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Vincent High School

Vincent Middle High School: One Size Doesn't Fit All

Vincent, AL

Vincent pays rapt attention to the unique needs of its population to deliver the most effective course possible.

You may not be able to choose your students, but you can choose how you respond to them to maximize their chances for success.

Located in the town of Vincent in rural Alabama, Vincent Middle High School houses a total of about 500 students, with grades six through eight on one side of the campus and grades nine through twelve on the other. The proximity of the middle and high schools and the small size of the student body allow instructors to teach at both levels, so teachers get to know their students very well over the course of their time at Vincent.

Even so, the administration observed that varying percentages of students were still falling through the cracks each year.

“With our school, our average senior class can be anywhere from 50 to 70 students,” says Dawn Howard, teacher of the class Career Choices that uses the Career Choices curriculum. “That’s relatively small compared to some neighboring schools that have hundreds, so even a small number not graduating from high school has a huge effect.”

Thus, the pilot Career Choices program for Shelby County School System was put into action at Vincent for all students in the eighth grade beginning in 2008. It was such a success that schools throughout the county are increasingly introducing similar programs for their students.

Though eighth grade may seem a bit early for students to begin thinking about things like career planning, the Vincent administration had observed that the biggest change seemed to occur in the year before students even made it into high school.

“We wanted to implement this program in the eighth grade because what we see here is that, by the time students are in the eighth grade, they’re starting to make their decisions about high school and their future already,” Howard says. “They’ve pretty much decided by the end of that year whether they think school is important to them and many of them, at 13 or 14 years old, have already made the decision to drop out.”

Howard also points out that eighth grade is not really all that early for many of the topics covered in Career Choices.

“Even though they may be in eighth grade, within a few short years they’ll be looking to buy a car, and a few years after that they’ll be wanting to buy a house,” Howard says. She adds, “In our society today a lot of our teenagers become pregnant out of wedlock so talking about taking care of children and how expensive that can be, that’s reality for many of our students.”

Career Choices educates students on the facts about living expenses and the typical salaries for jobs that can be obtained with different levels of education. This is critical for students who may reconsider rash choices about school, expenditures, and children once they are sufficiently informed.

“Fifteen dollars an hour sounds like a lot of money,” Howard says, “but when we go through budgeting, they see how much that actually comes out to after bills and cars and homes and groceries and children. It really makes them think, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t live like this.’”

Howard continually assesses the unique characteristics of her class to deliver content that best suits the needs of each group of students.

“I really try to use the curriculum that Career Choices provides but I also try to think about my students, particularly, and how I can best get this lesson across to them,” she says.

For example, when one class had a group of students with a noticeable behavior problem, Howard made a point to adjust her lesson plans to address what those students were most interested in.

“Behaviorally, if you’re getting the kids engaged in the lesson, then they’re going to want to participate and do better overall,” she says.

The focus of the class on life skills creates many opportunities for related activities outside of the classroom. Howard capitalizes on the convenience of having a grocery store within walking distance of the school by bringing her students there to calculate grocery budgets for a family. She also coordinates with a professor at University of Montevallo to take her students on a field trip to tour the college and speak with professors and students about college life. Students look forward to this trip, especially, as a highlight of the class.

“It’s a real hands-on experience outside the classroom that’s been really successful, and the kids really look forward to it,” Howard says. “When I get new students every semester, they always ask, ‘When’s the field trip to Montevallo?’ The kids are talking about it, and that’s a good thing.”

Throughout the course, she continually introduces students to new points of view by bringing in guest speakers from career centers, colleges, and the community. Howard shares a lot of her own life experiences about things that are relevant to the course, too, which contributes an additional dose of reality to the material being discussed. The self-disclosure also helps in building trust with the class, and Howard enjoys the relationships she forms with her students that continue throughout their time in high school.

“The first year that I taught, those students are now tenth graders, and I can still look at them and ask about how it’s going with their career interest because I still know what they want to do.”

Making the extra effort to get to know the students as individuals and tailor the curriculum to them has been essential to the success of the program. Howard feels that the course is an important safety net for those students whose guardians may fall short on conveying to them the value of their education and preparing them to make important life decisions.

“Sometimes we take it for granted, we think surely parents ask their kids, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to do? What do you want out of life? What are you interested in?’ But for a lot of our students, and not just at Vincent but I think across the nation, they’re not being asked those questions,” she says. “For the first time, we’re asking some of these kids, ‘What do you want? Not what might somebody else say they want for you, but what do you want out of life for yourself?”

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