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PA District: Career Program Helps Kids ‘Get Real’

The Career Education Program shines at South Fayette, a public high school that serves 650 students and is located in McDonald, PA. EducationWorld got the scoop from four district staff, who shared the program’s history and successes.

Ruth Bell, Administrative Assistant
Ann Bisignani, Assistant to the Superintendent
Maureen Pedzwater, High School Career Coordinator
Dr. Bille Rondinelli, Superintendent

EW:  What is the Career Education Program?

Pedzwater:  In 1999, rather than just have students complete a general graduation project, which had just become part of our state education requirement, we decided to have our graduation project have a career focus. The need that we saw with students was that they either didn’t know what they wanted to do when they left high school, or they said they wanted to go to college with no aim in mind.


EW:  After completing the program, are your students generally prepared to enter the workforce?

Pedzwater:  Given the amount of work that we do and the quality of the experiences that students are able to have during their five years, from eighth grade through the 12thgrade, our students are really well prepared to make career choices. Through collaboration with schools and business partners over all of these years, employers have gotten to know students who are in the local workforce pipelines. We also have gotten to know more about the needs of employers through our partnerships with them.

Rondinelli:  The other thing that South Fayette does very well is that we give our students multiple opportunities for community service, for leadership experiences, for speaking experiences, communication-type experiences and an opportunity to collaborate with one another. So in addition to the senior career graduation project, we have students in elementary school who are having major speaking opportunities. We have students who, as part of leadership groups, are hosting a conference here.


EW:  Before the Career Education Program existed, was the issue more that kids didn’t know what they wanted to do, or that they didn’t know what to expect from the work environment?

Bisignani:  I think it was a combination of both. There was a lot of not knowing what they wanted to do because they hadn’t really given it much thought. They started to think about it only as they were preparing to graduate.

Now, the reason we start in the eighth grade is because as they go through and experience different kinds of things like shadowing in the workplace or doing a company tour or visiting a career fair. We take the career clusters and bring in 60 to 70 people who work in that area, and they bring hands-on kind of work with them. So it shows the kids what truly goes on during a “day in the life” of a type of occupation.

These experiences lead up to our most recent foray into the world of project-based learning, which is teams of students who spend six or eight or 10 weeks with a company and work on a real-life problem with real-life constraints. They have to solve the problem and then present it with all of the constraints of a company, in terms of human resources, physical resources, budget, etc. All of those things now lead students to make better decisions earlier, such as, ‘I absolutely don’t want to do this,’ which is just as valuable as saying, ‘I absolutely would love to do this.’

Rondinelli:  Another thing that was done was our career day. Last year we centered it around the healthcare profession. We had a woman who was an OBGYN who was actually simulating an operation on stage. It happened to be a female hysterectomy, so there was an anesthesiologist and local nurses in the room, and students had the opportunity to ask questions.

Part of the strength of this is that we are doing it regionally as well, so we invited other school districts to come in and participate. So it’s not just one school district; we’re working together to create a pipeline for the workforce.

Pedzwater:  One of our students, who wants to be an engineer specializing in robotics, went as a sophomore to a career fair for STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics). She met a guy from a local company in Pittsburgh that owns a robotics company, and she managed to get a paid internship.

Rondinelli:  Also, we are hearing students talk about the importance of the graduation project and what it means to them. That really illustrated the transformation that has happened in the district. I’ve only been here a year and a half, but prior to my coming, students, parents, everyone was saying how much extra work the program was. Now it’s just a seamless part of the culture here.


EW:  What do graduates say about the program, once they have actually experienced college or the workplace?

Pedzwater:  Alumni who come back say they have handed their graduation projects into their college classes and received excellent grades. They also tell us how unprepared other students are who are sitting in class with them. The students have never done a thesis paper, never have had to write a research paper and have no idea what MLA format is. Our students are amazed, because they say they have to kind of tutor the other students.

Like Dr. Rondinelli said, our kids are so prepared with just the writing and the communication part, that they really are work-ready when they get that far.

Rondinelli:  We are offering our students advanced placement courses, and we offer a dual-enrollment program, where they can take college courses while still in high school. We also have online learning opportunities for students. So all of these combined experiences help them to prepare, not only for the rigor that’s expected in college, but also for the career they are choosing.


EW:  What is the impact of the program on your district budget?

Rondinelli:  Actually, the program costs very little. We hired Maureen (Career Coordinator) through a grant we received through the Department of Education. She started with us two days a week, and she did a lot of work around meeting with juniors and seniors as an extension of the guidance department. The feedback that we received from students and parents was so positive that we received this grant for four years and throughout the course of the grant, she went from working two days a week to working three days a week to working five days a week.

When the grant was no longer being funded, her position was just so integral to what we do here that the district hired her. But other than that, we use the staff we have. We’ve also worked with seven other school districts in our local area in a consortium of eight schools.


EW:  What has been the response from parents?

Pedzwater:  The response has been phenomenal. When we first started it, as Dr. Rondinelli said, back in 1998-1999, the students all but wanted to protest. Neither students, parents nor teachers were completely on board at the beginning. But as students began to go off to their post-secondary plans—whether that meant apprenticeships, trade programs, two-year programs or four-year colleges—and they came back and siblings entered the program and said that they knew what this was about, it has just grown and flourished to the point where students and parents are completely supportive of it.


EW:  How can other schools experience successes similar to South Fayette’s?

Pedzwater:  You have to have the leadership in the district that embraces this school-to-business partnership, and that is extremely rare. That is the biggest challenge. I go out to a lot of schools, and I’ve met business partnerships and school partnerships. Sometimes the problem is that the administration and the board don’t want to go in that direction. It’s the difference between academia and business.

Bisignani:  To respond to the question of how to start, everything that we are doing we have published materials around. We created a whole booklet in partnership with the seven other schools in our consortium for the career fair on how to host a successful career fair and what makes it different from a college fair.

Our graduation projects are all online, so everything that we do has a systemic structure to it. That is why it doesn’t cost a lot of money. When we look at our career fair booklet, for example, and other schools want to use our materials, if they want a booklet that we have had printed, we simply charge them the cost of the printing.

The program is also tied to curriculum; it’s not just a field trip that kids go out and do. They begin with career exploration in the eighth grade, then move to a career experience where they are actually going out and doing job shadows and company tours. Then they move on to our newest adventure, career immersion, where they do the project-based learning, including scenarios and presenting and those types of things.

We also re-aligned our electives in the business department, and we put in a new class for juniors called College and Career Planning. That is where every child learns to write the very best resume and gains interviewing skills. They learn about personal finance and dress for the workplace. They learn about business etiquette.


Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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