ATLANTA — Georgia wants to overhaul its high school curriculum, making it more like college with courses tailored to what students want to do after they graduate.
Under the proposed plan, students would choose a "career cluster" that would lead them through the classes they need to either go on to a two-year or four-year college or to go straight into a job. The plan — which is expected to be taken up by the state Board of Education sometime this fall — would unravel the single-track approach instituted by former state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox that assumed every student was going to college.
It's part of a campaign promise by current state schools chief John Barge, who said the state was forcing some students to drop out of school because they are frustrated with classes they don't find relevant to what they want to do after high school. And students should be thinking about their careers before they head off to a pricey four-year university or get stuck in a job they end up hating, he said.
"We can do a much better job preparing students for post-secondary," Barge said. "Any parent will tell you that college is the most expensive career development."
For example, Barge said, an education major might not do his student teaching until his senior year in college only to find out he doesn't like being in a classroom.
Other states are trying similar programs, though Georgia would be among the first to make career clusters a requirement for getting a high school diploma, said Dean Folkers, deputy executive director at the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium. The consortium has helped states like Florida, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Colorado implement career training programs in the past few years, he said.
"Many states use career clusters, but Georgia is taking it another step," Folkers said. "It's not about redoing career technical education for those kids. It's about embracing it for all and realizing we all are ultimately preparing for a career and college is a vehicle to get there."
If passed, Georgia's plan would go into effect for entering high school freshmen next fall.
Under Georgia's plan, students would take the same general core of classes with basics like algebra, English and history. At the end of their sophomore year, students would choose a cluster to determine what advanced classes they take.
For example, a student in the health sciences career cluster wanting to be a certified nursing assistant would take nutrition and wellness, chemistry and physical science — and go straight into a job after graduation. A student wanting to be a doctor would take Advanced Placement biology, physics and biotechnology and go to a four-year college.
Students who change their minds can switch between clusters throughout high school, said Mike Buck, chief academic officer at the Georgia Department of Education. And no matter what their post-high school plans are, all students will graduate eligible for college, Buck said.
"If we can pull this off, then we're going to save a lot of kids and we're also going to get a lot of kids plugged into careers they enjoy," Buck said. "The kids hanging in there until they turn 16 where school may not have always been a lot of fun for them, we get them on a job site where they see how they're going to apply this."
Students would have an internship during their junior or senior year in the career field they've chosen, giving them a chance to see what welding is like or to work in a hospital with medical professionals. And they'll have teachers as advisers to help guide them throughout their four years of high school — relieving guidance counselors who are stretched thin across the state with a ratio of one counselor for every 450 students, Buck said.
But not everyone is a fan of Barge's plan.
Donnie Malone, a senior at Jefferson High School in northeast Georgia, said high school students are too young to decide what they want to do with their lives. He said he would have picked pre-medicine two years ago but now he wants to go into political science or international affairs.
"I don't feel it would be in a student's best interest to pick that early," said the 17-year-old, who wants to go to an Ivy League college. "There are maturity issues."
Still, teachers say students need to have choices or they will give up. About 80 percent of high school students graduate in Georgia, a number Barge wants to see increase while he's in office.
Calvine Rollins, president of the Georgia Association of Educators and a high school guidance counselor in Bainbridge, said career clusters are a "great move."
"Students have to explore," Rollins said. "This gives them a little flexibility for trial and error."
For parents like Cynthia Briscoe Brown, choosing a "major" for her son, Palmer, in high school isn't a foreign concept. Palmer attends North Atlanta High School, where students choose among a handful of "small learning communities" with different focuses.
Brown said her son wants to be a church musician but chose the international affairs community over the fine arts one so he would get a broad liberal arts education.
"I don't think many kids are that focused, and I think we do need to give them a chance to explore who they are and what they're interested in in high school within boundaries," Brown said. "A student will be more involved and more interested in school if they see a relationship to something they want to pursue in the future."