Alena Wroe, a 17-year-old junior at Coronado High School, wants to be a pilot — though she fears she may be too short — or an orthopedic surgeon. Thanks to a 2009 state law that led Colorado Springs School District 11 to create a policy, which in turn led her school administrators, teachers and counselors to adopt new lessons, Wroe is feeling confident.
"At this point," she says, "I feel more prepared for my future than I did three months ago."
In fact, on a Thursday, she is bent over a computer, examining 16 responses to a survey she sent to medical professionals. They aren't quite what she expected, she says, especially the feedback about "the biggest challenge" they face on the job.
Wroe expected answers focused on the schooling, long hours or intellectual challenges inherent in the field. Instead, professionals told her they were frustrated dealing with the government when trying to get their patients care, or they struggled to remain compassionate to each patient.
"It's actually really helpful," she says of the survey. "It shows that it takes more than just skills to be good at something."
The program that's helped Wroe is called Individual Career Academic Plans, or ICAP. The plans became a requirement for high school students following the passage of 2009's Senate Bill 256, a K-12 funding bill. ICAPs are archived online, often on collegeincolorado.org.
Logan Laszczyk, D-11 postsecondary workforce readiness counselor, says each district has applied the law in its own way. D-11's ICAP involves identifying and supporting a child's strengths and interests; exploring post-secondary education and career options; aligning classes with goals; learning the application process to a variety of colleges, trade schools and the military; applying for financial aid; and learning real life skills.
D-11 uses the ICAP beginning in sixth grade. It's not, Laszczyk says, as if the district expects all 12-year-olds to know what they want to do in life. It's more about learning life skills and exploring interests. So if a kid is interested in art, her instructors can make sure she goes to a career fair and meets professional artists, or she gets into a graphic design class. If her interests change later on, that's OK — in fact, it's probably better that she figures that out early.
"College," Laszczyk says, "... can be the most expensive career exploration plan on the planet."
Laszczyk says ICAP's aim is to ensure kids have a path after graduation. Statewide, he says, some 20 to 30 percent of kids "melt away" after high school, meaning they don't have a job and aren't continuing their education. Colleges often complain that kids who do pursue further education are ill-prepared for the real world. It's a big enough problem that Mayor John Suthers recently recorded four public-service announcements urging kids to take advantage of what ICAP has to offer.
Back at Coronado, Wroe's IT teacher, Cindy Brandt, explains she used to teach just computer skills. She still does that, but now she's teaching kids how to write a resumé in Microsoft Word or how to create a budget for student loans in Microsoft Excel.
Vanessa Vatalaro, a Coronado counselor, says the school tries to create those ties in every class. So maybe while a kid is learning about Romeo and Juliet, she is also learning about communication and feelings, and how best to deal with those in a mature way.
It seems to be working. As Wroe puts it, "This actually teaches you how to be an adult."