Eagle Co. kids picking majors in middle school | VailDaily.com

Eagle Co. kids picking majors in middle school

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyGuidance counselor Nita Kirwan, right, helps Manuel Soto, 15, register on the CollegeinColorado.org Web site as a start to getting Soto and other middle school students thinking about college.

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Tania Gastelum wants to be a doctor someday. Or maybe a cosmetologist.

Her friend Diana Solis says she wants to be a lawyer. She thinks.

They both have a destination in mind: University of Colorado, Boulder.

Neither of these Berry Creek Middle School students know for sure now, and they both think it’s a little strange to be thinking that far into the future. Still, the fact that they’re putting serious thought into college is a big step for a couple of eighth graders.

Middle schoolers are in the awkward position of being years away from even applying to colleges, but in the increasingly competitive world of college admissions, they’re also at a point where they’ll fall behind if they don’t start preparing now.

Middle schools in Eagle County are recognizing the need for early intervention and are finding more class time than ever to teach kids about the importance of college, how to apply, how to find money and how to figure out what exactly they want to do with their lives. Middle school is not too early, apparently, to pick a major.

“We know that kids who have information about college at an earlier age are at an advantage over kids who just start to think about it when they are juniors in high school,” said Robin Santoro, a guidance counselor at Eagle Valley Middle School.

Many students walk into high school with the idea of college beaten into their jumbled, adolescent brains, already knowing which advanced placement courses, extracurricular activities and volunteer jobs they need to be good engineering students at MIT.

Other students though don’t even think about college until junior prom. Or they don’t think about it at all. Santoro said she worked for 10 years as a high school counselor in an affluent New York suburb where most freshmen came into the school knowing they would go to college, mostly because their parents went to college.

Things are little different in Eagle County. Santoro said about 45 percent of sixth and seventh graders surveyed at Eagle Valley and Gypsum Creek middle schools have parents who didn’t graduate from college.

“They don’t have this information flowing in the family, how you navigate the post-secondary education system,” Santoro said. “They are at greater risk of never attending in the first place and dropping out if they do attend.”

So for middle school kids, just getting their minds to think about the future gives them a big advantage, says Nita Kirwan, a counselor at Berry Creek Middle School. For many students without college graduates in the family, college isn’t a topic of conversation in households, and many kids assume they don’t have the money to do it.

“A lot of kids don’t know they can go to college, but explaining to them that they can is gold,” Kirwan said.

Students at Berry Creek spent a class period on Thursday signing up for a Website called collegeincolorado.org, a popular site for middle school kids wanting to learn about college.

On this Web site, the students spent 20 minutes or so taking one of those self assessments you might remember taking at a career fair. They ask you rank the importance of statements like, “I make use of my abilities,” “I could try out my own ideas” or “I could plan my work with little supervision.”

Eighth graders at Eagle Valley Middle have much more extensive project going in their technology classes. They’re expected to develop a Power Point presentation showing hours of research on their futures. They have to think of three possible careers they’re interested in, pick their favorite, research three colleges that would be good for that career, look up things like tuition, scholarships and financial aid opportunities, and even do interviews with people who have made careers in that field.

Santoro said the students end up knowing a lot more about those dreams jobs they’ve had as a kid, and many end up changing their mind when they see what’s involved. Or, many of them are turned onto careers they never thought of, she said.

Getting kids pumped about their careers also helps them in school by giving them a sense of purpose, Santoro said.

“Kids always ask, ‘Why do I have to learn this,’ but when kids come to school knowing they are preparing for something relevant, then all their education is more relevant,” she said.

Just as important as getting the kids stoked for their future careers is familiarizing them with the endless bureaucracy of college life ” the SATs, ACTs, FASFAs, AP courses, GPAs and all sorts of other nonsensical acronyms that mean nothing to a sixth grader.

In middle school, a student should be thinking of what classes they should take in high school, which will better prepare them for the classes they want to take in college. They should be thinking about financial aid, hunting for scholarships, nailing down grants and all around getting familiar with the long application process for schools and money.

While they don’t need to know how exactly how to do everything now, they just need to become familiar with the jargon, Santoro said.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.

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