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Posted at 02:22 PM ET, 05/22/2013

What do you do if your child isn’t going to college?

A parent asked me recently what she should do if her child doesn’t appear headed for college. The student in question is just a fourth-grader, but this is the Washington area, probably our nation’s most college-conscious region. Parents here like to plan ahead.

We don’t want to drag to college a student who isn’t interested. But there is a big difference between getting students ready for college and forcing them to go. In this area, schools are committed to prepare nearly every child for college these days, just as they are committed to teach nearly every child to read. High schools try to make it very difficult for students to graduate without taking the reading, writing, math, science and history courses that colleges require — and for a very good reason.

“Technology has driven up the complexity of virtually all professions to the point that there is no difference between the skills needed to be college-ready and those needed to be career-ready,” said Mel Riddile, a former national high school principal of the year from Northern Virginia who is now an associate director at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Every student needs to tackle the basic academic subjects on which modern working lives are based, all the experts I have consulted said. They also need to know how to manage their time, work in a team and present their ideas at meetings. Without those skills, unless they have wealthy and indulgent parents, they will have little chance at financially secure and personally satisfying lives, whether they go to college or not.

“College is not for everyone, of course,” said Andrew Rotherham, a national education policy expert who served on the Virginia state school board. “But post-secondary of some sort clearly is. The data are very clear on why a high school degree, and especially a GED, can’t be a terminal degree for someone in today’s economy.”

There also seems to be agreement that all students should be taking pretty much the same courses until junior year. Only then, said Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the KIPP charter school network, can students not attracted to college, and their parents, rightfully ask questions such as, “Is Algebra II necessary for all high school grads not going for a four-year college?”

At that point, what should they take that the college-bound students are not taking? What trade schools are best for high school graduates, and what are their requirements?

Many area high school counselors know what pitfalls to look for. Rebekah Schlatter, supervisor of secondary counseling services in Prince William County, said some trade schools “offer wonderful programs with impressive job placement statistics” but “in many cases the credits earned cannot be applied toward a college degree.”

The college option has to be left open, because young people often change their minds about their futures.

Beth Downey, coordinator for career and technical education in Fairfax County schools, said one of the guarantees of effective vocational training are the industry certifications issued to students who have completed courses monitored by experts. More than 7,000 Fairfax County students were certified last year in such categories as pharmacy technician, electronics technology and practical nursing.

Many high school vocational programs were once dumping grounds for low-income minority kids thought incapable of preparing for college. That has changed, Riddile said. “The texts with the most difficult reading levels in high schools today are the career and technical education textbooks.”

But the variety of programs is bewildering. It takes time to find the experts, books and Web sites to guide you and your child. Even if your child is only in fourth grade, it is not too early to start.

Talk to your school’s counselor, get the e-mail addresses and numbers of the local experts, and as you collect the information relevant to your family, tell me what you find.

By  |  02:22 PM ET, 05/22/2013

 
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