On Monday night, Northfield Middle and High schools decided to do conferences a little differently, giving eighth-graders a chance to talk about future goals while getting a feel for the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead the next four years.

Prompted by feedback from local businesspeople at a recent workforce summit, district administrators came together and moved conferences for the oldest middle school students to the school that will be their new home in the fall, to get kids thinking about career interests and goals at a younger age.

“We decided to combine [eighth grade conferences and Parent Night] because we want kids to think bigger and broader about their strengths, weaknesses and interests and develop a four-year plan for their time at the high school,” said Marnie Thompson, assistant principal at the high school.

To encourage students to start thinking about fields they might consider pursuing after high school, teachers had eighth-graders talk through results of an Explore test with their parents – an assessment that can be used to guide course choices in high school to prepare students for future careers. The conferences also gave students the opportunity to practice skills like public speaking, planning and decision making, all of which are qualities employers are looking for and believe have been lacking in recent years.

“At the summit, businesspeople expressed the desire for us to produce more well-rounded students that don’t just have the concrete knowledge in math or reading but have people skills,” said Jeff Pesta, principal at the middle school. “And right now students are really in that habit-building stage.”

In addition to leading a discussion about hypothetical course and career choices, eighth-graders spent time browsing booths focused on different activities and subject areas where they could ask students and teachers questions to better develop a mental plan for what their high school career could look like. High school administrators also led two informational sessions, one for students and another for parents, to give them an idea of what opportunities and challenges to expect next fall.

“Jeff Eckhoff showed a short video on the life of a high schooler and then the eighth-graders could ask a panel of LINK leaders questions afterwards,” said Thompson. “LINK leaders offered tours of the building, too. Having the high school students there just adds another level of energy and gets kids thinking about next year.”

According to Pesta, more than 90 percent of students and parents attended conferences, up from about 35 percent of eighth grade parents last year.

“The big shift was having conferences at the high school and focusing on transition components,” said Pesta. “I think people really enjoyed the conferences and felt like they were accomplishing something from beginning to end. It really made it more valuable for everybody. I wish I would have done it earlier.”

Reach reporter Erin O’Neill in Faribault at 333-3132 or in Northfield at 645-1115, or follow her on Twitter.com @ReporterONeill.

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