal is to keep kids out of gangs or to persuade suburban parents that their child is assured a glorious future - adolescence is becoming professionalized.

"Prior to the 20th century, teenagers were essentially treated like adults. So there is much to be said for offering adolescents productive grown-up experiences rather than letting, say, sex and alcohol be the ways they try on adult behavior. Yet we may be witnessing the reversal of a long trend in which Americans (especially those with money) have postponed adult responsibilities and behavior until later and later in life. Baby boomers and GenXers are fond of declaring that 60 is the new 40, and 40 is the new 30. For the current generation of teens, 14 may soon be the new 22.

 
 

Back to Articles >

 
   
Copyright 2009 by Alison Lobron