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How One High School Turns Career Dreams into Practical Pathways

How one Kentucky high school helps students dream big and jumpstart their future

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Central High School sits near the heart of Louisville, KY, down the street from a community college, two big hospitals, a museum, and a short hop to the Jefferson County courthouse and the central business district. But take a different turn off the nearby Interstate and you see a far less prosperous Louisville, with homeless encampments, empty lots, public housing, and the flashing lights of police and ambulance sirens day and night.

Central, the alma mater of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, has a mostly Black student body and 70 percent of its students are from low-income families. It’s had some tough knocks against it over its 150-year history, and it’s not where Rikaiya Long, now a junior, first thought about going after middle school. She was a high-achieving student, doing well in advanced classes. Many who knew her assumed she would head to duPont Manual, widely considered one of the best high schools in the state.

But Rikaiya, an aspiring lawyer, felt confident about choosing Central instead, where more than 60 percent of graduates go to college. “I wouldn’t put myself in a position to get a subpar education,” she says. Middle schoolers can apply to a high school in Louisville, and every year school representatives make their pitch to eighth graders, touting their school’s offerings. At one such session, Rikaiya learned that Central had a solid reputation for supporting its students while providing rigorous pathways toward their futures. “I knew I wanted to be in a legal profession,” says Rikaiya. Central offered a Law Magnet program with a sterling record. Its alumni, she found out, included attorneys, elected officials, and judges. Seven Law Magnet graduates were in law school in 2022. And that’s what Rikaiya wanted as well — to go to law school.

Pathways to career options

Not many eighth graders are as focused as Rikaiya. For too many teens, high school is little more than an annoying habit they must put up with until graduation. Beyond that, their goals are often vague. Some, like Rikaiya, have been steered to college, but chances are high that many teens haven’t received much guidance.

Some educators are changing this by giving every student an education that provides a solid direction — a pathway — after graduation. At Central, Magnet Coordinator Cynthia Eddings-King explains that students are encouraged early on to think beyond high school, and they’re given several pathway choices through the school’s magnet programs that lead from getting a diploma to getting a life.

Pathway programs combine academics with exposure to careers in specific fields. Central’s magnet programs include Innovation (STEM), Medical/Health Services, Teaching and Learning, Montessori, and, of course, Law and Government. Each pathway includes real-life experiences, such as job shadowing or internships, connections to community businesses and professionals, and in some fields, professional certification that can lead to a job right after graduation.

Teachers at Central also see part of their role as making sure youth of color realize all their options, explore them, and go for what they want. Shantel Reed, nursing pathway coordinator and a registered nurse, says she is thrilled to watch teens learn about different medical professions available to them. They return from visiting a hospital, she says, amazed at seeing jobs they didn’t even know existed—like a speech language pathologist checking patients’ swallowing function. “I can tell them all day, but when they are following someone all day, they get it. There are jobs they never imagined.”

School culture is part of its mission

While Central gets high marks for its magnet structure and curriculum, what seems to be the glue holding the pieces of the puzzle together is its school culture, where administrators, teachers, students, and staff all feel as if they have each other’s back. That was something new for Rikaiya.

“I’ve always been in (advanced) classes,” she says. “And I’ve been the only Black girl. At Central, I have classes where everyone looks like me. It’s an amazing feeling; I feel extremely comfortable.” She adds that this has created a more relaxed learning atmosphere for her. The academics are still rigorous, but the sense of being with family makes learning natural, she says.

Central was Louisville’s high school for Black students until 1956, when a school busing program began. After that initiative ended, Central, located in a Black neighborhood, reverted to a mostly Black student population. Today the school is 77 percent Black, 12 percent Hispanic, 7 percent white, and 4 percent other.

Principal Dr. Tameka Coleman is thrilled about that 7 percent. She sees Central’s culture having a positive effect on white kids, too. “These students will be the most well-versed, diverse kids because they have been able to garner an experience that their white counterparts will never have. They will see when an environment lacks diversity.”

Many of the other 93 percent, however, might experience culture shock in the other direction when they leave Central. At predominantly white institutions and workplaces, they won’t see as many Black and brown faces. They may wonder where they fit in.

Central will have given them one big advantage, however. They’re academically ready, says Coleman. “Our college partners are always so complimentary on how Central students come in with an edge,” Coleman says. The culture may be different, but the work is familiar because of the pathways program. The nursing students know how to draw blood. The law students are already dissecting cases and writing briefs. The engineering students are programming robotic animals. And Central’s vet students are doing things that many college students don’t learn until vet school – post grad, Coleman adds. “They can approach the work unapologetically and unafraid.”

Sometimes, the pathway changes

The culture of Central is supportive, but the schoolwork obviously has an impact. Assignments in all of the programs are often multilayered, for instance, with multimedia documentation and team presentations. Students meet and learn from local, practicing professionals. Students in every program are out in the community, participating in city forums, mentoring and teaching elementary school children, shadowing medical professionals at the hospital, or working at dental, vet, or law offices.

Rikaiya’s law magnet teacher (and magnet coordinator), Joe Gutmann, is a former prosecutor, “with a lot of experience and a lot of stories,” says Rikaiya. The Law Magnet has a double-sized classroom, half of which is decked out as a courtroom to allow students to practice what they learn. After first seeing it in eighth grade, Rikaiya has become the one presenting in it. The junior classes’ mentors/student teachers from University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law sat on the bench listening to oral arguments from the briefs each student had written. The assignment regarded “strict liability,” and the case revolved around a Tiger King incident. “The judges ask a lot of questions, and you’re defending your side. It’s not a debate, but it’s very intense. It makes you think on the spot,” says Rikaiya, who adds enthusiastically that she enjoyed the presentation, and, at least for a while, the rest of her law studies, too. The curriculum’s practical, participatory education about law, democracy, and human rights also matched one of Central’s key principles, social justice, something Rikaiya feels strongly about.

Despite all that, she realized something during her sophomore year: “Law didn’t grab my attention like I thought it would.” That was during the pandemic, when the campus was closed and lawyer-wannabes had to figure out what practicing law meant over Zoom. “I was still interested in the business aspect of things; I was still looking at a corporate career, but no longer a law job,” she says. Rikaiya made the decision to change her intended college major. Through studying various law specialties, she came across public relations. “I started to get to know what they actually do, and I kind of fell in love with the idea of becoming a public relations specialist.”

But now what? Just as at the end of eighth grade, she faced another big choice. Back then, she had successfully become one of a class of 350 accepted to Central, applying with the Law Magnet in mind. She’d spent the requisite first semester learning about all of Central’s magnets before joining Law and Government. Once you’re in a magnet, it’s a commitment. The curriculum from semester to semester, and year to year, is linked to your pathway. Changing magnets, though not impossible, would require a lot of catching up on classes and adjusting.

Another option, of course, was to change schools. Rikaiya never considered that. Ultimately, she decided it just wasn’t necessary. Her core academic classes would still provide the rigor she needs, and the skills taught in the law magnet would not go to waste. “You don’t have to be a lawyer just because you’re interested in law. You can use your law degree for anything,” Rikaiya says. She is reminded that Gutmann had often told them that the law touches everything: If there are regulations, policies, and contracts, the law is involved. One of the big advantages of pathways over older, more traditional vocational programs is that they are coupled with academics strong enough to help a student into college. Even if the first pathway a student takes isn’t what she envisioned, she can find another to her liking.

Her journey continues

Despite her qualms about practicing law, Rikaiya was elected president of the Law Magnet and of Central High School’s junior class. The people in her magnet are like family and those in the other magnets are like neighbors — and Rikaiya is the type of young woman to knock on a neighbor’s door and give them cookies. She wants to keep that feeling of family, community, and belonging alive. “I like to intermix with people and have them meet each other, too. I connect people whenever I can.”

That is what others have done for her. When she changed her career goals, her teachers and counselor were there to help her. For college, Rikaiya is applying to Howard University, Florida A&M University, and Xavier University of Louisiana — all historically Black institutions with public relations programs. The teacher of her favorite class has already put her in touch with a Howard graduate working in the field.

It’s clear to Rikaiya that Central is committed to successful pathways for everybody, and that high school graduation isn’t the end of a journey, but just the beginning. She says learning now that law wasn’t what she thought it would be was the best thing. “I definitely saved myself some money!” she says, thinking of paying for a year or two of college and then changing her mind and major. “That’s why I like the career magnets; they help you really figure out what you like and what you want to do.”

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