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Career zone for a high school 

Sheldon Cooper, 15, says he's thinking about following in his mother's footsteps. He wants to attend Georgia State University to pursue a career in health care, he says, perhaps as a nurse — like his mom. But he also loves cars and boxing.

His friend and classmate, Tony Bermudez, 15, says he wants to attend Syracuse University to major in business. He wants to learn everything he can about finances, he says, and someday own his own business.

"I'm good in math," Bermudez says. "It just comes easy to me."

His prowess on the basketball court could earn him a college scholarship. He says he's already been approached by a scout.

Their classmate, Joshua Richmond, also 15, says he's considering a career in law enforcement, although he really likes to play baseball.

All three teens are like many boys their age — tall, gangly, and crossing that footbridge between childhood and young adulthood. Their career ambitions are practical, if somewhat vague.

Cooper, Bermudez, and Richmond all have a passion for sports, but their knowledge about the jobs available in professional sports is limited.

Bradley Reiss, a young account executive with the Rochester Rhinos, says he wants to change that. A high-energy sports fan himself, Reiss nearly buzzes at the prospect of working with the boys.

All three teens are sophomores at Rochester Career Mentoring Charter School and Reiss has offered to be their mentor.

"I'm not looking to turn them into superstar sales executives," he says. "But through this experience, they're going to get a taste of what it's like to work in professional sports."

The high school, located at 30 Hart Street, began with a freshman class of about 80 students last year, and plans to grow, says Dennis Francione, the school's founder.

Charter schools tend to be thematic in nature. And Francione, a former teacher and principal with the Rochester school district, says that his school's mission is to provide city students with a strong academic program that leads to a Regents diploma.

Nurturing students' career interests along the way is a motivational strategy, he says, to help keep the students in school. And it's practical, he says.

Many city students need help figuring out what they're good at and what they like to do, Francione says. And they know even less, he says, about attainable careers that combine the two.

"We don't just tell them about the career opportunities out there," Francione says. "We show them and we help them focus. It doesn't matter whether it's cosmetology and fashion or something in the health care field."

RCM connects its students to professionals in those fields through a mix of internships and mentoring relationships. The students get to explore their career ambitions early in high school, and they learn about the education and training they'll need to land a job they want.

Some students are preparing for college, Francione says. Others are preparing for technical training or an apprenticeship.

The Rhinos' Reiss says that his relationship with the teens is in the early stages, but that he foresees Cooper, Bermudez, and Richmond experiencing everything from game-day operations to customer service.

"They're going to be so close to the action," Reiss says. "We're going to put them in situations where they're going to interact and touch every person who comes in."

The students will learn time management, communication skills, and how to take direction and feedback, he says.

"This is a good way to take every slip up and fall and turn it into a learning moment," Reiss says. "I'm hoping they'll get the goose bumps like I do, but maybe they'll discover that they don't want to work in an environment like this. That's important, too."

RCM is one of the first charter high schools in the area to follow a career-building model.

"We have a 95 percent attendance rate," Francione says. "Our students want to be here and they know we want them to be here."

The teacher-led school has had no students drop out and no staff turnover, he says.

Cooper, Bermudez, and Richmond say they're thankful they're going to RCM.

"Gangs are inside and outside some [city school district] schools," Cooper says. "Sometimes you have a bunch of dudes who think that a street is their street. If I'm going home and I see six or eight dudes who are coming toward me, I might take a different way because they might jump me or something."

Bermudez says there aren't as many boys right now at RCM and the boys who are there are friends.

"We all know each other and we get along," he says.

Parent engagement is also strong, Francione says, and school functions are well attended.

Though there are no school counselors at RCM, each teacher is an advisor to roughly 13 students on everything from getting extra help on a particular subject to dealing with personal problems.

"You've got to deal with the whole child," Francione says. "Some of our students have behavior problems, but we work with them. You can't leave their social-emotional issues outside the school."

But academically, RCM's test scores haven't been stellar. And Francione acknowledges that he's facing a challenge. Some research suggests that how well new charter schools will perform becomes clear within their first 24 months of operation.

To improve student performance, Francione has invested in technology for the classrooms, and has created tutor-intensive remedial programs for students who are behind in some subjects.

As many as five tutors work with a single classroom teacher to help bring students who are having academic problems up to speed. Francione favors this approach over summer school, which he says isn't as effective.

The school's future may rest on how well Francione and his staff are able to match business and trade professionals with RCM's students. While mentoring can take many forms, Francione says that giving students the opportunity to try different types of work is critical. It's also one of his concerns about the current push toward college readiness.

Many students don't know why they're going to college, he says, and some feel uncomfortable saying they want to be mechanics, for example.

"What are we doing?" Francione says. "That's nonsense. We need our mechanics and plumbers and electricians."

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