Ranked number one in teacher effectiveness for three consecutive years, Cabarrus County School District is the eighth largest in North Carolina, engaging more than 32,000 students in grades K-12. In addition, the district offers two alternative schools and two early college programs affiliated with the county’s community college system.
Of those 32,000 students attending throughout the district, nearly 18,000 middle and high schoolers are enrolled in Career Technical Education (CTE) courses. When Russell Parker, CTE Director for the school district’s CTE (grades 6-12) program, discovered a new career education tool – VirtualJobShadow.com – he said it aligned with his vision to provide students a four-year career plan that could follow them through high school.
“We believe career exploration should begin in middle school,” says Parker, “and that by the time they get into high school, there should be a plan in place so they know where they are going. VirtualJobShadow.com is the springboard which allows us to help them discover and follow their career path.”
The Right Tool
Parker says in 2016 he was attempting to find the appropriate tool to assist students in developing a four-year career plan when he discovered VirtualJobShadow.com.
“I wanted something that was uniform across the district,” he says, “and when I heard of VirtualJobShadow at a conference in Greensboro, I learned there was a career interest inventory piece and an ability to post internships to the site. That captured my attention and I made the decision to purchase it. We rolled it out in spring of last year.”
He also liked the fact that VirtualJobShadow.com had partnered with the National Academy Foundation (NAF), an educational non-profit organization that brings education, business, and community leaders together. Cabarrus County district is a NAF partner as well.
The rollout phase was methodical, says Parker, a process that began with a voluntary pilot program. The school that agreed to participate first was Mount Pleasant Middle School, utilizing a survey to determine the expected usage prior to sending VirtualJobShadow.com district-wide.
“What we got in terms of data was exceptional,” says Parker. “We could see every child on the spreadsheet, what career cluster they chose, careers they migrated to, and their level of interest. That was exactly what I wanted out of the product.”
But the biggest cheerleader for VirtualJobShadow.com, says Parker, is Lyndon (Lenny) Westmoreland, who serves as Academy/Career Development Coordinator for the Academy of Energy & Sustainability at Mount Pleasant High School. The Academy is a school within a school focused on green energy and engineering.
Westmoreland is responsible for overseeing Academy students in grades 9-12, ensuring they are exposed to the best possible work-based learning opportunities. “In some respects, we’re still in a rollout phase with VirtualJobShadow.com,” he says, “and that’s okay because we are learning as we go. I love the program, so much so that I created a “cheat sheet” for the teachers and students to use, making it easier for them to see what it has to offer.”
Westmoreland is so excited about having VirtualJobShadow.com in place, he shared its benefits with an educator at another school, Harris Road Middle School in Concord, NC. The teacher specialized in careers and technology, but wasn’t sure which direction to go with his students and had no knowledge yet of the new career exploration platform.
“I told him, oh, have I got the site for you!” recalls Westmoreland. “He then jumped on it, telling me it covered 70 percent of what he needed for the career exploration unit. He had the students create short-term and long-term goals using their top three career clusters. This teacher found the lesson plans “beautiful” and the soft skills, from resume building to job applications, very useful.”
Since then, 500 Harris Road Middle School students have signed on to the platform and made more than 1500 site visits, the highest usage of VirtualJobShadow.com to date within the Cabarrus County school district.
What Students are Saying
Westmoreland points to the Exceptional Children (EC) Department at Mount Pleasant as a prime example of how VirtualJobShadow.com has helped students recognize the importance of early career development, especially when they have no idea what they want to do, or which careers are available. Eventually, he wants the platform introduced to every EC Department in the Cabarrus district.
“One of our EC students has autism,” he says, “and in his particular classroom, the students were all about gaming. Then they got onto the VirtualJobShadow.com site. Suddenly, from the autistic student I hear ‘wait a minute, you mean while I’m sitting here playing these games, I could be turning this into a career?’”
This same student, Westmoreland says, has graduated and is headed to community college with creating game apps as his career goal.
The Local Job Market
Russell Parker says the school district is fortunate to be in the Charlotte, NC region, where growth is rapid and jobs are relatively plentiful.
“Our county has grown at a 40 percent rate compared to 2-4 percent in other parts of the state,” he says. “Duke Energy is based in Charlotte, and the city is a finance capital. There are many manufacturing opportunities that are bringing people in, along with IT and engineering.”
Future Plans in Career Development
While all high school and middle school students now have access to VirtualJobShadow.com, Parker wants to see that every 8th grade student has at least one career inventory completed as they enter high school.
“Now that we have the tool to help kids find their career direction, we need a strong four-year component to carry them through. It’s our job to point our students in the right direction, and I think VirtualJobShadow.com can help us do that.”
VirtualJobShadow.com provides career exploration resources for K-12, post-secondary institutions, and workforce development programs nationwide. To learn more, please visit VirtualJobShadow.com.