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Pathway trailblazers

When Erica Kinzig walked into South Medford High School as a freshman, she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do with her life. Her interest in health care was little more than that — an interest.

“Personally, I have a lot of ideas, and sometimes they don’t always work out so great,” she said Friday, standing in the Hoover Elementary School front office. She and her classmates had just finished a “Grad Walk” at their old campus.

After going through South Medford’s health care Pathway, Kinzig is now headed to the College of the Siskiyous next spring and aims to become a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“(For) making a career decision, it was very helpful,” she said about her experience in the health care Pathway.

Kinzig is part of Medford School District’s first graduating class to complete its Pathways program, marked by the green cord she and her classmates wore at graduation. The district aims for all of its high school students to follow the class of 2019 in not only graduating, but completing Pathways in the years to come.

“I’d like to think that at the high school level, we could characterize the experience of students as one of rigor, relationship, and now finally under the Pathways initiative, relevance,” said Hal Jones, Medford’s Pathways coordinator.

Students have to complete four courses within their Pathway, become involved in a related club or co-curricular activity, and explore other college-level coursework or an industry certification.

At the heart of the Pathways initiative is a process of preparing students while they are still in school, instilling a goal-oriented sense of the future.

Jones, a 29-year veteran of the Medford School District, said that’s not typically how K-12 districts have accounted for their own responsibilities.

“I’m proud of our school district in recognizing this bigger picture,” Jones said.

Cassidy Hunter, a North Medford graduate, said she feels more prepared for her next step at Southern Oregon University after completing her English Pathway.

“Having to take the college-level courses ... really prepared me,” she said. “I was like, ‘I need to crack down and really work hard to get these college credits.’”

Earlier this year, members of the Medford School Board talked about the need to improve communication between district employees and parents about Pathways.

“Somehow we’re missing this communication,” said Suzanne Messer, the board vice-chair, at a February work session. “We’re going to parents with all these things, but somehow these kids, either they’re hearing it and not understanding it, but something is not clicking yet.”

Marisa Frank, parent of Medford students, said she doesn’t fully understand the concept yet.

“I’m still trying to figure it all out myself,” she said.

Koko Hisamoto, a junior at North Medford High School, said the way she was guided to choose her Pathway was less than inspiring.

“They told us, ‘pick a Pathway, it doesn’t matter which one you pick, just pick one. That way you have one on your transcript,’” she said.

Jones said that one way the district hopes to better educate families on how its program works is to aggregate all the information on each school’s website.

Under this system, a family with a student entering South Medford High School could look online to conveniently see what interest areas are available at the school, as well as certification or college-level course options.

“That’s kind of a long-term vision, but once we get there — and we’re getting closer to it — we’ll have common information that we can share and talk about as a community,” Jones said. “And that will help, I hope, focus all of our conversations going forward on real information.”

Medford isn’t the only local school district to focus on increasingly personalized and career-oriented learning. Central Point School District split Crater High School into three (a fourth was absorbed by the existing three) small schools around 2005 and also focuses on creating more practical learning opportunities for students.

Initially, the small school method was met with protest from parents and students. But administrators have pointed to results ranging from increased test scores to lowered dropout rates.

South Medford also implemented a small school system around the same time, with similar funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Meyer Memorial Trust.

Kevin Campbell, then-principal of South Medford, and Todd Bennett, at the time principal of Crater School of Business, Innovation and Science (both have since moved on to more senior administrative positions in their districts), both talked in 2011 about how the model created stronger community for students or kept them from getting “lost in the cracks.”

Medford administrators today describe the goal of Pathways in similar terms.

For now, the district also will focus on increasing its Pathway completer rate. That includes breaking down the data to see what barriers might have prevented students from completing, and the demographics of those who complete versus those who don’t.

The district saw 359 students, about half of its graduates, complete a Pathway this year, Jones said.

“While we’re very happy with 50% — that’s a significant achievement — we want to understand what else we need to be doing to ensure that we get closer to the 100% level,” Jones said. “And so we’ll be developing strategies based on our evaluation of that.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Graduates from South Medford High School are greeted Friday by students at Hoover Elementary School. This year’s graduating class is the first to complete the four-year Pathways program.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune