Two Into One: White River Valley middle schoolers keep eyes on careers

  • White River Valley Middle School eighth-grader Asia Sheldon helps first-graders Hunter Mears and Bella LaPorte with a math lesson on Wednesday, May 8, 2019 in Bethel, Vt. Sheldon has been helping in the elementary school during the school year. She is interested in a career in the childcare field. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • White River Valley School eighth-graders Tarin Jones, left, Asia Sheldon, and Sam Slack discuss where to go next during their tour of Keene State College, on Thursday, April 10, 2019 in Keene, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • School counselor Nicole LaMothe helps students plot a timeline of the typical American’s life with a large part of time devoted to work in her career class at White River Valley Middle School on Friday, April 5, 2019 in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • White River Valley Middle School students Asia Sheldon, left, Aliiah Ensminger and Casey Zisselsberger ask questions about Keene State College with assistant theater professor Jeannie-Marie Brown on Thursday, April 10, 2019 in Keene N.H. Caitlin Peacock a student at the Barre City Elementary and Middle school is on the right. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Middle school students from Vermont start their tour of Keene State College on Thursday, April 10, 2019 in Keene N.H. First generation potential college-bound students were on the college campus to see what going to college might be like. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • Anne Kaplan, of the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation's Talent Search Program helps White River Valley Middle School eighth-grader Jillian Barry during a career class on Friday, April 5, 2019 in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • White River Valley Middle School students Aliiah Ensminger, left, and Casey Zisselsberger ask Keene State College student Jake Allen a question as he entered a dining hall on campus on Thursday, April 10, 2019 in Keene, N.H. With them is school counselor Nicole LaMothe. The students were part of a group of students from Vermont visiting the college. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/11/2019 10:29:09 PM
Modified: 5/12/2019 8:11:51 AM

Nicole LaMothe stood bracketed by the newest batch of eighth-graders enrolled in her class at White River Valley Middle School, setting the stage for her students to think about one of the biggest decisions of their lives.

“How many of you know exactly what you want to do for the next 43 years?” she asked.

As a school counselor, LaMothe wasn’t filling her typical role. But little about this school year has been typical.

Last fall, middle schoolers from the neighboring towns of Bethel and Royalton became classmates, following the merger of their districts into the new White River Valley School District. One of 19 new districts formed so far in response to Act 46, Vermont’s controversial 2015 school consolidation law, the White River Valley district restructured its facilities so the former Whitcomb Jr.-Sr. High School became the new middle school.

The merger has given the school community the rare chance to build a middle school from scratch, creating a vision for teachers, staff and students and piloting new strategies and programs.

One of those new programs is career class, a trimester-long course that helps students identify professional paths that interest them and explore those paths in depth. Designed in part to meet the requirements of Vermont’s 2013 “flexible pathways” legislation, the class also aligns with new research that urges educators to begin active career planning no later than middle school.

Though the concept of career planning in middle school isn’t entirely new, White River Valley is unusual in having a class dedicated to exploring the world of work, said Anne Kaplan, who works with several area middle schools as part of the Vermont Student Assistance Corp.’s Talent Search, a federally funded program intended to help get more students whose parents didn’t attend college, and who come from families of modest means, to enroll in college.

“It’s just to begin to get them to think about, ‘What do you want to do with your life after school?’ and find ways to help them learn about the options that they have,” said Kaplan, who’s assisting with White River Valley’s career class. “And hopefully it also motivates them to find in school the path that’s going to help them stay motivated so that they can be successful.”

Big decisions

What do you want to be when you grow up?

It’s a question put to every child old enough to push a toy fire truck around the floor. Some people know the answer from day one, and others take the better part of a lifetime trying to figure it out.

At ages 12 and 13, LaMothe’s seventh- and eighth-graders have been fielding that question for a while and are more than halfway to the work world, depending on the level of education they’ll attain. Some know the answer with certainty, and others haven’t a clue.

“I know in eighth grade you might think, ‘Wait, I have to pick what I’m going to do for the rest of my life now?’ ” LaMothe told the 13 eighth-graders attending her weekly 45-minute career class last month. “No, not true.”

In the first week of class, LaMothe had led the students in plotting the timeline of the typical American’s life and noting the chunk of time devoted to work. On this, their second week of class, they were choosing a career — not for life, necessarily, but for the duration of the trimester.

To start with, they each took an online assessment, rating their level of interest in activities ranging from building kitchen cabinets to developing a new medicine. Next, they could choose a profession from a list of best matches based on the assessment, or they could search for a different profession if their matches didn’t line up with their real-life ambitions.

LaMothe and Kaplan encouraged the students to stretch their imaginations while also taking the exercise seriously.

“It’s really important that you select a job today that really fits you ... that you can picture yourself doing,” LaMothe said.

Asia Sheldon, 14, of Bethel, chose child care worker. She’s already known for a while that she wants to work in child care.

“I love working with kids ... and everybody tells me that I’m good with kids,” she said.

Hers is not a common goal. A well-documented shortage of child care workers in Vermont has contributed to a lack of quality child care options for families. State agencies, nonprofits and postsecondary schools alike are looking for ways to attract more young people like Asia.

Morgan Jones, 14, of Royalton, chose auto mechanic. Like Asia, she didn’t really need the interest assessment to help her select her career.

“It’s like a family thing. I kind of just have my mind set on it,” said Morgan, whose father, brother and cousin are all auto mechanics and who has helped with tasks like replacing brakes and changing tires.

If she follows through on her plans, Morgan will be the first woman in her family to enter the field and part of a small but growing minority: About 10% of auto mechanics are women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Other students were less certain of their career paths, but by the end of the period had settled on a profession: interior designer, chef, veterinarian, psychologist.

In her work with young people, Kaplan hasn’t identified a particular age that’s best for choosing a career, and she’s cautious about having middle schoolers grow attached to a particular ambition.

“Developmentally, they’re not ready to make that choice,” she said. “But we want to help them understand that they need to begin thinking about who they are, what they’re interested in and what they enjoy doing.”

College visit

There is one fork in the road that tends to appear early in a young person’s life.

Research shows that middle school is a critical time for deciding whether or not to attend college, Kaplan said, especially for young people whose parents didn’t take that step.

With that research as rationale, a charter bus filled with roughly 30 middle schoolers from several Vermont schools pulled up at the admissions office at Keene State College one drizzly day last month. Among them were six students from White River Valley Middle School, selected because of their potential to be first-generation college students.

After splitting into small groups, the students didn’t head to lecture halls and labs, but fanned out across the campus on a self-directed scavenger hunt.

“I think the action-oriented approach is good,” said LaMothe, who, sporting walking shoes and a backpack, blended in among the students consulting maps and laminated note cards. “Middle schoolers take things in a little differently.”

Casey Zisselsberger, 13, a seventh-grader from Bethel who wants to be a police officer, hung back at first, letting other students handle the scavenger hunt questions. But by the time her group reached the dining center, the exuberant personality that’s on display in class began to emerge. When no one else wanted to ask what the Hoot ’n’ Scoot was, she approached a student who was entering the building and got her answer (a grab-and-go dining hub).

After that, Casey became one of the group’s de facto leaders, wandering up to strangers and, at one point, lingering at a front desk until someone came along who knew the answer to a difficult sports question.

Casey, whose grandfather was a police officer and who grew up watching police shows, said she knows she wants to attend a two-year criminal justice program, which she can’t find at Keene State.

But choosing a potential college wasn’t the point of the trip.

“We just want to help them imagine themselves on a college campus,” Kaplan said.

Fast forward

Last week, students in LaMothe’s career class jumped forward in time 10 years. After studying their chosen professions for several weeks, they were staging a five-year class reunion, mingling with their classmates and updating each other on their post-school lives.

“It just gets them thinking about their job in a different way,” LaMothe said.

With the school year winding down, the reunion also demonstrated the ways the students had — or hadn’t — fleshed out their ideas about their future professions and ambitions.

LaMothe is pleased that her students have engaged in some lively discussions about careers as well as related topics such as saving and spending and taxes. The class hasn’t necessarily ignited any particular student’s passion or crystallized anyone’s goals, she said, but she’s noticed that students are starting to show some interest in career paths.

“I think they’re definitely paying more attention,” she said.

Students like Morgan and Asia who had solid career goals coming into the class said the program had done little to enhance or change their plans.

But the focus on career paths at younger ages may prove beneficial in ways that are hard to measure. Asia said it was in her “gateways” class — a precursor to career class — last year that she decided to go to college. And somewhere along the line, she learned about the child care shortage, a finding that factored into her career plan.

Whether career class had any lasting impact might be a question best saved for real-life class reunions. Identifying pivotal moments in life often requires some hindsight.

“With this age of students, you hope you’re planting little seeds,” Kaplan said. “It’s always hard to know how much sticks.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at and 603-727-3268.

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