High school in itself is a big change. Current eighth-graders that will be making that leap to freshman year in the fall will be adjusting both to a new school setting and also a new set of graduation pathways set to become the new standard with the class of 2023.

In with the new

The new pathways system, per materials from the Indiana Department of Education, will allow students to utilize alternative routes to their diploma that don’t exclusively involve passing the state’s standardized test.

As a result, students eyeing futures that involve vocational skills and certifications, as opposed to attending college, will be able to pursue those types of instruction during their high school years and receive credits that will allow them to graduate with their classmates.

Students will also be expected to demonstrate employability skills through work-, service- or project-based learning. These requirements, as explained by local guidance counselors, might be fulfilled through service projects, out-of-school employment and even involvement on a sports team.

“This is beneficial for students who don’t do so well on standardized tests,” Sarah Maynard, guidance counselor at Columbia City High School, said. “College isn’t for everybody, but we need to make sure each individual has a pathway for after high school.”

Sondra Cook, Churubusco High School guidance counselor, admitted that they don’t have concrete numbers yet, but she predicted that about 25 to 30 percent of Churubusco students will likely seek out those alternative routes. At Whitko Community Schools, director of curriculum Ward Lamon also estimated that about 30 percent of Whitko students would take advantage of these new work-based pathways as opposed to the traditional “graduation qualifying exam” route. CCHS principal Jennifer Reiff stated that she had an estimate of about 20 percent of students doing so.

While these pathways may muster up enthusiasm for education in students not interested in the college-going mindset, Cook still has concerns about the finality of decisions these students are asked to make only halfway through their high-school career.

“I feel like the pathways are missing students who are not quite sure what they want to do by the end of high school,” Cook said. “Part of high school is trying to explore and figure out what you want to do. … They’re not bad students. They just don’t know what they want to do yet and they have to make a decision by 10th grade in order to graduate with a pathway.”

Plotting the new path

Educators have been preparing students for this new pathway system since word was handed down from the state about its implementation for the class of 2023. Teachers and counselors have already started conversations in the classroom to help students understand what to expect in high school and to encourage them to start exploring potential options on their own. Districts have also utilized family information sessions and documents sent home with students to outline the new requirements and answer questions.

Ahead of their arrival at the high school in the fall, eighth-graders at Indian Springs Middle School will be meeting with high school counselors, like Maynard, in February to pick out classes and start the process of determining the best pathway for them. Cook added that she has also met with all of the incoming freshmen to help set them up for success starting day one.

“It’s such a big change,” Cook said. “It’s confusing if you’re new to high school anyway, but even if you aren’t, it’s confusing because now it’s not just one thing. There are options and we’re making sure they’re aware of the options and what they need to do in high school to graduate.”

Schools are not only tasked with quelling the concerns of nervous students, but also those of nervous parents who will be navigating this new system alongside their child. For many parents, this is a far cry from the graduation policies they encountered during their high school years. Open lines of communication between the students and the school has been their best solution to the concerns.

“I think parents and students knowing about (the pathways) is going to be the major struggle,” Maynard said. “It’s just getting the word out and making sure we meet with each student each year to do course selection.”

Faculty and staff have had to go through some training of their own to familiarize themselves with these new pathways and how it will impact their students in the future. Most schools began discussions last year before the pathways were finalized in order to get ahead of the deluge of information that would come down once the guidelines were locked in.

“It’s so much information that you have to make sure you don’t get lost in the minutia,” Reiff said. “(There) is a whole lot of individualization and we have conversation to make sure we don’t let any kids fall through the cracks or put all of their eggs in one basket.”

As the curriculum changes to fit this new pathway model, so will the role of teachers.

“Teachers are taking on some more of a counselor role,” Reiff said. “As teachers, they’re going to be more familiar with what options kids have available to them. They’ll be in conversations with kids as well about what they want to pursue and how teachers can help them pursue that.”

Guidance counselors have always been a part of the post-secondary planning process with students, but doing so with the new pathways has tasked them with adjusting their practices. Both Cook and Maynard advised that they don’t see their roles at their respective schools changing drastically, but that there will be more involvement with student pertaining to the logging of activities that can go toward a student’s diploma.

“There’s going to be some different conversations as we talk about what classes they could take,” Cook said. “Or, with students that maybe aren’t going to be able to meet that third box, about maybe looking into some options of joining concentrator or going to the career center to look into that pathway.”

Graduation growing pains

As with any sort of major change, there is an expected amount of anxiety and pushback from parents and students who fear that this new system will leave them at a disadvantage. For example, current high school students have different requirements under the pathways system than the incoming freshman will.

“The uncertainty of it all I think is the biggest concern,” Lamon said. “They are worried that this is the pathway now, but is that going to change? We assure them we are working based on (Every Student Succeeds Act) guidelines and it isn’t going to change. There may be different assessment attached to it along the line but it won’t change.”

Reiff emphasized the need for patience and communication during the early weeks of this new program, noting that she expects tweaks and changes to be made throughout the years as legislators further discuss the pathways during their legislative session. Once students, parents and educators alike settle into this new normal, though, Lamon is confident that this new way of looking at academic success will have a positive impact in the classroom.

“Obviously with anything new there’s apprehension in the beginning,” Lamon said. “I think this will change how students look at post-senior high school. College and technical schools, maybe they’ll be seen on the same footing and in a similar view.”