When Kevin Nols was a student at Piscataway High School a decade ago, going to college was seen as the primary – if not the only – path to success.

“I was never given an opportunity to speak to other people about their careers,” he said. “I always thought it was going to be high school, college and then get a job. There was no real deep dive to figure out what I would need to get started on a career path or what training I would need.”

He was like millions of students across the country who for generations were told college was the ultimate goal and going to work after graduation may have been seen as a letdown. Schools based success on college acceptance rates and asked where students were going to college, not if they were going to college.

But those attitudes have begun to shift in recent years, driven by technology, workplace demands and increasing debt for students attending four-year colleges. And, like other schools, Piscataway High School in Middlesex County is shifting gears to meet the needs of its students. 

Nols was back at his alma mater in December to talk to current students at “What’s Next,” a career-fair-style event aimed specifically at non-college-bound learners. The event was just one aspect of Piscataway Township Schools’ wide-ranging goal for the 2022-2023 school year to “enhance and expand opportunities for non-college-bound learners.” It was planned and presented by the Piscataway High School Counseling Department with help from the district Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

“This event is super important because it gives the kids the ability to look at different routes and options they may have, especially if they are undecided about their future,” said Nols, who graduated from Piscataway High in 2015 and went on to earn a degree in criminal justice from Middlesex County College. He now works in motorcycle sales for Cross Country Motorsports in Metuchen. “I’m definitely happy with the path that I took. However, if I had the opportunity to be presented with these options, I wouldn’t have done what I did,” he said. “If I would have been shown this when I was in high school, it would have let me dictate what I wanted to do with my future.”

Piscataway Superintendent Dr. Frank Ranelli said the district’s shift is critical to meet the needs of students who don’t intend to go to college.

“We did this not only through changes in our curriculum offerings, but in changes in attitudes and the way our teachers and counselors speak to students about their choices after graduation,” he said. “We did not want students to feel like a career or trade school was somehow a lesser option.”

In 2018, the New Jersey School Boards Association formed a task force to look into educational opportunities for the non-college-bound learner. It found the educational system was lacking and outdated in its service of students not bound for college and that educators needed to “change the attitude toward jobs that do not require a college education.”

“Task Force members observed that not only are students directed toward college, but in some cases, the schools fail to advise them of alternatives,” the task force’s final report read. “Sometimes, guidance counselors will not discuss the possibility of vocational careers with students. And even when they do, the counselors have a hard time convincing parents that college may not be the best route for their students.”

The report further states that it is “the responsibility of families and educators to allow each student to find his or her best career path by considering not only the traditional four-year college route, but also the broad range of other post-secondary options.”

A Dedicated Counselor for Career and College Planning Theresa Edmondson, supervisor of college, career and personal guidance, is helping to lead that charge at Piscataway High School, along with her group of 12 counselors. That includes a new position created for the 2021-2022 school year to work exclusively on career and college planning, including the needs of non-college-bound students.

“We’ve worked with non-college-bound learners before, of course, but it wasn’t such a big focus,” Edmondson said. “Now we’re making it more a part of the vocabulary. We’re saying if you want to have a career, if you want to go to technical school, it’s exciting.”

Ranelli pushed to create the new counselor position in 2021.

“I want to thank the board of education for supporting me when I came to them to ask for this additional counselor position,” Ranelli said. “I don’t know of another district in the county that has a counselor just dedicated to college and career planning. I’m really happy to know that it’s making such a difference.”

Piscataway Board of Education President Shantell Cherry, who has been on the board since 2015, recognizes the importance of giving students choices for their future.

“The changes the board has supported in our district offer our students new paths after graduation, including trade school, community college, or preparing for a career,” she said. “With the encouragement of teachers and counselors, students are exploring more options than ever before.”

Spotlighting Career Opportunities For the high school’s “What’s Next” career fair, Piscataway invited more than 40 representatives from trade schools, industry, government, trade unions, military branches, vocational programs, civil service and small businesses – including several Piscataway alumni. They spoke one-on-one to more than 160 students about possible career paths to pursue after graduation.

The event was open to juniors and seniors who either requested to take part or were identified by teachers and counselors as someone who would benefit from the opportunity.

“I loved engaging with the kids, being that I’m younger and can relate to them a little more than others,” Nols said. “I was able to give them honest feedback of how I chose my career and how much I love what I’m doing.

“I saw barbers, electricians, salesmen there. So, it’s kind of cool to get an idea of everything before you jump into college. Kids get that chance to learn about what people do in their fields. It’s not just, ‘You have to graduate high school and immediately go to college.’ There are other career paths you can take.” 

In addition to “What’s Next,” PHS has also hosted representatives of FedEx and Lincoln Tech to talk to students about career and trade-school opportunities, and juniors will be attending Construction Industry Career Day in May at Raritan Center in Edison.

Kelly Chilakos, who is in her second year as the school’s college and career counselor, said the changes are essential to properly meet the needs of all high school students.

“It is necessary for us to make this shift, so that we are helping all PWAY graduates achieve their post-high-school goals and connecting them to the appropriate resources,” Chilakos said. “Also, with the increasing cost of college education and the rising need for employees in trades and other non-college-bound careers, we want to make sure that our students are prepared to succeed in any post high school plan.”

Piscataway senior Ta’lon Carr said he is planning to attend college, but he still finds it valuable to learn about different options.

“Seeing the variety of jobs in front of you instead of just hearing about it makes the experience better,” he said. “I was able to get in touch with a few mechanics, welders, wood techs, HVAC, packing and delivery, as well as other professionals. I’ve already taken the time to look into a few of the jobs I had seen at ‘What’s Next.’ ”

Rahiim Hashmi, a PHS junior and a student representative on the board of education, said the Piscataway Counseling Department is already discussing the future with 11th-graders. “They’ve been doing a really, really good job. Not just with college planning but with career planning for students who are not leaning toward a college path,” he said.

It is crucial to send the message loud and clear that not every student needs to go to a four-year college, Chilakos and Edmondson said.

“In the past, if a student wasn’t going to college, they may not have felt proud about their plans. And that’s what we’re trying to change,” Edmondson said. “We’re trying to make students feel proud about going to technical school or going to work full time. It’s good to have a career! And they may end up making more money over time.”

Last year, there were even two scholarships awarded to PHS graduates who were going into the trades. One awarded money to be used for uniforms and other necessities, and one was targeted specifically for a student who was becoming an electrician’s apprentice to help purchase tools.

“So, even on scholarship night and senior awards night, they were celebrated, too,” Edmondson said. “So, if we could get more of those, that would be really exciting.”

Gary Miller is the public information officer for Piscataway Township Schools.