LEWISTON — On a recent Thursday, Alesha Gregoire, 13, was in her career prep class at Lewiston Middle School, designing buttons she'll wear Friday, which is College Day in Lewiston-Auburn.
The buttons she and other students made show what they're thinking about doing for a career and where they want to go to college.
One of Gregoire's pins depicts a jellyfish. She's thinking about becoming a marine biologist. “I like the ocean and stuff in it,” she said. Her other pin is the University of Hawaii.
Next to her Aicha Omar, 14, worked on pins of dentistry and Harvard.
A table away, Donovin Hughes, 13, made buttons of a lawyer and Harvard.
Ajay Beaudoin, 14, worked on pins of architecture and the University of South Carolina. “I like to build,” he said.
The career prep class is required for all seventh- and eighth-graders at Lewiston Middle School.
Taught by aspirations coordinator Billie Jo Brito, career prep began seven years ago to inspire students to go to college, think about a career and show them that what they do in high school will impact their future.
“When I first was hired another teacher said, 'I don't know why they're teaching this class. Some of these kids don't know where their next meal is coming from,'” Brito recalled. That's why, she said, “we need this class.
"They need to know the steps they need to take, that their high school freshmen is no longer a blow-off year. If they're college-bound, they need to go into high school and do their personal best,” she said.
Seventh-grade career prep classes focus on student personality styles, which careers may compliment their disposition. Eighth-grade classes show the experience of applying for a job, such as mock interviews and preparing resumes. Even though students are years away from holding any job, Brito said she's planting seeds.
Career prep classes allow students to understand more about specific jobs. “They choose a career of their dreams,” then they go backward, she said. Students study job descriptions, work environments, whether the career is available in Maine. They then look at colleges, learning what kind of programs and how much education would be required, what the job pays.
“We talk about starting salaries,” Brito said. “I'm all for do what you love and you'll be fulfilled, but you still have to pay the rent.”
Students learn what they could do in high school. If they're interested in pre-med, volunteering at the hospital would help, as would taking Latin and AP classes. If they're interested in architecture or law enforcement, the Lewiston Regional Technical Center has programs.
Career prep also teaches the importance of good habits and manners. “If you come to school late everyday because you can't get out of bed, that's going to be a problem. You might have a hard time keeping a job.”
Since the program began, some students begin high school more prepared, Brito said. “Even if they don't know what career they want, they understand all careers require some college. It may not be four years, but they have to do something beyond.”
Students as young as 12 or 13 want to grow up to have a family, a career and buy a house. She tells them none of that is guaranteed. “It's all about choices we make,” Brito said.
Lewiston High School Principal W. Gus LeBlanc said the middle school's career prep classes help some students work harder in high school. “Some kids, based on their disposition, it really does help them,” LeBlanc said. “Other kids may not be ready for that kind of thinking.”
At LRTC, Director Rob Callahan said because of the middle school program, he's seen a growing number of students "come prepared with great questions, increased knowledge about specific careers and a real enthusiasm." That's meant an increase in LRTC application numbers "which exceeds the state average," Callahan said.
Ajay Beaudoin said he understands to become an architect he needs to do well in math and science.
Alesha Gregoire, the girl who wants to become a marine biologist, said career prep classes “will make a huge difference in high school because I've thought about it. I'll know what I need to study.”