Wrightson Ridge eighth-grader Bibianna Morales hadn't given much thought to a career when she stepped foot into Sara Mora's classroom in August. Today, she's leaning toward interior decorating.

Mora couldn't be more delighted. Offering options and opportunities is what the College and Career Exploration course is all about.

The students in Mora's class are part of a pilot project. They are the first middle-school students in the Sahuarita Unified School District to participate in a CTE —or Career and Technical Education — course.

Every year for three years, students will take the nine-week course, choose two potential career paths and spend their days performing hands-on tasks associated with those paths.

The district plans to expand the program but students currently have six modules to choose from: Bio Technology, Design and Marketing, Intro to Engineering, Intro to Computer Science, Culinary, and Energy and Power.

Morales chose Design and Marketing for her first module. On a recent Tuesday, her assignment was to create a design board for an imaginary couple who wanted to redecorate their bedroom. She drew up plans, came up with color schemes and other details as if she was going to pitch her ideas to a client.

"This class is very fun, it's one of my favorites," she said. "I had no idea what I wanted to be, but I really like designing and coming up with different ideas."

She's leaning toward culinary for her next module.

Across the room, 13-year-old Roman Godfrey was trying to get a closer look at a crankshaft. He recently took apart a combustion engine and he performed spark and compression tests before putting it back together.

He chose the Energy and Power module because he likes to help his stepfather work on his motorcycle and is considering becoming a mechanic.

"It's a pretty fun class because we get to do something new every day," Godfrey said as he looked for the right sized socket. "I might do culinary next because I like food and it looks really cool. It's like this because you have different components that you put together and make something amazing."

Worth the cost

Paxton Patterson, an Illinois company, offers more than 50 modules to middle and high schools across the country. It also offers training for teachers. Among the other modules: Alternative Energy, Robotics, Biomedical Engineering, Veterinary Medicine, Apparel Merchandising, Blueprint Reading, Structural Engineering, Computer Graphics & Animation, Digital Manufacturing and Intro to Child Development.

Over the next few years, SUSD hopes to offer the College and Career Exploration class at all three middle schools, lengthen the number of weeks it is offered and expand the number of modules.

It's going to take time. Each module runs $2,500 to $7,000, and while the current six were purchased with state funds, neither the state nor federal government have dedicated a great deal of money for middle school CTE programs, said Josh Fields, director of SUSD’s CTE program.

The benefits will be well worth the cost, Mora and Fields said.

The class gives students an opportunity to find out much earlier what they might like to do with their lives. By the time Mora's sixth-graders are in high school, they will have explored six career paths. Some might be able to seamlessly transition to a high school CTE program that offers certificates, scholarships and internships in a field they have become passionate about.

For example, SUSD already has a robust culinary program, so any of Mora's students will simply be able to continue with their studies once they move onto Sahuarita or Walden Grove high schools.

"We’re giving them some experience in all of these areas so they can make a decision about which one they have aptitude in, which one they’re interested in to be able to road map and think, ‘What are my next steps? What is my four- to seven-year plan to pursue this?'" Fields said.

Soon, students will no longer make decisions based on what their friends are taking or what "sounds like fun," he said.

At the same time, they'll have plenty of wiggle room. 

"We’re not trying to pigeonhole any student into one area," Fields said. "Some people say, ‘Let kids be kids. They don’t have to choose their career right now,’ and we agree. We’re not saying you must be this specific position. We’re trying to lead kids toward industries and career pathways that are broader."

Wrightson Ridge launched the program because, as a new school, it had more room. Theoretically, Mora has enough desk and counter space for nine more modules. 

They hope to add sports medicine, video production and forensic science modules during the next wave, Mora said. SUSD's high schools offer similar CTE programs.

Mia Ramirez, 14, hasn't zeroed in on a career path just yet. Like Morales, she chose Design and Marketing as her first module.

"I think this class is a very good opportunity," she said. "We don't get very many opportunities to do things in our other classes. In this class we can go get an engine or go cook something."

Kim Smith | 520-547-9740

Assistant Editor Kim Smith moved to Arizona from Michigan when she was 16. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism in 1989. She has worked at seven newspapers of varying size in Arizona, Texas and Nevada.

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