Baltimore Sun: Giving kids a realistic career path

You've heard the question dozens of times: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Children living in poverty have few ideas and even fewer role models to point the way. "Doctor, lawyer, nurse or sports star" are the usual answers.

Sports star?

Of the 18,300 NCAA men playing basketball in 2013, just 47, or 1.2 percent of all players, were drafted into the pros, according the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The odds aren't much better for football players with roughly 71,000 NCAA players vying for just 255 professional jobs, or for baseball players where 6.8 percent of the 3,976 participants make the big leagues.

Children from kindergarten to 12th grade need a clearer vision of what is possible, a pathway designed to instill hope and excitement about the future. Maybe we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking students what they want to be when they grow up, maybe we should be asking them what problems they can solve or what they think they can contribute to society. If we want our students to succeed, especially those facing social and economic challenges, it is critical to provide them with a clear pathway early in their academic career.

Students from even the most challenging backgrounds can overcome their circumstances and build a future with the right guidance and support system. In our work, there are key factors we've found to have the greatest impact on student success.

•Show a clear vision as early as kindergarten that exposes students to a variety of professions that are in demand and will help them succeed in the global economy.

•Provide education steeped in experiential learning. Students learn best by doing; they need to touch, see, and feel.

•Make connections to role models who will guide, encourage and support them.

To be sure, students in Baltimore City face immense challenges. Twenty-four percent of the city's 85,000 students miss more than 20 days of school a year, and the number has been rising. Roughly half of all city students live below the poverty line, and 87 percent of students in poverty do not have career aspirations or realize they can study and actually work toward a career.

These are grim statistics, but the numbers can be turned around.

This is why Baltimore City Public Schools has created a system-wide partnership to bring Junior Achievement programs to every student at key points in their school years. We are working with other systems to do the same and encourage involvement from the broader business and non-profit communities to make investments like these that will strengthen our communities. Through collaboration and leveraging our strengths, we can achieve more than by working on our own.

Every day we see sparks of enthusiasm and creativity from students who participate in Junior Achievement programs.

We see a budding success story in the young woman who shadowed an executive of a cyber security firm. Until then, she never realized such a career existed and now is pursing that course of study.

We see flashes of optimism in another young woman who through a JA program learned how to sell her skills by boiling them down into a tight elevator speech — and landed a summer job as a result.

A fifth grade boy, who worked as the CEO in the JA BizTown simulated city economy, is now confident he can run his own business. Likewise for a high school student who worked in an after-school program as a CEO for a real-life business start-up.

These experiences open their eyes to what is possible, help them understand what it takes to thrive in today's rapidly changing workplace and that many professions, other than the usual suspects, are open to them. Suddenly, students realize how hard their mother, father, grandparents, aunts and uncles have to work to make ends meet.

Learning by doing, or "experiential learning," is an effective way to motivate students to learn, boost interest in higher education and careers, reduce dropout rates and improve academic achievement. Last year, 1.3 million students dropped out of high school in this country, and their decision sends ripples through the entire economy, according to a 2011 report by Bridgespan Group.

But students also need role models who can coach, educate and listen to problems and worries. One of our strategies has been to bring in mentors from outside the classroom to help students understand the realities and expectations of the business world and economy.

Mentors are critical especially since more than 57 percent of black children, 31 percent of Hispanic children, and nearly 21 percent of white children live without their biological fathers, according to the National Center for Fathering, a non-profit that helps fathers stay involved with their children.

This kind of education must begin in elementary school and continue throughout high school. It is not a one-day strategy, but a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly effort to point students in the right direction.

Helping students to step out of the classroom and see the vast possibilities of future employment will not only have a lasting impact but can help fuel their desire to achieve.

Our students, from the youngest to those in high school, are the raw material that will launch businesses, find cures for diseases, thwart cyber attacks, finance entrepreneurs and build a better city.

The earlier we present a clearer pathway, the better for Baltimore's — and Maryland's — future.

William L. Yerman is chairman of the board of directors of Junior Achievement of Central Maryland and the CEO of Continental Title Group; his email is