Caribou High School sophomore Sophia Garcia (left) chats with JMG Master Specialist Valerie Waldemarson about her experiences job shadowing local court cases as part of her Extended Learning Opportunity. Credit: Courtesy of Caribou High School

CARIBOU, Maine — Sophia Garcia is only a sophomore in high school but already thinks she could make a good lawyer someday.

As part of a new career program at Caribou High School, Garcia recently sat in on local criminal docket hearings and watched as attorneys negotiated on behalf of their clients. That’s something she never could have learned by sitting in a classroom.

“I knew I was interested in law and that it sounded cool, but I never knew what it actually looked like,” Garcia said.

In Aroostook, helping students gain work experience during college isn’t new. But more local school districts are joining the 20-plus across Maine that are joining Extended Learning Opportunities, the new Maine Department of Education program that gives high school students credit toward graduation while they work or job shadow in a career field.

Five students at Caribou signed up for the program at the beginning of the school year. Since then, participation has exploded to include 105 students.

Principal Jamie Selfridge, who credits word of mouth among the school’s 467 students for the growth, said that many Caribou students sought out early career experiences on their own before the program.

“I think as educators, we always questioned why students couldn’t get [academic] credit for things they do beyond the classroom,” Selfridge said. “But now we can help open up career pathways while they get credit for something they enjoy.”

Caribou is one of two schools in Aroostook, along with Presque Isle High School, that receives learning opportunities assistance from the University of Maine at Presque Isle. In fall 2022, UMPI became the first university in the state included in Extended Learning Opportunities funding, which totaled $5.6 million statewide and covered program expansion in 13 Maine counties. UMPI received $250,000.

Aroostook County Action Program also received $250,000 as part of the $5.6 million and is planning to include schools that are not part of the UMPI partnership, said ACAP Program Coordinator Kathy Williams.

At Caribou, students have connected with professionals in a diverse set of careers, including health care, law enforcement, real estate, construction, welding, auto mechanics, agriculture, animal science and education.

Junior Emma Butler knew she was interested in becoming a physical therapist, but her experiences outside of the classroom have made her confident in her choice.

This year, Butler shadowed a therapist at County Physical Therapy as she worked with patients. Butler began assisting with patients’ daily exercise routines after learning more about their stories.

Butler gained similar experiences while job shadowing an athletic trainer during sports games at Caribou High School.

“I think actually doing the hands-on work with patients made me realize that’s what I want to do,” Butler said.

For years, Caribou High School already had an increased focus on career preparation through its Jobs For Maine Graduates program, which teaches classes on financial literacy, career readiness, marketing and branding and preparing for postsecondary education or work.

But unlike that program, the Extended Learning Opportunities is open to all students regardless of their future plans or whether they’ve taken Jobs for Maine Graduates courses, the school’s JMG master specialist Valerie Waldemarson said.

Waldermarson helps students design a learning experience geared toward their interests and goals. Along with work, internships or job shadows, students complete assignments and presentations urging them to reflect on how the experiences could shape their future.

For students like Butler and Garcia, this means they can explore career options before devoting money and time to a specific college major.

“I went to law school and I remember hoping that I would really like it. But at least students today can really make a decision before that,” Waldemarson said. “It’s one thing to learn about a career but it’s another thing to experience the human aspect.”

That’s what Garcia realized. While writing a case study on the evolution of the U.S. child welfare system, she learned how the system helps children and how some kids can tragically fall through the cracks.

But watching real people’s lives change in court brought that reality home even harder.

“I would say I definitely excel at book projects but it’s different when you see these things play out in real life,” Garcia said. “[A learning opportunity] is definitely something I’ll do next year. Once I get more experience, I’ll see if law is something I’ll really want to pursue.”