Lafayette High School students sat in an open area in the guidance office, chatting about their schedules, college costs and plans after high school.
Surrounded by banners from colleges and universities nationwide, a few tinkered on their cell phones, while others worked on tablets and desktop computers. Students used their free period to plan and some waited for appointments with school counselors on a recent school day.
Three seniors, Hance Gareis, Griffin Schobel and Jakeria Crocker, all agreed February is a hectic month. The students and their friends are concentrating on their last months of high school and preparing for two or four-year colleges.
Gareis wants to be a lawyer. Schobel's friends are interested in medical jobs — anything that involves being a doctor. Crocker's peers want careers biology, math and sciences.
Popular career paths for Williamsburg-James City County students vary from year to year, depend on many factors, W-JCC Coordinator of School Counseling Programs Liz Parker said.
"There are many different variables that go into a student's course selection. Some courses are prerequisites, some courses are required to meet VDOE (Virginia Department of Education) graduation requirements," Parker said.
As the division's counseling lead, Parker said trends are hard to pin down. Learning plans are highly individualized, and based on skills, diploma requirements, academic achievements, teacher/counselor recommendations, as well as career and personal goals, she added.
"It starts with requests from students, and we come on from there," Parker said. "We review the Program of Studies every year and try to make sure we're offering classes W-JCC students really want to take," Parker said.
The division's three high schools — Lafayette, Jamestown and Warhill and it's three middle schools, Lois B. Hornsby, Toano, Berkeley — all use the Program of Studies to select class schedules.
Much like a college course schedule, the Program of Studies details available classes. Classes offered to middle and high school students teach skills split into 16 career clusters, or groups of occupations, set by the Virginia Department of Education.
In February, W-JCC students submit requests online for courses they're interested in taking. If the classes are not available at one school, students have the option of W-JCC Virtual Learning, which offers distance learning and Virtual Virginia, a statewide online academy from the Virginia Department of Education.
Program of Studies
The division's course offerings are reviewed each year and amended every two years. This month, W-JCC School Board approved a revised Program of Studies with an updated section describing New Horizons Regional Education Center courses, added a description for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses and made changes to middle and high school course descriptions.
Division officials removed classes with waning enrollment, Medical Terminology and three others — Office Specialist I, II and III, Office Administration — which taught typing and Microsoft Office skills which have been integrated into several other courses
"A course is proposed to be removed from the (Program of Studies) if it has received little or no enrollment for three years or more," Parker said. The medical terminology class was dropped because it was difficult to staff, she added.
In a previous Program of Studies revision, the division dropped Introduction to Engineering, which was not offered at W-JCC high schools after 2013, and replaced it with an updated class, Engineering Exploration.
Classes may appear to be dropped from the Program of Studies, but still exist in another form. Some have evolved over the years as students' needs and society has changed, Lafayette Lead School Counselor Suzanne Hart said.
What some consider wood shop or metal working class is now a technology inventions or engineering class. Students use drafting programs to create something, then build it in class, Hart said.
"Old shop class is gone, but the teachers who taught those classes are not — they're teaching pre-engineering classes now," Hart said.
In the thick of it
Lafayette Counselor Leigh Pottle smoothly navigated through a group of students crowding into the guidance office after the bell rang Friday.
She advised one student on filling out a scheduling form and when to turn it in, waved to another who she'd previously counseled, and told her next appointment they were a bit early, but she'd be right with them.
Pottle was a counselor at Jamestown High School, but began working at Lafayette last year. February is one of her busiest months — it's when students are preparing schedules for next year, college-bound seniors are battling anxiety over college acceptances and parents are coming in to discuss their child's future.
Many of her students are considering psychology, sociology and other liberal arts degrees. Another large chunk is looking at electrical and other engineering specialties, she said.
The boom in students interested in forensic science because of television shows like "CSI" and "Bones" seems to have evened out. Many students now want to be doctors, registered nurses and hospital administrators, Pottle said.
"I noticed a drop in students interested in New Horizons (in the last few years), but now they're coming back really strong," Pottle said. About 71 W-JCC high-school students attend classes at New Horizon's campus in Hampton, division officials said.
The counselor credits the rise in vocational education with worries students have about student loan debt. "College is so expensive right now, so they're looking at other career options," Pottle said.
She's consistently seen a smaller group interested in becoming teachers, but the number has been even lower in recent years.
"It kind of makes me sad, because I wanted to be a teacher since I was very young," Pottle said. She taught for several years in the division before becoming a school counselor.
Hart, who's been a counselor for decades, said she's seen a drop in the number of students choosing to pursue business degrees. Fewer students want to be attorneys, she said.
"The number of students who want to be teachers has never been really high, but we are seeing a small drop there," Hart said. Engineering, sports medicine and physical therapy continue to be career clusters that attract a high numbers, the counselor added.
She's seen more of an interest in trades like heating and ventilation services, carpentry and plumbing. Hart has also had more students start at community college.
"We always have had a number of students choose this option because academics, to get their grades up before they transfer, but now we're seeing it more because of the costs," Hart said.
For Lafayette's three seniors — Gareis, Schobel and Crocker — they used the Program of Studies for the last time in 2015 to select the classes for their final year in high school.
The three are on their way to a four-year college, waiting for acceptance letters from their "top tier" schools, after being accepted to their second and third choices already, they said.
"The schools here offer enough classes that you can pick out want you really want to do," Schobel said.
Canty can be reached at (757) 345-2341.
Upcoming dates for W-JCC students and parents
Feb. 1 – middle and high school
Feb. 15 – evening parent information sessions, curriculum fairs
Feb. 22 – course request window opens for all rising sixth to eighth grade students
Virginia's 16 career clusters
Career clusters are groups of occupations Virginia students can choose from as their course of study. They are:
Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources
Architecture and construction
Arts Audio/Visual Technology and Communications
Business Management and Administration
Education and training
Government and public Administration
Hospitality and tourism
Law, public safety, corrections and security
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics
Transportation, distribution and logistics
Source: Virginia Department of Education