Mississippi Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds has unveiled a new $20 million proposal designed to offer seven possible career paths to high school students, as well as online courses that would help prepare them for college and the workforce.

The plan is called Redesigning Education for the 21st Century Workforce in Mississippi. Bounds told eSchool News the plan is a “vision for the future of Mississippi’s middle and high schools.”

The state schools chief wants high school students to select classes related to their desired career field, much like in college, and the state will offer online courses to students who want to graduate early or to those who are behind.

The goals, Bound said, are to prepare students for the workforce more effectively and to lower the state’s dropout rate. About 35 to 40 percent of high school students in Mississippi fail to graduate, he said.

“They’re all going into the workforce,” Bounds said. “It’s our job to make sure they capture the [required] skills.”

Bounds said the default curriculum in the state has rightly been a college preparatory curriculum for middle and high school students.

“But we should have a fallback net,” he said. “As a high school principal [for 12 years], I would see many students who did not go through appropriate transitional activities in ninth grade. They would fail two or three courses, get behind, and feel like they were in too deep a hole to get out.”

Bounds said he hopes the proposed program will help students like these recognize they have a wider array of options beyond dropping out of school. The program will permit students to take self-paced online courses and also receive support through on-site instructors.

“If a student can complete a course in 60 days instead of 180, then that student should be able to progress at his or her own pace,” Bounds said. “For some, it may take longer.” He said the 21st-century learning skills and technology development that make up the curriculum would seem more relevant to today’s students, who often are frustrated with subject matter they perceive as out-of-step with the current work world.

“We know they’re dropping out because it doesn’t seem to represent what happens in the future,” he said.

Bounds said he will ask the state Legislature in January to fund the program. By fall 2008, if the program proceeds as planned, students could select from one of seven career paths: health care; agriculture and natural resources; construction and manufacturing; transportation; business management and marketing; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and human services.

Bounds’ plan also would redesign computer courses for students in grades 7-9. These courses now include a discovery program for careers (grade seven), computers (grade eight), and technology (grade nine). These would change to Information and Communications Technology I and II, then a STEM course in ninth grade, which Bounds said was “in line” with the president’s initiative to boost math and science instruction in schools.

All of these courses would include components that help students meet the math and science requirements for their grade level and career-level applications of these skills. In the 10th grade, students would begin the career path training in their chosen subject area. Finally, Bounds said, a strong, ongoing professional development element would be incorporated into the plan as well.

Students speaking to local news organization The Clarion-Ledger were mixed in their reaction to the program.

Donovan Burse, a seventh-grader at Northwest Jackson Middle School, said he doesn’t believe most students are prepared to choose a career path at the life stage targeted by the program.

But Angelyn Irvin, an eighth grader at Northwest Jackson Middle School, said she believes the plan might “actually increase the chances of them staying in school … I think it will motivate them [and] make them want to stay instead of want to leave.”