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In Southern California’s Cajon Valley Union School District, career exploration starts in kindergarten. Five-year-olds learn about police officers, doctors, artists, teachers, bakers and farmers. Over the next eight years, until they leave the district for high school, they will cycle through learning about 54 different careers, including real estate agent, paralegal, dietitian, reporter, graphic designer, sociologist, urban and regional planner and financial analyst.

A core belief of those who created the program, which began this year, is that there is dignity in all work, a belief reflected in the range of careers highlighted.

“We have STEM careers, we have trades and everything in between,” said Ed Hidalgo, the chief innovation and engagement officer in the district and co-developer of the World of Work initiative. “We want to help every child find their place in the world, and in order to do that, we need to help them understand their strengths, their interests and their values.”

Career exploration in the form of internships, externships and apprenticeships is getting more attention around the country, but usually it’s a concern of high schools. Some educators see a need to start sooner, so they turn to their middle schools. Cajon Valley is in the distinct minority by starting the conversation with kindergartners.

Cajon Valley Union School District has 17,000 students across 27 schools. Nearly three-quarters of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a standard measure of poverty, and the district is home to many refugees. Integrating career exploration into classrooms from the very earliest grades can introduce students to job opportunities that their existing family and community networks might not have or know about. And that could change their futures.

“How can a kid aspire to a career if he doesn’t know it even exists?” Hidalgo said.

He recently visited a fourth-grade classroom and spoke with two boys who were looking at a Google satellite image of a neighborhood and designing a new development, with houses, trees and streets drawn onto their new map.

One boy said that when he started the school year, his future career choice was football player. Now he is considering engineer and geographer.

“How can a kid aspire to a career if he doesn’t know it even exists?”

Students will also learn, over the years, about being a yoga instructor, a librarian, a carpenter and an operations manager. The careers span the six different personality types in the RIASEC framework, an acronym for realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional. (RIASEC is part of a psychology theory about how the choice of occupation relates to personality.) Students learn about at least one career in each category each year, and teachers create lessons and activities around those careers across four levels: exploration, simulation, meet a pro and practice.

The “meet a pro” activities primarily happen virtually, through Nepris, a platform that connects industry professionals with classrooms. Hidalgo said Cajon Valley teachers can’t be expected to coordinate classroom visits with professionals from each of the many careers. The online connections through Nepris, though, make meeting those professionals possible for all students.

Local businesses are getting involved, too, with professionals helping teachers create activities that simulate their work. Representatives of the police department’s forensics lab are contributing to a lesson, for example.

Related: Using vocational education to teach academic courses

Researchers from the University of San Diego have started a three-year, longitudinal study of the impact of the World of Work program. They’ll collect surveys and other data, looking for patterns in how students see themselves and their futures thanks to the career exposure.

If the new lessons can better engage students in school, Hidalgo also expects to see correlated increases in standardized math and reading scores.

There has been some pushback. People wonder whether it’s really necessary to make this effort with kids so young. Teachers say they are already overstretched. But Hidalgo points to the statistics: good jobs for adults with a high school diploma alone or for high school dropouts are disappearing.

“We have to start preparing students for the future world of work,” he said. “This helps kids find their why.”

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