Career prep: A bold experiment that recasts high school

June 8, 2022

When Tahani Alhanik graduates from high school this month, she’ll be leaving school armed with something many seniors struggle with: a concrete plan for what happens next.

Alhanik’s big dream is to become a nurse, and, in fact, she has a huge running start. For the past few years, she’s been taking an advanced health curriculum through Fordson High School’s Michael Berry Career Center in Dearborn, a specialized school where students can explore what they’re interested in as early as their sophomore years. 

For Alhanik, that meant getting to work with veteran health instructors and medical equipment way before she started filling out college applications. That’s not only given her a head start on her education, but a ton of confidence that nursing is indeed something she would like to do. In January, she even started a dual enrollment program through Henry Ford College that’s enabling her to earn credits for her nursing program, which she plans to enter this fall. 

“Coming to Michael Berry is honestly the best choice I’ve ever made. It just opened like a whole new path to me, to many careers,” Alhanik said. “And it’s just the process is amazing, and it’s very challenging. I don’t just sit in a classroom. I literally get up and do many things with my classmates and the teachers who are amazing and they teach you many, many things.” 

UM-Dearborn alumna Heyam Alcodray is Fordson's principal.
UM-Dearborn alumna Heyam Alcodray is Fordson’s principal.

A story like Alhanik’s is music to the ears of her principal, UM-Dearborn alumna Heyam Alcodray. A few years ago, when Alcodray took over as Fordson’s principal, she came in with a vision that dared to ask the very basic, but also very bold question, “What’s the point of a high school education anyway?” 

The image of a principal who questions the very purpose of high school risks painting her as the laid-back adult who’s trying to score cool points with the kids by echoing their common gripe. But Alcodray, who’s also a doctoral candidate in UM-Dearborn’s Ed.D. program, is serious by nature and means the question literally. She was particularly troubled by students who other principals might hold up as success stories: The ones who simply make it to the finish line. To her, a diploma is not nearly enough. 

“I remember my first graduation day as principal at Fordson. I was walking around, chatting with students, saying, ‘Congratulations, guys!’ And this one particular group of students said to me: ‘Thanks. But we really have no idea what we’re supposed to do now.’ The reality is, graduation day can be a stressful time for students. I’ve seen it.” 

It’s the day, she says, when it hits home that the next move is theirs.

Alcodray’s anecdote demonstrates that one way to frame the question of what kids should be doing in high school is to ask what they should aim for after it. The latter is a complex issue in itself. Alcodray is skeptical of placing the emphasis on graduation because a high school diploma is no longer a reliable ticket to a lasting career with a comfortable income and hasn’t been for a while. 

The Bon Appetit Restaurant at the Michael Berry Career Center is real-world culinary arts training for students.
The Bon Appetit Restaurant at the Michael Berry Career Center is real-world culinary arts training for students.

She also finds inadequate the educational paradigm that seemed to replace it—that high school should be preparing every student to go to college. For starters, she says the rising cost of higher education is putting college out of reach for many working families (at Fordson, more than 80% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch). 

And many students and educators are seeing viable career options in the skilled trades and manufacturing—where labor shortages are real, the wages can be solid and there’s often no requirement for a traditional four-year degree.

Given these new realities, Alcodray argues high schools can’t afford to be focused exclusively on college prep or graduation rates. Rather, their core purpose should be to adequately prepare students for “what next.” And what’s next, whether it be college or something else, should be defined in terms of the spectrum of real opportunities that’s likely to greet students post-graduation day.

What that looks like in practice at Fordson is still a work in progress. But since Alcodray took over in 2016, they’ve put enough pieces in place to see that it’s a more focused, economically responsive version of the high school than the one many of us remember. 

Ninth grade is arguably the most radically refocused year, a time where 14-year-olds are asked to think seriously about what they’d like to do with their lives (Alcodray says 8th grade would be even better). She describes its core purpose not in terms of the achievement of particular math, language arts or science benchmarks but as “career exploration.” 

A student’s freshman year is peppered with field trips to employers and area universities, so they can experience what the current world of work and college looks like. It’s also the time when they start to chart out a path for their other three years, primarily by taking tests that clarify their interests and aptitudes. When the two don’t align, there are real-talk sessions with counselors to reconcile the two. 

If a student, say, wants to be a doctor, but struggles with science, a counselor will make sure they know that either science needs to be prioritized or different career options need to be considered. Fordson’s 2,700 students receive individualized attention throughout their student careers.

Each subsequent year takes a student closer to their chosen target, almost as if completing a college major. A kid who’s aiming to study at a four-year university might fill their junior- and senior-year schedule with AP or dual-enrollment courses. 

A student on a career-focused track might concentrate instead on electives tailored for entering a skilled trades program. But teachers and administrators have taken special care not to separate the college- and career-bound students. As at the university level, subject areas are the main distinctions. At Fordson, the curriculum is organized into four academies—any of which can accommodate a college- or career-focused student. 

The health sciences academy, for example, is filled with kids who want to be doctors, but also future dental hygienists. Likewise, the engineering academy’s course list features both AP calculus and shop. And notably, shop class at Fordson starts with the sounds of a geometry lecture, not power tools. 

A variety of extracurriculars supplement the core curriculum. Career days and guest speeches from recent graduates are frequent in all grades, as are monthly soft skills lessons in professionalism, communication and digital citizenship. Juniors attend a “reality financial fair” to build financial literacy. 

11th grade career talk at the Michael Berry Career Center.
11th grade career talk at the Michael Berry Career Center.

Seniors do mock job interviews with real employers. Teachers are also asked to do employer visits so their knowledge of the region’s economic opportunities isn’t just theoretical. Alcodray says there are even plans to start a teacher summer internship program, which could further strengthen the school’s relationships with area employers—and supplement teacher incomes.

The hope, of course, is this greater focus on life after high school can lead to better outcomes for students when they’re young adults. Alcodray says it may still be several years before they have some real data on whether that’s happening; her first group of academies students just graduated in 2020. But she’s already seeing some evidence that this version of high school is getting some buy-in. 

To keep the curriculum in sync with the real economy, teachers and administrators consult with more than 200 area businesses and nonprofit partners. And some of those businesses have started recruiting Fordson students while they’re still in high school—often with the promise of jobs and employer-paid training or college tuition. 

Fordson is also starting to get inquiries from other schools about how their big curriculum experiment is going.

Kids and their families are starting to see the advantages, too. Alcodray says a common stereotype of the early-generation American population her school mainly serves is that the parents all want their kids to be “doctors, lawyers or pharmacists.” There is some truth to that, she admits. But the message of solid jobs that don’t require a traditional four-year degree seems to be slowly getting through. 

Many of the career-related courses are now serving more students than ever. Some have a waiting list. Such metrics complement the graduation-day conversations with students Alcodray uses to informally gauge whether things are heading in the right direction. 

If she and the school are doing everything they can, then every student will have a clear answer about what college they’ve gotten into, what trade they’re apprenticing in or, at least, a specific plan for what’s next.

For graduating senior Sami Klait, the future involves heading to business school next fall to study marketing and accounting.
For graduating senior Sami Klait, the future involves heading to business school next fall to study marketing and accounting.

For graduating senior Sami Klait, that plan involves heading to business school next fall to study marketing and accounting. For the past few years, he’s been taking classes at Fordson with college-esque titles like “Advanced Social Media Marketing” and “Accounting III.” 

He’ll be the first person in his family to attend a university, and the ultimate dream is to team up with his dad to reopen their butcher shop. His father has practiced that art since he was 6 years old, and came to the United States to open a meat market with his brothers. 

But Klait said his dad didn’t know much about marketing or taxes, so things ultimately didn’t work out. Klait’s hoping that with his newly gained business savvy, he’s already well on his way to building what could be the missing ingredient—not only for his future, but his family’s.