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More than one chance

November 20, 1998

How soon is it "too soon" for students to choose their life's career? For a group of West Virginia parents, it's the ninth grade. The debate is relevant because its involves a federally-funded program called "School to Work" which attempts to get students to think about their future life's work, and to sign up for courses that prepare them for it.

The problem, for the Coalition of Advocates for Responsible Education, a Fairmont, W.Va.-based parents' group, is that they fear school officials will push students to enter low-wage occupations based on the needs of industry, instead of what's best for students.

The bill, passed in 1996, takes effect in the upcoming school year and requires students entering the ninth grade to choose a general career interest. Its backers say it will lead more students to succeed, by pushing them to think earlier about the courses they need to succeed in their chosen fields.

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Detractors, however, suspect it will foreclose choices, and fear that the students who are inspired to follow (for example) a math-based career in the eleventh grade may find that it's too late to change directions.

We strongly suspect that the larger problem here, and the one this program addresses, is the large number of students who drift through school and don't think about a career until graduation. At that point, however, their choices are restricted because they probably haven't gotten the specialized training they need, a job which then falls to the state's community colleges or industry itself.

But what this program needs, if it's going to the parent support it needs to make it work, is some sort of escape mechanism. A student whose ninth-grade choice is rendered obsolete by a inspirational teacher two years later shouldn't be barred from following a new dream.

Not that it should be simple to switch - the aim of the program is to get students to choose - but if there's one theme that runs through the American experience, it's the one that says that a wrong turn isn't fatal and second chances are not only allowed, but encouraged.

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