As students go through their high school years, they may be hounded by the formidable and existential question of, “Who am I?”

Though this question often might remain in their heads, Tuolumne County administrators believe that by integrating it into curriculum, students can create career pathways.

Tioga High School freshman Monica Medina, 14, stood in front of the more than two dozen educational and business leaders Tuesday in the second-floor banquet room of The Peppery in Sonora, site of the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce bi-annual luncheon.

In her hands she had a poster that not only answered the question of “Who am I?” but also, more importantly, who she wanted to be.

“I like to express my creativity,” she said, describing her vision to be an interior designer, go to San Jose State University and one day own her dream car, a Tesla. “How I’m going to get it is to work hard, believe in myself and not give up on my dreams.”

Dave Urquhart, a Tuolumne County educator for the past 40 years and superintendent of the Big Oak Flat-Groveland School District, said the intent behind the luncheon was to engage the community as bastions of support for the students’ professional and educational milestones.

“Ultimately, the idea is for kids to have goals for the future,” he said. “If we can have the business community involved, we can keep the kids learning and keep them from leaving the area.”

Urquhart said the institution of the Get Focused Stay Focused (GFSF) initiative at the small high schools in his district have provided students with a clearer pathway to achieve their professional and life goals after receiving a diploma.

“The whole idea behind this is to give kids an opportunity to look at themselves,” he said. “They evaluate themselves year by year through high school and come up with a plan.”

The program has been enacted in the Big Oak Flat-Groveland district for the past year, he said, and Summerville High School and Sonora High School both plan on starting the program for students in the upcoming school year.

Get Focused originated in the Santa Barbara City College Dual Enrollment program, which offered college-level classes and educational opportunities for students still in high school.

It seeks to remedy increasing absenteeism in schools, diminished college graduation rates, and post-diploma underemployment.

Students create a 10-year plan as freshmen in high school and adhere to their professional and academic goals throughout high school and college.

During the luncheon, parents, teachers, students, administrators, business owners and citizens wound around a U-shaped table to eat a quick lunch before hearing about the program’s successes at Tioga High School.

Chamber Executive Director Amelia Harrison said, “The TCC tries to hold two to three town hall luncheons a year, and we try to work with different topics about things affecting Tuolumne County. We want to help bring awareness to the program.”

She added that the chamber advertises the events and that the luncheon, like other chamber events, is open to the public.

“It’s an honor to hold these functions. It gives awareness to let parents know what the county schools are putting out for them.”

The student testimonials brought an impactful realization of what the program aimed to achieve, though they acknowledged their professional and personal plans may evolve as they get older.

Caitlyn Fagundes, 15, first identified a list of personal character traits before explaining her hope to attend Columbia College and transfer to University of California, Davis’, veterinary school.

“It helped me step by step figure out everything about my life,” she said.

Anna Wilson, 15, hoped to one day become a registered nurse while also attending Columbia College and transferring to San Francisco State.

“I really like how it was laid out,” she said. “It explains how much work you have to do to get where you want to go.”

In her classroom, she added, a student workbook included documents so students could understand the prices behind their material goals and the educational pathway that would be required to make those wages.

“It helps you find yourself and your passions and what will fit your personality,” she said.

Tioga teacher Sherri Gempler said the program provided tangible goals for her students to achieve on the journey toward careers and higher education.

“That 10-year plan has been a pivotal part for these kids,” she said “Now we say, ‘What do you really want to be?’ What do you want to do? How can we help you get there?’ ”

Amanda Hepfl, program assistant for the Columbia College Apprenticeship Initiative, was in attendance for the presentations.

“It was great,” she said. “I really hope it’s incorporated into our high schools. If I had had that in high school it might have helped me.”

One of the afternoon’s keynote speakers was Bob Hawkes, a former administrator for the community college district of Kern County and current trainer for the GFSF program, which is owned by a company called Academic Innovations.

Hawkes began his presentation by relating the connectivity between post-secondary school choices, choosing a major, and eventually finding a career pathway.

“Your parents might be proud you majored in philosophy, but the plumber is making more money. Who’s going to buy a house first, the electrician or the sociology major?”

Hawkes additionally stressed the real-life applications of the program, noting that some students’ desires to be a football player or have a $1,500 monthly budget for clothes are possible, but only if they take the right steps now to achieve those goals later.

“We need to tell some of the students, it’s grow up time. It’s time to talk to students in a firm way. It's the best motivator they can have.”

Hawkes identified the GFSF initiative as a non-profit in the search for “additional funding.”

The programs could be incorporated at little cost to the districts, he added, because the organization provides the two-day teacher program at no cost thanks to a state grant to community colleges for career planning.

The program costs “$50 per student,” he said, which covers the purchase of an in class textbook and student workbook.

An Academic Innovations order form from their website lists a dozen student textbooks and a half dozen licenses that range in price from $8 to $50.

A price is not listed for the 10-year plan “activation/renewal fee.”

But Hawkes stressed that the eight high schools in the Kern County district that use the program believe they will be making an additional $2 million to $3 million dollars in revenue from ADA due to decreased absenteeism.

The “boosts in ADA more than pays for itself,” he said.

With the program in over 300 high schools in California, he said.

One of his current goals was to incorporate the program as an entry level counseling requirement at Columbia College

It teaches “values, concepts of success and what do you think is important?” he said. “When they get a picture of their individuality, they begin to recognize that.”

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