I concluded the 6 episode release by speaking with Dr. Mike McDonald, superintendent of my high school alma mater, Walton Central School! Mike began as the superintendent of WCS in the summer of 2020. Now, I don’t want to give anything away. But you’ll hear at the top of the interview how I met Mike, and I know you’ll see why I asked him to be a guest on the show. I’m so happy that he’s taking care of my alma matter. During the episode, you will hear Mike talk about different ways we can encourage career exploration right from a young age, how to connect the student career pathways with what is going on in classrooms, and how we can work with our students to enhance their preparation for college.
[01:06] Introducing Mike
[02:24] Going back to the fall of 1994
[05:36] Mike’s role in helping parents and students in getting college and career ready.
[07:15] Career exploration and traditional college preparation process.
[09:42] Best practice to move the career exploration at age-appropriate levels down through the elementary schools.
[12:53] Why students’ college and career preparations should start at an early age.
[16:36] Getting the kids connected to career pathways.
[19:50] Tools to connect students with resources outside their region.
[21:30] Advice to students who have not found their interests yet.
[24:21] Differences between being career-ready and being college-ready.
[27:31] Mike’s advice for the higher education system
[33:44] Justin’s 5 takeaways from the episode
Five things I learned from my talk with Mike!
1. Encourage career exploration early on by connecting what your student is already doing in the classroom with related careers. Example: if your student is responsible for gathering/delivering mail for the classroom, start to show them different career options that are similar by identifying people that are in these roles currently like a manager or postal worker. You can also encourage shadowing, tours, internships, even using surveys and online programs like Career Zone. The goal is to help your student identify pathways that align with their interests. Note, I am not affiliated, nor do I endorse Career Zone and only mention it by name as Mike mentioned using it at his school.
2. Work with your student to enhance their preparation for college throughout their educational journey. As they get closer to applying for education after high school, I encourage you and your student to attend College Career Nights, College Financial Planning/Aid Nights, and any and all programs your school provides.
3. There’s always a way and always a pathway for your student to achieve career goals.
4. Being college ready is being career ready. College or education after high school isn’t a culmination of what is learned during high school. It is part of the student’s career trajectory and pathway.
5. Ask questions while exploring colleges with career goals in mind, do not make assumptions. Does the program align with the recognized professional associations in the student’s goal field? Will the program get your student to their career goal after successful completion, or will there be additional steps they need to take after completing the program?
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Justin Alger 00:00
My name is Dr. Justin Alger, and this is the first six-episode premiere of the future college parent podcast.
Mike MacDonald 00:11
There’s always a way there’s always a pathway if you truly want to go and you truly have that passion for that career, whether it takes eight years…
Justin Alger 00:25
Hey, Mike, welcome to the future college pair podcast. And thank you for being here and helping future college parents. And thank you for being one of our first six guests. You are guest number six, the finale for the for the premier of the future college parent podcast. Welcome to the show, Mike.
Mike MacDonald 01:57
Thank you, Justin. It’s a pleasure to be here and a pleasure to reconnect with you.
Justin Alger 02:02
I’m so happy that you’re here as well. And as we’ve talked, this episode is very special to me, because Walton is my alma mater. And before we begin, I just wanted to take a moment to talk about a memory that’s been very impactful in my life. And I’ve shared the story with my wife many, many times, and anyone that will listen, really so if we can go back to the fall of 1994. Can you do you remember what you were doing in the fall of 1994?
Mike MacDonald 02:29
Yes, my very first year, coaching Walton football. And we, I was blessed to, to join at the right time as we made our run for the state championship.
Justin Alger 02:41
This is this is very true. I mean, and I most remember you for from the football team. And you had helped us coaching special teams, right. And of course, as we talked in the pre-show here, I was the star kicker for the team.
Mike MacDonald 02:57
Yes, you were.
Justin Alger 02:58
And towards the end of the season, we are playing Windsor, a wonderful school east of Binghamton, New York. And Windsor, of course had this kickoff return play, where if you kick the ball high and far, they’d all run back to the ball form a huddle, where they would be pretending to hand the ball back and forth to each other, while one of the fast guys gets the ball runs up the sideline for a touchdown. While everyone was utterly confused, and watching the huddle, right. And so as deter said huddle, my job was to kick the ball high and short, but to the sidelines. And this way, our fast guys are super-fast and tough players were able to run under it, and hopefully get the ball. And so, it seemed like I remember the whole week, the whole week of practice. All we did was practice this kick. You know, and I just remember the care and concern that you had, for me as a scared teenager who grew up watching classic Walton Windsor football games. And winning this game meant earning a spot as you said in the New York State playoffs, where this is the first year that Walton would enter the playoffs and so that Saturday came and I knew that if I screwed this kick up, I was going to get flattened on the field. I remember I set the ball up, the whistle blew, and I kicked just as planned and our super-fast and tough guys got under the ball and we got the ball, went down and scored a touchdown on the opening drive and eventually won the game and the state title that year the first year that you were that you’re a part of the team which is amazing, and the point that I wanted to make is that if you are providing the care and concern for my alma mater, as you did for me when you first started I think the school district is in the best of hands and I’m so appreciative of you taking care of my alma mater I mean so much to me so thank you so much for doing that.
Mike MacDonald 04:52
That’s exactly why I came back here was the was the sustain and put back in place. I shouldn’t say put back I can place because the teachers and the staff here at Walton have never ever wavered on the importance of positive relationships with kids. And that’s one of the reasons that drew me back to Walter.
Justin Alger 05:10
He just means so much to me. And I know it means so much to the community. And I know that you’re probably not the guy that gets the thank you every single day. But please, no. And I’m confident that the folks in the district appreciate the work that you’re doing to keep their children safe and secure, and able to foster academic and personal success in that safe and secure environment. Anyway, let’s get let’s get on with the show. So, if you could, can you start by sharing your role and describe what capacity you support parents and students in getting college and career ready?
Mike MacDonald 05:45
Well, I’m currently the superintendent here at Walton Central School. So, we are a UPK through 12th grade school district approximately 808 166 870 students. It you know, my role as superintendent is oversight of all operations. I come from a background of very heavily background and in instruction. So, when it comes to this area, when it comes to instructional programming, up through four, all the way up through from UPK all the way up through 12th grade. That that’s kind of my that’s my jam, so to speak. That’s, that’s my lane. The other pieces, the key pieces are to build a strategic plan. And the strategic measures that will get to get the students from point A to point B, point A being, coming into their education, regardless of wherever we receive that student. In in point B, being graduation, and having the tools they need and the information experience that they need to be successful in life, regardless of whether their career path is to work or their career path is to a technical school armed forces or on to higher education from a college standpoint. Now within that, and what we’re going to talk about a little bit here today, is that career exploration, college preparation process, I’m not talking about traditional college preparation. And I’m going to talk about what I feel and believe is best practice in where Walton in hopefully several schools in our region over time will be moving toward. So, the traditional college preparation, or even career exploration is beginning a middle school, there’ll be some minor career exploration activities, and then possibly a career fair. And then as students enter into ninth grade, they go from eighth grade to ninth grade, they build what’s called a four-year plan. That four-year plan is created with the student, the guidance counselor, and input from the parents, or at least a signature signs off from the parent regarding their four-year educational plan in their actual freshman schedule, so their ninth-grade schedule, and then throughout the high school, there’ll be opportunities for career exploration career. And by that really is having access to a database going through what your interests are, exploring what career pathways are, are within that interest survey. And then potentially, job fairs, career fairs of the like, and then you’re moving on up through making your adjustments as you go along with your programming based on those interests, and those pathway decisions. And that in and then as you enter into your junior year, the conversation was shift if you’re planning to go into the college, or even potentially sophomore year with PSAT work, and then into your junior year with your LSAT, a CTS and senior year as well. And then in your senior year, there’ll be the assistance from the school counselors regarding getting your application done. Whatever questions they can answer, whatever assistance they can give regarding financial aid questions and things of that nature. So that’s kind of the traditional type of exploration in and preparation as you will to Career Exploration pathways on to college and higher education now. Best practice in where we plan to tend to lead is moving to Career Exploration at age-appropriate levels, all the way down through the elementary school. So as students come up through, they start getting experience to what their academics activities can grow too. So, if you’re in a classroom and you’re doing, for instance, an activity of I’m in charge of getting the supplies or I’m in charge of getting my group organized, that could be a manager role. Rather than be going down to get the mail for the teacher, instead of going down, and just getting that now I’m the postal worker, whatever that case may be, just to get that, that at a young age, identifying what that what that is what that means. And also, then you can identify with the actual people in their life that are in those roles. For me, the piece of that is very, very important is to is to get students to understand and as a result, parents to understand what is, the interest level of the student, what is the goals and pathways can be built in then along with that, as they hit middle and high? How can we enhance that? How can we enhance both the exploration, so job shadowing, site visits, tours, all the way up to internships while they’re in high school, so that they really can be exposed to that career pathway, really get? They know, that’s what I want to do. And it’s a skill set that I want for life, or I want for a career pathway. And then the second side of that is, how can we enhance the preparation for college? How can we enhance how can we assist students with getting their application done, whether that is walking them through the process, whether that is career college, career night, financial aid, Knights, mentors to help assist with their essay writing, or whatever the case may be, to just kind of wrap your arms around them to make sure they have all the support that’s needed. So that in the event that they do not have the support at home, either a parent who they either they don’t around the situation of any parent can help them, whether they’re not there, whether they don’t have the ability to help or the knowledge to help. But regardless of what level of knowledge and in access, the parents have to be able to help, I feel it’s a school’s responsibility to wrap their arms around it and help both, both the parent and the child in accessing as many not only to make sure that the application is done soundly, but the access is many financial, potential financial benefits, whether it be scholarships, or financial aid opportunities as available for them to ease the burden of, of the college bill,
Justin Alger 12:53
Lots to unpack there. And I think that, that it sounds like this approach for career readiness starts very, very early when I was putting the show together. And I was thinking that the sixth grade would be the earliest that we’d want to start to prepare students for college, but you’re suggesting that it’s that starts even earlier with doing some of these activities, sort of labeling, I’m going to the mailroom that well, this is what the post the post office worker does, or I’m doing some administrative work, this is what a manager would do. So, it starts even earlier than the sixth grade.
Mike MacDonald 13:29
Yeah, for multiple reasons. One for the career exploration reason, another for the concept of hope. So, when I was, I did my doctoral research in students, educating students that live in poverty. And one of the key research-based aspects of, of exiting poverty, is education is the most powerful tool that they can find. Now, education is multiple levels of education, as we just discussed, to move to appear. But when you’re talking about generational poverty, there has to be a hope, a light at the end of the tunnel, something to drive students toward the education means something, it’s meaningful, and it’s going to get me XYZ. So, one piece of research in best practice is by Eric Jensen. And what he talks about is long, far back as kindergarten and some concepts. Every classroom kind of builds their own microcosm of society so to speak, right within the walls, they have jobs, they each have roles, they rotate and weekly and a lot of times like one student may have in kindergarten or any of the younger grades. One student may have the calendar duty, they got to Change Calendar every day and other one has to change the menu every day. Another one has to has to go get the mail every day. Whatever Those pieces are one of them is aligned leader, one of them is in charge of getting the materials that are needed for a certain activity. So, what they suggest is take all of those roles and activities that you do within those elementary rooms, and put a career to it, and then do an exploration around those careers. So, you think how cool it would be that when they get three quarters the way through a school year, and all of a sudden, you get a visit from the postmaster of your local post office. And they connect it to all those times that you had your opportunity to go down and get the mail. Now, how cool would that be for those youngsters, and it’s going to be somebody, it’s going to be somebody relative, in that classroom, especially in a small rural, it’s going to be somebody that they know. So, you get an opportunity to not only bring in, bring in a guest bring in an adult into your classroom, but you’re able to connect it to something that the students are already doing. So just to give a little background on the kind of the concept of that. So not only are you doing, establishing hope, establishing light at the end of the tunnel, getting them connected to career, and getting them connected to a career, you’re also bringing in positive, respectful adults from your community, into your classrooms. It’s a win win,
Justin Alger 16:20
It’s a win on multiple levels. I love the integration and the synthesis from start to it creates that very positive feedback loop that you suggested and, provides that that hope for students and I’m wondering too, you’re talking about the practical these practical skills of these practical applications that, what about, do you share the same? The same methodology, I guess, in the classroom. So, say I’m taking trigonometry or algebra, or I’m taking chemistry and I’m like, ah, why do I have to do this stuff? This hard stuff that what am I going to use trigonometry or insert skill in the in the classroom in real life? Is there integration there as well?
Mike MacDonald 17:01
There is there should be, one of the biggest now, you know, I have a math degree. And I started I was a math teacher. In eighth grade math here at Walton. That’s how I got hooked. In Walton, I was my student teacher placement throughout my career. And in the last four years, I actually discovered and it’s not something that I did, I actually discovered this practice. And what they did is they took every content area in the so high school content area. And they took that so stakes a trigonometry. And they had a poster and a visual that the round the visual is every single career in job that linked to trigonometry. So, in their classrooms, they have this visual now, what I want what I plan on doing, and in thankfully, here are Walton, without me even saying that the high school team actually has come up with this as a strategy themselves. So, we’re going to be working on that piece, we’re going to take every content area, every class, and we’re going to build the concept and their visual of what are the careers that applied correctly to this subject, algebra, trigonometry, English, whatever it is. And then the second level, this is this is my goal. And my vision is that we will also have a second visual that will take each one of those careers in link it to a regional employer, around Walton, so that the students, not only will they know the connection of their content to a career pathway, but they will also know a career pathway, that that is available to them within that content area, that is within an hour of home. If they choose to go to Florida, Hawaii, North Carolina, to do a career pathway, in a career choice, that’s fine. But we want them to always know that what the careers are, that are here at home, whether they want to stay or whether they leave, and then they choose to come back that they will know as they before they graduate high school. Exactly what’s available to them right here within an hour of home.
Justin Alger 19:32
Again, the integration is just it’s just fantastic. Because you’re because you come again, full circle, right? You’re linking the individual experiences that you’re having in the classroom to the to the actual work that students can do, and you mentioned if, if a student wants to do something outside of the region, do you have any sort of resources to connect students with resources outside to the region?
Mike MacDonald 20:00
Skills that I acquired, I think we’re, I don’t know, at the time, if they are as thoughtful, as you’re suggesting. But I do think that that the skills that I acquired were very fundamental in whatever application that I would have applied them to. So, I appreciate the thoughtfulness that you’re that you’re taking in providing this, this approach to education at Walton. And now do you what type of advice would you have for students who haven’t necessarily found their interests yet, or, or have interests that may seem impractical to parents or those around them? There are the traditional career exploration tools, our nationwide Career Zone. And there’s a number of that’s just one of the titles that comes to mind. tools that we use. So, students can get, they can do interest surveys, they can jump in, and they can search careers, and they can search it within different areas, different regions all across our country, probably all across the world, actually, but at least across our country. So there, we certainly have those resources, we actually have more resources nationwide than we have locally, that’s where we’re going to build the local concept. So that when students are looking, they have a full picture, and they can make whatever decisions they choose in life. But obviously, selfishly a little bit, we want our, we want our students to stay in your home. You know, that’s what keeps our population, that’s what keeps our community strong. And in that that’s what, you know, that’s what we would want. As a dad, that’s what I wanted, well, what I would say when I’ll talk about the impractical, if a student has a dream, it has a vision of what they want to do. And it seems like it’s out of reach. Typically, when I’ve, when I’ve come across those conversations, it’s for one of two reasons. It’s not. It’s not accessible, it’s far away, and they don’t see how they get their point A to point B, like, literally distance wise of location, maybe it’s a job that they can only do in Texas, and then they can’t visualize how they’re going to get there. And then to the financial standpoint of being able to attend the right college, or the length of college, to be able to get that done, such as a medical, that’s got the eight years of college. And what I would say to any of those parents, in those situations, in students is there’s always a way, and there’s always a pathway, if you truly want to go and you truly have that passion for that career, whether it takes eight years of education, whether it takes trying to figure out how you’re going to get in move and transition to Texas. It could be I took a year off of college, you don’t know this about me. I took a year off of college and I went to work, I wasn’t sure what my pathway was going to be actually went to work as a metal welder fabricator at a small shop out in the middle of pleasant mount Pennsylvania. And then decided in the middle of that, that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. And I was going to go to school initially for accounting. So, I went to, I left there, and I went to work in a factory saved and saved and saved and saved. And with parental support, went to went to college for counting. From there. My pathways changed. That was a four-year university, I went to Wilkes University and decided that that that wasn’t the right pathway transferred to Brown community college. It was much more financially responsible. I stayed at home, and I commuted. So, I cut down the expense on that way. And then I transferred, I decided, no, I don’t want to go into accounting. So, I switched to the transfer program, and I transferred to Sukkot up to only on a state and got an education. So, you don’t know what the pathways are that you’re going to go on.
Justin Alger 24:20
I think we can maybe shift the focus if you could share with us what the difference if there is a difference, but a difference between being Career Ready versus being college ready.
Mike MacDonald 24:30
The concept is, it’s just career readiness. And you want to provide the educational pathway to meet what the students desire is for the career pathway that they desire. If they want to go directly to a four year institution, and they want to be a teacher, they want to go to a four year institution and they want to have a BS in nursing, a bachelor’s in nursing, then that’s the pathway that we need to help them get to, another student says, You know what, I know what my, what I’m looking for. And what I’m looking for is to be able to make live this lifestyle, make this kind of salary in order to meet that lifestyle in welding is my passion or whatever, whatever the skill set is, is my passion. Okay, well, let’s look at it. You know what, for your passion as an XYZ auto mechanic, HVAC tech, you’re going to need to go to a technical school. So that’s going to be our target, because that’s what your goal and passion is. Now they could change that at any given time, in require more, require less, depending on where their passion is, depending on where their pathway is. So, it’s a really neat concept. If you think about it, of instead of being a one stop, this is where you’re going, you’re going to we’re going to get you prepared to go to a four-year institution. Well, why are we doing that? Why are we not individualizing, expert education, personalizing education, and taking the student on the pathway to where they, where their passion, where their lifestyle goals, lead them. So that, that, to me is what education is all about. Our goal is to create well rounded individuals that are civic minded, that are going to go out and be great contributors to society. But we need all types of people in our workforce. So, if we continue to push in the one direction, we created a couple things. One, we could create a significant gap, which we are seeing right now, in our trade skills, two, we could create a significant inflated debt in college debt, that does not lead to a career path for somebody to be able to handle the debt associated with their college that they want, if we don’t lead them in the right preparation process.
Justin Alger 26:58
What I’m hearing is that that college or education after high school, any sort of education after high school is a part of this career trajectory. It’s just a part of it. It’s not the, it’s not the culmination of the high school experience is to obtain or to, you know, obtain entry to a post-secondary educational institution. It’s a part of the pathway to the career that we’re that a student is looking for.
Mike MacDonald 27:27
Absolutely. You picked it up perfectly.
Justin Alger 27:31
Higher Education and secondary education don’t necessarily have a formal way of communicating. Right. So as a spokesperson for secondary education, what advice do you have for higher education,
Mike MacDonald 27:45
My biggest recommendation, largest recommendation which would be stay in tune to whatever the supervisory authority is, in the subject matter that you are preparing people for? So, if it’s education, it’s New York state. If it’s, you know, if it’s medical, then obviously, it’s the Medical Association, in the licensing associations, or however that works.
Justin Alger 28:12
Well. And that seems like a daunting task, because there are so many different educational pathways as we talked about a few of them today, in order to in order to keep track of so I mean, it’s certainly not an easy job, or an easy task to expect that there’s that there would be communication between these two very large and entities. But I guess the follow up is knowing, knowing that there’s this disconnect, how do you utilize this, this information as an educator to inform future college parents,
Mike MacDonald 28:48
The biggest thing that we can instill in individuals is, is the fact that they have to be dependent. The fact that they need to take control of their own destiny, so to speak, and that they need to be aware of that, so you don’t go in. If you’re a young adult, and you’re going to college or your young adult and you’re going to the workforce you’ve already dug into whatever it is, you need to be well informed. I tell that to my own staff members, they need to be well informed of their benefit packages, they need to be well informed of their contractual obligations, they need to be well informed of what the New York State certification requirements are. You need to be in control of your own destiny, your you need to be followed through with what is your responsibilities in life. And that goes for all aspects of life. So that’s part of us building that skill set for all individuals now under mindset for all individuals as they as they grow in achieve.
Justin Alger 29:49
Your advice then for parents is knowing that there isn’t that connection just to ask the question, right just to just to say, hey, what’s going on in insert, field or insert subject matter area and just ask that question. Right. And I think that that’s, I think that’s, that’s a very salient point in that, if you don’t know, something, you are just I mean, educators have a I, in my opinion are the most kind and endearing folks. And just asking the question and expressing that vulnerability really will get you a long way.
Mike MacDonald 30:23
And I think that the key question for me, and I asked this, when my daughter and I entered into a design program is, you know, the goal at the end, the career at the end, is a very, let’s say, be, well, the program that you are putting in front of, of this child, get her from point A to point B, or at the end of successfully completing this program, will she not be able to enter into the workforce in that position of B. So, you know what I mean. So if you’re going in into any program, whether that be a school program, where you expect to enter the workforce at the end of BOCES, program, C, D program, or whether it’s a college program of any level, technical school are higher, if you know what you’re going to the school to accomplish, ask the question, don’t just assume it, ask the question and say, okay, my son or daughter is expecting to be able to do this at the end of this program. If they’re successful in your program, will they be able to do that at the end of your program? Or will there be additional steps that they need after completing your program? Because if they, if they say, yes, you know, they do well, they’re solid, great. But if they say, well, at the end, then they’re still going to have to do 1234, Then you may want to look around and in, in the marketplace, if I and make sure that another one that avoids 1234.
Justin Alger 32:02
Love it. I think we’ll leave it there and Mike again, you don’t even know how much it means to me when I had thought about the idea for this show. This moment was certainly a high priority to make happen to have the superintendent of my alma mater it means so much to me that you that you came on the show. And I really think that your words are really going to help future college parents and I know that they’re helping parents, they’re at Walton now. So, thanks again for being one of our first six guests on the first six-episode premiere of the future college parent podcast. Thank you so much.
Mike MacDonald 32:40
Well, I appreciate it. Justin, thank you for offering if we’re asking to ask me to be involved.