Building Self-Identity and Mapping the Future: How Delaware is Beginning to Rethink Middle School

July 14th, 2022

Category: Postsecondary Success

At a Glance...
-Delaware and other states are reconsidering the role of Career and Technical Education and counseling in middle school (grades five through eight) in preparing young people for the road ahead.
-A local committee is in the early stages of a project known as Rethinking Middle Grades—focused on creating supports and programming for students that connects learning and self-image.
-Part of the Delaware Pathways initiative, this programming will middle schoolers build bridges to high school and help them identify areas of interests as they select schools and pathways.

National leaders like Advance CTE are helping lay the groundwork for middle grades redesign.

Having been cited and celebrated as a national leader in career pathways, Delaware has built a robust career and technical education (CTE) system that is integral to high school in Delaware. Despite the state’s success, it has become increasingly clear that starting earlier with career exploration, experiential learning, and positive identity development, from an equity lens, are the next major areas of focus.

As partners in the work reflect on, expand, and reshape career and technical education, new initiatives have kicked off to both address blind spots of the past and create innovative programming for the future. One of the big shifts comes with building equitable programming as early as fifth grade that fosters student self-and occupational identity.

This project, known as Rethinking Middle Grades, focuses on creating strong supports and programming for middle-grade students to meaningfully connect exploration, learning, and a positive self-image to occupations and their community.

Students enter eighth grade knowing that high school is right around the corner. With the work of this project, new CTE standards for middle grades, counseling models, and connection between in- and out-of-school experiences would allow that student to at least begin thinking about the road ahead.

Such supports would help to increase career awareness and exposure, increase self-awareness and potential occupational identity, and develop both foundational and employability skills—before students enter high school, where they are expected to select a career “pathway” or area of study.

What’s Happening in Delaware?

“Rethinking Middle Grades” is still in its early stages, and these concepts won’t be classroom-ready in Delaware for at least a few more years.

For now, the group is working to build equitable and well-rounded CTE programming in middle grades (typically grades five through eight) that cultivates student identity through youth-centered career exploration.

This work, led by a steering committee of diverse partners in communities, schools, industries, and organizations across Delaware, looks to foster and celebrate a young person’s identity, assets, and aspirations as they build an in-depth understanding of their in- and out-of-school communities, the working world and their place in these spaces.

To be clear, this group is not building the rigorous career pathways that today enroll thousands of Delaware high school upperclassmen. Instead, the goal is to set students up for success prior to entering high school, for it is important that every student enters high school having found success in career education, academic, and social-emotional programming in middle grades that inspires their identity and a path to postsecondary success.

Why It’s Not “Middle School Pathways” And Other Answers We Know Now

Why middle grades?

The expansion of pathways in high school over the past few years showed that many students arrive in ninth grade without a positive and healthy self-image and sense of place as it relates to their school, community, and their future occupation. These gaps are usually caused by inconsistent access to resources, an unequal playing field, and low expectations often applied to middle school-aged youth.

Does this mean Delaware pathways programs will be available in middle school?

Content-specific pathway programs will remain a core part of the high school experience. The middle grades project allows students to have a stronger understanding of their options and be well-equipped to make decisions on pathways and early postsecondary opportunities that best suit their interests, goals, and identity in high school. By providing structures, intentional programming, and training, this design project will eventually give students the tools and supports they need for self and career exploration.

Does this shift in programming lock students into a specific pathway?

Since students will be engaged in exploration opportunities, it does not lock students into a specific pathway. Instead, it provides them with the opportunity, supports, and tools to explore their interests and the potential pathways, occupations, and opportunities that connect to those interests.

Aren’t middle school students too young to know what career path they want to explore?

Every student is different. Some students may know what careers interest them at a young age while others may need time trying different careers. Regardless, it is never too early to name one’s assets and interests. Educators are charged with listening to their students and learning about their passions and gifts. Young people should have access to coaches who offer inquiry and resources that connect them to an evolving vision of their future in work and in the community.

What about students who want to go to college or the military?

This shift in middle school programming is for all students. All students benefit from exploring their interests and developing a positive and healthy self-image as it relates to their school, community, and future occupational identity. In order for high school to be a launching place for young people to accomplish their postsecondary goals (whether it is to attend college, enter the workforce, etc.), middle grades must provide programming that fosters exploration of interests and makes intentional connections to career and postsecondary paths that young people can see, plan for, and actualize.

What will this tangibly look like in middle schools?

We aren’t certain what the final product will actually look like when all three phases of the design process are complete.

We know that coming out of each phase will be a framework that will drive change in middle grades. For example, the first phase of work is the creation of CTE standards in middle grades. These standards will be drafted this summer and will be up for public review and feedback this fall. The final product of this phase will be standards for middle grades teachers and counselors and a related profile of a high school-ready student to guide and drive career exploration and identity development in middle grades.

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Kelsey Mensch



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