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Growing into a career: Elementary students get college talk

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Hundreds of students at a Greenwood elementary school will spend at least a week this fall talking with their teachers and guidance counselor about the age-old question: What do you want to be when you grow up?

This time, they’ll go further. The talks will delve into the training and classes the children, some as young as 5 or 6 years old, will need to attain the dream.

To start the conversation, counselor Yolanda Santos and Isom Elementary’s two dozen teachers will ask students what they like to do, and they’ll likely hear from students who like to play outside or who are fascinated by animals. Santos’ and the teachers’ next job is to get the kids thinking about how they can get paid doing what they enjoy.

The student who loves animals, for example, might want to be a vet. Santos wants that student to know now, in elementary school, that they’ll have to attend college and then veterinary school to become a vet. The earlier the student knows what they’ll have to do to qualify for that job, the better chance they’ll have at preparing for it, Santos said.

“It’s kind of making them aware of their options, and what they need to do now,” she said.

Last year, Isom Elementary’s teachers had optional lessons they could use with their students during the fall semester’s College Go! Week, during which kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers are encouraged to find ways to talk with their students about colleges, majors and careers they can consider. Santos already had those conversations with Isom Elementary’s fifth-graders, but this year she wants students in every grade to start thinking about going to college to prepare for their careers, she said.

Other Johnson County schools also have started talking with students as young as kindergarten about college. That includes Creekside Elementary in Franklin, which has students in each grade take a field trip to a college every year. By the time students leave Creekside Elementary for fifth grade, they’ve already visited five college campuses: Franklin College, Marian University, Butler University, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Indiana University in Bloomington.

“We do that in order to make sure our kids are starting to think about college, even at this age,” Creekside Principal Mark Heiden said.

This summer, Santos attended a conference with other middle and high school counselors who discussed what needs to change in elementary, middle and high school to better prepare students for college.

Right now, a big concern among counselors is that college students don’t take a full 15 credits each semester, partly because they’re unsure of what they want to study. That means that have to stay in college longer to earn their degrees, meaning they either have to pay more for their bachelor’s degree or, if they can’t afford to stay in college, drop out, Santos said.

“The main concern in general it seems is that the kids start college, but they don’t finish it,” she said.

That’s why Santos wants Isom Elementary’s students to start talking with their teachers and school officials earlier about what kinds of careers they want. If students know the answers to those questions earlier, they can work earlier and faster to achieve those goals, Santos said.

Teachers have been trying to get more students to think about options other than traditional four-year colleges, such as associate’s degrees or training certificates that will prepare them for the jobs they’ll want after graduation. Santos and Heiden know that not every elementary school student will want or need a bachelor’s degree; but getting students thinking about college now means they’ll be prepared as seniors for whatever kind of training they’ll need next, they said.

“I think we push a lot, and the kids understand they have to go to college. But it’s just making them aware there are so many other options,” Santos said.

Santos knows that spending one week this fall talking about college won’t be enough to ensure all 400 of Isom Elementary’s students are regularly thinking about and working toward college. That’s why she’s working now to create follow-up lessons she and other teachers will be able to use during second semester, and throughout the school year.

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