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Texas Students Choose Career Paths In The Eighth Grade, And That's Creating Anxiety

Shelley Kofler
Under a new law, Fort Worth eighth-grader Dorothy Isgur must choose a career track before entering high school.

A new Texas law requires public school students to decide a career track in eighth grade. It’s a sea change with challenges for schools -- and some anxiety for kids.

Before this school year ends, nearly 400,000 eighth graders in Texas will have chosen to enroll in one of five specific areas of study adopted by state lawmakers under House Bill 5.

There’s STEM, which stands for science, technology engineering and math; business and industry; public service; arts and humanities and a category with mostly advanced courses called multidisciplinary studies. 

The choice eighth graders are required to make is huge. It will determine which courses they begin taking when they enter high school this fall. 

It’s like being asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

But for real.

Sabrina Schramm, a 14-year-old in Fort Worth, already knows what she wants to do.

“I would like to either do something in photography or in digital media, having to do with making movies and stuff,” she said.

But not all of her classmates at the Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Fort Worth are so sure. 

“I have no clue what I want to do but hopefully it will come to me,” said Dorothy Isgur, an A student who admits that choosing a career path in eighth grade is stressful.

“It’s a lot of pressure," she said. "You don’t want to make a bad decision because once you’re on a path you should stay on that path."

Helping Dorothy and Sabrina decide where they’ll specialize is their counselor Bethanie Skipper. She makes sure they know all students get the same basic courses -- and if they want to change their specialty during high school, they can.

Skipper also deals with the anxiety some young teens feel when faced with choosing from a catalog of courses and charting a path to employment still years away.

“You’re picking a choice, but I’ll tell you right now this doesn’t mean we’re with this to the very end," Skipper said. "We’re just going to take these classes and if we need to make a change we go back to the drawing board.” 

More counselors needed with new law

Skipper admits her biggest challenge is in the numbers. She alone helps 285 students. She tries to meet with each of the eighth graders individually at least once. Then she holds group meetings, parent nights and sends information to the students’ homes.

State Board of Education Chair Barbara Cargill recently told state lawmakers on the House Public Education Committee the counselor-to-student ratio statewide is even higher: 1-to-400. With the eighth-grade mandate, that worries her.

“They (counselors) will meet with a whole class of students,” Cargill told lawmakers. “So you’ll have one counselor meeting with maybe the English class. How does that individual student understand the effect of not taking the foreign language class? Will they understand that somewhere down the road their college requires that?” 

State Board of Education members recently sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to provide more money in the next state budget to hire additional counselors.

“The increased flexibility in the high school graduation program demands extensive interaction with school counselors,” they said in the letter dated April 11.

While Fort Worth says it’s scrambling some to make sure parents and students understand the new process, Deputy Superintendent Michael Sorum says the transition has been smooth. Fort Worth’s high schools already steer students toward areas of specialization.

Career paths could reduce dropout rate

Sorum likes the philosophy behind the new career paths because he believes they may prevent students from dropping out at a crucial time.

“There’s a huge problem with children nationally getting into high school in their ninth-grade year and failing a lot of their courses,” Sorum said. “I’d much rather launch them into high school with some direction so that they become some part of a community with a goal in mind, as opposed to just saying, 'I’m a ninth-grader, welcome to high school, sink or swim.'”

Fort Worth’s high schools will offer all of the five career specialties known as endorsements, but not at every school. The Young Women’s Leadership Academy will offer three.  

Both Sabrina and Dorothy have chosen to focus on digital media studies, which will lead to diplomas with endorsements in the business and industry track.

For next fall, Dorothy says she just went with what interests her right now, knowing she may change her mind and direction.

“I might want to choose a way different path like being a lawyer or something like that,” she said.   

At age 14, she isn’t ready to decide.

Read the letter that requests funding for more counselors

State Board Letter

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.