ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) — Jefferson High School freshman Colton Schwach dreams of going into space and working for NASA or holding a career in aerospace engineering. He's only 14, but he's worked out a plan through a new course at Jefferson — it includes completing a master's degree and potentially a doctorate.
"I know that I want to go to MIT," he said, referencing the private research university Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
By the time he's 29, he'll live in a three-bedroom townhouse, be married with two children and own a sporty Nissan. In this new class, he's learned what it takes to build a budget, finance his plans and what kind of education he'll need to reach his goals.
That's the goal of the Freshman Seminar, a semester-long class new to Jefferson freshmen this year. It's the first course in the district's high school redesign and academy model. The class aims to better prepare students for high school and whatever comes next — a career, college or job training. The district is no longer going to rely on parents to talk with kids about college or careers. That'll now happen in Rockford School District curriculum in eighth grade and high school.
Freshmen learn lessons they don't get in other courses — like how to plan an affordable vacation and calculate interest rates. Students are learning to choose a lifestyle, then find a career that will afford them that lifestyle. In some districts, these lessons are tied into upperclassmen courses like economics or consumer education.
"But you're a senior already when you're taking that," said Judy Gustafson, college and career readiness academy coach at Jefferson. "It's a little late to be talking about 'How do I find my college money?'"
Colton's biggest lesson so far: "Living is expensive."
As a kid, he leaves bills to his parents. But he's learning how much food, electricity, water and even garbage removal costs.
"Just the basic necessities of life, they cost a lot of money," he said.
The School Board approved the high school overhaul in May, and it'll be piloted at Jefferson in the 2013-14 school year. This year's freshmen, in January, will choose an academy to enter next year, which will fall under one of four general areas: engineering, manufacturing and industrial technology; health sciences; business, arts, marketing and informational technology; and human and public services. Students will still learn regular coursework, but it will be in the context of their academy.
Jefferson hosted an academy expo on Thursday, and it continues today, where students explore career options. More than 60 companies were represented with careers in manufacturing, police and fire, military, dental assistants, veterinarian technicians, nurses, radio and law, to name a few.
"We're not asking kids in high school to choose a major," Gustafson said. "This is not a life decision. This is what am I going to do in high school to explore myself in perspective with a career cluster?"
District leaders pitched the high school redesign with the statistic that about 36 percent of the district's high school graduates are prepared for college — without remedial courses — or a career. In other words, the current system is failing 64 percent of the district's graduates.
"We're putting a focus on helping them become high schoolers and become focused on their future, instead of just being (based on) who your parents are, who your siblings might be or who your friend might happen to be," said Dawn Myelle-Watson, freshman coordinator and science teacher.
In other districts that use the academy approach, between 40 and 60 percent of students don't stick with a career that they selected, while another 40-60 percent do. But the point isn't to necessarily churn out nurses, engineers or radio personalities, said Alignment Rockford Executive Director Laurie Preece. It's to engage students in school and connect their lessons to a real profession.
The redesign is modeled largely after Alignment Nashville and its high school academies. Nashville schools have seen a jump in graduation rates and test scores, while chronic truancy rates and discipline infractions have dropped.
"The redesign gives us, what we think, is the best shot at improving those numbers in Rockford," Gustafson said.