by Kym Byrnes, photography by Bill Ryan
The notion that a plan is necessary to reach goals, and that goals are necessary to achieve success, is the thinking that led Hanover Public Schools to start a seventh-grade initiative that puts students at the center of planning for their high school years and after.
Piloted in the 2016-2017 school year, the VIP2 initiative — which stands for Visionary Individualized Planning Process — aims to get seventh-graders thinking about and planning for their future. Each student completes a survey, which is the basis for conversations the student will then have with their parents, guidance counselors and principals as they explore possible career paths. The plan is then revisited each year to help students choose classes and extracurricular activities, as well as to make changes based on the student’s evolving aspirations.
Hanover Public Schools Superintendent John Scola said the plan is flexible in that students may change their pathway in academic choices. The real benefit of the program, according to Scola, is the opportunity for students to start talking and thinking about their future during their middle-school years.
“This program ignites the thought process for students and hopefully gives them a purpose for attending school,” Scola said. “It enables them to understand a sense of direction and course of action necessary to realize their goals. It is designed to heighten the awareness of students and prepare them for numerous possibilities available upon graduation from high school based on their individual needs.”
Scola isn’t the only one looking to schools to help our young teens plan for life. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in association with the Markle Foundation in 2016, six in 10 adults say the public K-12 education system has a lot of responsibility in making sure the U.S. workforce has the right skills and education to be successful in today’s economy. The study also found that the thing more people say has a lot of responsibility is “individuals themselves,” cited by 72 percent of adults.
Tessa Hilyard, principal of seventh and eighth grade at Hanover Middle School, explained that there is a big push for college and career readiness in high school, but oftentimes that’s too late to start really planning.
“Students are making a big transition from eighth to ninth grade, so we decided to start goal setting in seventh grade,” Hilyard said. “We start to offer some different academic options for students entering eighth grade — we start to identify student tracks for math and advanced courses in language arts and Spanish. Those decision made for eighth grade have an impact on class choices going into high school.”
What is important in this process is that the plan, which travels with the student through high school, is based on the student’s interests, strengths and desires. Teachers, guidance counselors and administrators meet with each student individually throughout the process to help the student explore different options, to advise on what classes, extracurricular activities and internships might be available, to assist the student with researching colleges, career paths and vocational educational opportunities, and to generally encourage the student to keep thinking and following a plan.
“We realize that seventh-graders might not even know what they’re interested in yet, and their goals and abilities are still fluid at that point,” Hilyard said, “so we’re always providing checkpoints to see if those goals are changing and how they’re doing in meeting the goals.”
Shannon Resh has a daughter in eighth grade at Hanover Middle. She said her daughter participated in the VIP2 program last year. Parents were informed of the initiative and how it would be rolled out to students.
“We knew that our daughter would take interest surveys and participate in face-to-face interaction with administrators to learn more about her strengths and use them to her advantage in the school setting,” Resh said.
As a result of the program, Resh said, her daughter is already thinking ahead and preparing for high school.
“Identifying her areas of passion, talent and strength have guided her towards scheduling courses that will help her achieve her goals — in her case, that is art school following graduation,” Resh said.
According to Resh, the administrator who worked with her daughter to create a VIP2 plan even reaches out to the family on occasion to share upcoming opportunities at the school and in the community that would be of interest to her daughter, based upon what came up in the interviews.
“We couldn’t be happier that the district has made the commitment to learning more about the student body’s interests from the top down as well as from the students thinking toward their future,” Resh said.
And Resh sees a bigger picture at play. She said that it’s important for students to be thinking about and exploring the future because the world is changing — and so are opportunities and the skill sets that the world of the future will require.
“We have read and heard in many places that some of the jobs our children will have one day haven’t even been invented yet. Thinking about their place in our society and working toward goals in a realistic and attainable way through the scaffolding of courses in the high school and extracurricular activities that hone in on strengths pushes our daughter’s generation to consider what comes next in their lives,” Resh said.
Hilyard said that many of the students have embraced the program and the opportunity to start thinking about what’s ahead. Some students may have older siblings in college, but, according to Hilyard, the idea of life after high school is not yet a reality for most kids.
“For many, this is their first time thinking about what comes after high school,” Hilyard said. “Not just about college readiness but about career readiness, too.”
“Some students had a lot of questions about areas they already identified as interesting but didn’t know how to get prepared for that,” Hilyard said, “and others had no idea what they might be interested in, and in that case we referred to their interest surveys and would just start a discussion from there. For example we might know a student likes to work with his hands or investigate things.”
Although it sometimes takes a bit to get a student to open up and start really thinking about the future and what that might look like, Hilyard said the students seem to enjoy the process and even get excited about the possibilities.
“Kids received it very well,” Hilyard said. “They were generally very engaged in the give-and-take conversations, and many have had really good questions.”
And to keep it interesting, the VIP2 initiative takes the learning, exploring and planning out of the classroom — and in fact, out of the school. Hilyard said that in early October, seventh-graders took field trips to tour Gettysburg College and HACC to learn what a college campus looks like and understand different educational opportunities.
“We want to help them understand that there are choices out there and to plant that seed,” Hilyard said. “It also helps to get our parents thinking about planning ahead.”