Pocatello-Chubbuck emphasizes four-year learning plans

POCATELLO — Highland High School senior Madison Rausch is going for two firsts.

  1. She wants to be the first kid in her family to earn a college degree.
  2. She wants to be the first student in Pocatello-Chubbuck School District history to do it before graduating from high school.

She’s on track to make it happen, thanks largely to the district’s emphasis on college-and-career readiness.

A recent Idaho Education News investigation revealed that thousands of Idaho teens aren’t getting help from educators to navigate their high school and career learning options, even though it is required by law. Of the eight districts examined by Idaho Education News, Pocatello-Chubbuck emerged as the only one meeting a state mandate to develop four-year student-learning plans with every eighth grader.

The plans serve as a map for educational and career pursuits, and must be reviewed and updated annually with parent approval until students graduate.

In the Idaho Education News investigation, some school counselors questioned the requirement’s effectiveness and practicality, but educators and students in Pocatello-Chubbuck say creating and annually reviewing four-year learning plans helps kids stay on track to graduate and connect with a variety of pertinent postgraduate programs.

“I don’t think I’d already be a licensed CNA without the learning plans,” said Pocatello High School senior Skyler Stapleton.

Here’s a look at how Pocatello-Chubbuck creates and reviews the plans, which have emerged as a springboard to the district’s wider push to get more kids geared up for college.

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College-and-career advisors at each high school

Some $7 million in added funds from the Legislature since 2015 have given school districts across Idaho a chance to beef up their college-and-career advising efforts.

How districts use these “special distributions” of cash varies widely, but the bulk of Pocatello-Chubbuck’s $287,000 in 2017-18 (up by roughly $80,000 from 2016-17) enables the district to staff two full-time college-and-career advisers at each of its three large high schools: Highland, Pocatello and Century.

These advisers work under the direction of school counselors, who shoulder caseloads of up to 400 kids and are often bogged down by other administrative tasks.

“I think many counselors would love to focus solely on college-and-career advising,” Pocatello-Chubbuck director of secondary education Jen Harwood told Idaho Education News in September. “But other things — testing, mental health, class scheduling issues — often seem to get in the way.”

As a result, the district’s college-and-career advisers fill in by drafting four-year learning plans with incoming freshmen. These advisers also play a key role in reviewing and updating the plans annually with teens — a task that involves collaboration from teachers, counselors and parents.

“It’s a big process, not an event,” said Highland High School assistant principal Jenna Wilcox.

A collaborative effort to review the plans

Pocatello-Chubbuck’s four-year plans include a checklist of classes needed for graduation, including electives and other courses applicable to students’ postsecondary pursuits, if they’ve identified them.

Advisers and counselors help each incoming freshman complete their plan. These students are then assigned to a “homeroom” or advisory teacher, who keeps each of their students’ accompanying plans in a binder until graduation. Twice a year, teachers and advisers review and update the plans with their homeroom students.

In addition to reviewing and updating their plans, sophomores, juniors and seniors write “reflection” paragraphs about what they want to do after they graduate.

“It’s a good way to get them thinking about life after high school,” Wilcox said, adding that students can change their minds about their future plans whenever they want.

Meanwhile, college-and-career advisers conduct schoolwide surveys designed to match students with outside resources related to their interests, including career fairs, campus visits and scholarship information.

Students can attend events as long as they aren’t failing any classes or have any truancies, said Highland High School college-and-career adviser Mackenzie Smith.

Though Smith acknowledged that a large proportion of “high-performing” students typically take advantage of the events, a number of other students are catching on.

“I know some students go just to get out of class,” she said, “but a lot of times they’ll end up asking questions and show a lot of interest when they do attend.”

Sarah Bystrom, a first-year college-and-career adviser at Highland, recently completed a survey with roughly 300 students attending the district’s alternative high school, New Horizons. Though many of these students might not express interest in a four-year degree, Bystrom said, they are eager to develop postgraduate plans.

“I can identify with many of them,” Bystrum said. “I was never very academic myself, but many of these students still express interest in trade schools, apprenticeships and other things.”

Parents of incoming freshmen can attend a “parent night” at any district high school to look over their child’s plan. The district also sends both tangible and digital copies to parents whenever plans have been reviewed and updated, Smith said.

Improvements take time

It’s hard to say how much a heavier emphasis on learning plans has boosted college preparedness in Pocatello-Chubbuck — at least in terms of data.

Last year, just 47 percent of the district’s graduates had enrolled in some form of postsecondary program one year after graduating. By comparison, Idaho’s 2016 college go-on rate was 48 percent.

Church missions in Mormon-rich East Idaho could play a role in hampering Pocatello-Chubbuck’s first-year college go-on rates, and Wilcox stressed the district is only in its second year of staffing two college-and-career advisers at each high school to reinforce the push.

Though it will take time for the numbers to play out, Wilcox is adamant the conquest is helping.

“They are reaching kids who could flounder for at least a couple years after graduating,” Wilcox said.

Pocatello High School senior Andie Peck agreed.

“I wouldn’t know what the crap I’d be doing without (my four-year plan),” she said.

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