Introductory Note: This interview with Chris Duchene of Guidance Services at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School is re-created from extensive notes taken during the interview, primarily attempting to capture the voice of the responses.
This interview took place on May 10, 2013.
FM: Participants reported generally that school career counseling was not helpful in them deciding what they wanted to do. This may be a case of under-reporting. What kind of assistance does the school offer?
Kids aren’t ready [at that age] to go to the math class, let alone decide what they want to be. Guidance isn't career counseling; rather that comes through trying various classes offered at the school, like the SHSM pathway for high risk kids (SHSM = specialist high skills major) which offers exposure to fields such as hospitality and tourism, environmental science, construction, and some others. They go on field trips and do two co-op credits in a related placement.
We also offer dual credits – they can acquire Fleming [community college] credits in fields such as hospitality, environmental or visual arts. This also gives them exposure to the college environment.
So, these high risk kids get help with career choices, but not from the Guidance Dept. They would not see the usefulness of a program that exposes them to possibilities such as assistance with choosing a career. A complication in the process is that they may love the program but they still need the mandatory academic courses, and lack of enthusiasm about that may be what makes them leave school, rather than continue.
Part of the program is to visit college programs – there is lot of money to run this program.
Career Class in Grade 10 is mandatory for all students. They do tests that identify what personality type they are; they also do tests that match their interests to careers that they then research. But even those tests are so generic that they’re an incomplete orientation. It’s difficult even for me to explain exactly what [some of these careers] are. For example, my daughter is going into kinesiology but doesn't have a clue what she'll end up doing; she has an idea but it may not be at all what her work turns out to be.
FM: Are they required to choose too young?
No. Our philosophy at this high school is that we will have met with everyone by the time they’ve graduated, and always have slipped in the conversation, "Where are you headed?" And we work with them to keep as many doors open as possible. For example, a kid could move from a plan to attend university to attending college, but not the opposite way, so we try to build as broad a foundation as possible and use optional courses to expose them to potential interests.
FM: The kids in my study were in school through the years most gutted by the Harris regime, which stripped the curriculum of many options that made school bearable for non-academic students. When did this attention to high risk kids start?
They’ve been well served since McGuinty came in. In this high school we figure 60-70% of our kids are hands-on students. Of 158 grads, about 28 are going to university (18%), 70-80 (47%) applied to college. The others will go to work or do apprenticeship.
Kids aren’t seeing the advantage of university any more. Unless they have an aptitude toward science at a university level, it’s not clear what they'll do when they graduate. We’re watching kids go to university and then back to college. Parents are the ones who encourage university – they don’t care what it takes, that’s what they want for their kid. Colleges got smart and developed programs for degreed people to give them practical skills. Colleges now offer applied degrees. Universities use colleges as part of their programs. It’s all about acquiring practical skills that make you hireable.
The downside is that univeristy-level kids going to college are going to bump the less academically competitive kids out. Like in nursing; it started with requiring an extra year in college as a preliminary year, and now it’s highly competitive to get in. Same in dental hygiene, paramedic, vet tech, nursing, fire fighting – the highly desirable programs are now getting filled by highly competitive students, and the less competitive have to find other options.
FM: What about imprecision of study choice? Students getting well into something and discovering it’s not what they want or like, or getting their qualifications and not being able to find work in that area.
Kids have to adapt the qualifications they have to make it fit the market. We’re pushing kids good in science into tech training because that’s where the work is. Still, those jobs aren’t that common. And you can’t come back home [and find a job in that field.]
FM: Are / how are rural kids disadvantaged?
They’re scared to go. Just because it’s not home. Where they’re apprehensive, where they lack the comfort level, is that they have not had the situation where they have had to start fresh with new people. Because they’ve been raised all their lives with people they know and who know them. So going away, having to start all over again, it’s scary.
In the cities, the higher numbers [of students in high school] make it a higher likelihood that you’ll know somebody at your [post-sec] school. [Urban youth] know how to look at different places to make friends. Our kids worry about making friends. Or they go to schools where there is already a bunch of local kids attending. There’s a group of kids from here who are in a specific place (Ottawa) that helps kids go off to college who otherwise wouldn't.
It would be good to have a college here that offers PSW [personal support worker], spa stuff, level one apprenticeships (techniques). [Rural youth] need to have [an easy path into making] a choice. They need a certificate to get them going in their chosen field [without leaving home].
FM: What about training in entrepreneurialism? What’s available there? Who does it?
Marketing and small business courses are tied into SHSM. Otherwise, kids wouldn't take business courses. But the skills [needed] are about selling your service, and starting your own business.
FM: Who teaches work ethic, value of an hour’s work for an hour’s pay? A well-established local construction person says it’s a crap shoot, figuring out who’s got it and who hasn’t.
Nobody teaches it. We need to pay more attention routinely to rewarding the process of learning rather than just the product. We’re in the habit of assessing outcomes which rewards product. And further complicating matters is that there is a sub-set of kids who doesn’t show at-risk behaviours until late in the game, grade 11 or so.
FM: Why is that? They look around and see what normal is and get scared? They get old enough to make decisions that are rebellious? Maybe it’s loss of hope: If they think they aren’t likely to be able to make it, for whatever reason, they screw up – you can’t fail if you don’t try.
Some are enabled to be disabled. When they get in trouble, it’s always the school’s fault. Then at some point the parent realizes it’s the kid’s fault and the kid is abandoned. Indulgent families: they’re hard families to deal with, parents with spoiled kids. The omnipotent kid: teachers cave in to them just to keep the family off their back.
FM: What’s the solution – tough love? Do you think there’s a return of the pendulum [to a more process-oriented educational system]?
We owe it to them to be closer to how real life operates. We need to give individualized responses; teachers’ extensive experience helps them know what to do with whom. We need to win one kid at a time. And sometimes one day at a time.
FM: Many participants wanted more extra-curricular activities, more choices, or just a place to hang out.
Transportation is the key. For kids who have transportation, there are lots of choices, no shortage of things to do. For the others; what can you do?
FM: I have this idea about enriching extracurricular and making it mandatory; such as a trip away every month throughout school, as a way of leveling the playing field. What do you think?
Kids don’t work hard because they lack the confidence – so anything we can to do to give kids confidence, the better learners you’re going to have. Probably every problem we have is confidence related. How do you get kids to show what they’re good at when the only show in town is school?
If in gr 6,7,8 we went back to technical training; if you can’t stream them academically in middle school, at least give them something to do they’re good at. Make it universally mandatory. When I was in junior high, we had home economics, and I was useless. We had to make an apron and I was hopeless, but the non-academic kid sitting next to me did it easily and well. It had to mean something to her that she was good at something I wasn’t, just as it was to me to experience being ‘dumb’. We must show kids how they’re smart – or let kids show us how they’re smart by creating the condition that allow them to do that. Desks, pens, paper are not the only way to be smart. If two-thirds of our kids are hands-on people, why do they not get a chance in grade 6/7/8 to experience that, have some fun, enjoy school? [If we did that], we’d have less mental health issues.
FM: Should everybody participate in tech training?
FM: Apprenticeships: They’re a complicated mess, and as far as I can see, kids are left pretty much to their own devices to figure it out. And these are kids who may lack confidence and ‘drive’ to plow their way through a sea of bureaucracy.
We have an advantage over urban centres. Because of the smallness of the school, kids get every service they could possibly get because you can’t fly under the radar. Any kid who openly needs service gets it; they have their opportunity to shine. We don’t want one person to say we didn’t try, we didn’t notice them. We offer opportunities to show them how they’re strong, how they can grow as people. But school every day and nothing except school is not enough. Fixing the 4-wheeler at home goes only so far with teaching confidence.
Kids may not be able to articulate that they get career counseling, but they get career influence. It’s experience that leads you to where you go. School plus jobs – that’s how you get to what you want to do. For example, my experience in the travel industry taught me I was good at and enjoyed problem solving, which I didn’t know before. But now I use it in a different field: Same skill, different application.
FM: Victory laps – I hear there are new regulations pending that will include a cost. Will that affect kids here?
Right now kids can come back if they have an interview with the principal and prove that they have a good reason to come back, not just goofing around so you can play football – it’s a privilege not a right. I can tell when kids are going off to college and I know they’re not ready – but I can’t say so. Parents get on my case if don’t support what they want.