In past years, Oliver De La Via’s parents have encouraged him to take rigorous classes but have given him little input as to what courses would best suit his interests and talents.
“It was all on my shoulders,” said De La Via, an 8th grader at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, whose parents grew up in Bolivia and emigrated to Arlington before he was born. “No one really talked about it in my family. I had to tell them what I was going to take.”
Now, as De La Via plans for his freshman year at Washington-Lee High School, Arlington school officials have begun implementing a new program designed to encourage parents to become more involved in their children’s educational choices, in an effort to boost student achievement.
As part of the school system’s new strategic plan, every student in grades six through 12 now develops an academic roadmap to help them chart the sequence of courses they need to graduate and assist them in tailoring their course load to meet their post-graduation plans.
“This lays out clearly the pieces of the puzzle [students] have to put together if they want to graduate,” said School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes.
Each year the students will meet at least once individually with their counselor to review their academic plan, and copies of the plan are sent home to parents to keep them updated on the possible courses their children can enroll in.
“The goal is to provide as much information to parents about the academic planning process as we can,” said Alvin Crawley, assistant superintendent for student services. “We want to make sure… that students go home to their parents and have discussions about these plans.”
Increased parental involvement will ensure that students are taking the courses required to graduate and keep them on track for completing either the standard or advanced diploma, school officials said.
Starting in 6th grade students can begin earning credits that count toward graduation, especially in foreign language offerings.
School officials said the planning process will help connect students with a wealth of resources outside the school, such as internships, mentorships and work experiences. Schools are exploring new ways to create partnerships with local businesses and colleges, Crawley added.
THE NEW PROGRAM will also benefit families, such as the De La Vias, who come from another country and are not as familiar with the American educational system. School counselors need to spend extra time with non-native parents in order to make this program a success, School Board member Frank Wilson said.
There is a separate academic plan for students enrolled in the ESOL/HILT program for non-native English speakers to help them achieve their scholastic goals
The school system has also launched a new Web site for the program to assist parents and students. It includes links to the student services homepage and the school system’s “College Corner.”
Since middle school students are often undecided when it comes to career and education aspirations, the academic plans are flexible, school officials said.
“The plan is a work in progress,” Crawley said. “It might begin in one place and end up somewhere else. It’s important to have that conversation, even if it is subject to change.”
During an interview with a group of five Thomas Jefferson eighth graders, the students gave mostly positive reviews of the new system.
Since Hannah Hayes’ has older siblings, her parents were already aware of the class choices she will have to make in high school. But the students who have not had an older brother or sister go through Arlington schools indicated that the counseling sessions have made it easier to pick the right classes.
“I’m an only child so I don’t have anyone else who can help me on this,” said Karla Gil. “This takes a lot of stress off me.”
Freddy Crawford, who will be taking engineering courses at Washington-Lee, agreed that revising his academic plan every year with a counselor would keep him focuses on his goals.
“I’m a procrastinator,” the lanky, blond eighth grader said. “By sending out this info it pushes me.”
Crawford believes that the regular meetings with counselors will encourage students to challenge themselves and strive for an advanced diploma.
Yet other students said there is a limit to how much this planning process can achieve.
“It depends on the kid,” Hayes said. “It’s helpful only if you want it to be helpful.”
The students interviewed did express some concern that they were rushed to choose their fall high school classes before they were ready to make a decision.
“I like to take my time and I felt a little rushed to decide everything I wanted,” Gil said.
Christine Fitzgerald, a counselor at Thomas Jefferson, concurred that the students were not given enough time to pick their classes for next year, but disagreed with the notion that the academic plans put too much pressure on young students to plot their future courses.
“If they decide they want something else, that’s OK,” Fitzgerald said. “They can leave their options open. We’re just opening their eyes to what is out there.”