Edge/Up worries about its future

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Victor Cornejo, a senior at Senn High School, hopes to attend the University of Texas at Dallas and become a psychologist. So why is he taking auto shop?

“I’ve learned things that I can use anywhere—business letters, memos,” he says. “We’re learning automotive technology—repairing cars, body work, electrical. I can use this making spare money for college or fixing my own car.”

For Cornejo, college might not have been in the picture without Edge/Up, a school-to-work program based at Senn and Lake View high schools. In 1995, Edge/Up was the only Illinois program to win federal funding under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. “Victor’s attendance and grades were poor,” says Julia Suarez, Cornejo’s mother and a parent organizer for Alternatives, Inc., an Edgewater community organization that oversees Edge/Up. “After he started going to this program, his attitude changed. He started to go to school every day. Now he’s even thinking about college. He’s getting the information.”

Cornejo’s turnaround is not alone among Edge/Up’s 250 students. “We lean much more toward high-risk than Harvard-bound,” says project director Lila Leff.

At press time, Edge/Up was still contacting last June’s graduates to update outcomes. But so far, all graduates contacted from the program’s last three classes are working, are in school or both, with 81 percent continuing their education. About half of those in school are attending junior college, and half are in 4-year institutions.

These successes may not guarantee the program’s future, though. Edge/Up has a cordial relationship with Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas and central office, but the administration’s plans for vocational education are substantially different from Edge/Up’s vision. The administration proposes to limit voc-ed to juniors and seniors whose test scores are at grade level, to conduct voc-ed courses mostly outside regular school hours and to give community colleges and businesses the responsibility for planning and teaching them. (See main story.)

Edge/Up’s program relies heavily on collaboration among high schools, community colleges, local businesses and community groups. It also integrates academic and vocational instruction in an effort to reach as many students as possible, ideally across all grades and academic skill levels. These two emphases challenge assumptions about high school scheduling, credit systems and other structures.

Students volunteer for Edge/Up and choose an area of interest, called a career cluster. Senn’s juniors and seniors can choose to focus on metal works, automotive/transportation technology or carpentry/construction. Metal works, the oldest of the clusters, began in 1991 and received national attention, which gave a boost to Edge/Up.

Lake View offers a computer information systems cluster, which grew out of the efforts of Melissa Arnold, a drafting teacher and Lake View’s director of technology until her death in October. In previous years, Arnold had worked with math teacher Steve Starr to integrate her computer-aided drafting class with his course in geometry, and had arranged for students to take an introductory computer class at St. Augustine College in Uptown.

Each cluster integrates the vocational curriculum with at least two academic subjects. This year, the computer cluster at Lake View integrates English, math and computer-aided drafting classes. Teachers in those courses worked together under the guidance of Loyola University education professor Dorothy Giroux to coordinate curriculum.

In addition to classroom instruction, the program incorporates both career counseling and work-related experience outside the regular school setting. Each student must attend four 1-on-1 career counseling sessions with Alternatives’ employment specialist Roslyn Johnson. The sessions progress from an informal, get-acquainted interview through a detailed career-interest inventory and research on careers in three areas of the student’s interest. Finally, the student prepares a career goal plan that may include meeting with a guidance counselor to plan appropriate coursework, ACT scheduling or contacting colleges and/or employers to obtain more information.

Edge/Up requires students to visit local companies and shadow a worker on the job. Each cluster has its own set of industry contacts for these job shadowing tours. Industry contacts like S&C Electric in Rogers Park or Just Tires in Lake View see Edge/Up students as potential employees.

Senn senior Juan Ramos, who is in his second year of metal works, works part time after school for S&C Electric. He earns $8.25 an hour, plus an extra 10 percent for hours after 5 p.m.

“Not many kids our age get a job with that kind of pay,” he says. But money isn’t the only thing on his mind. Although he hasn’t yet made up his mind about what to do after graduation, Edge/Up has given him a number of options. He’s been thinking about the Marines, but he could choose to go full time at S&C or to work and attend school at the company’s expense. He could also decide to enter Senn’s 2+2+2 program, an arrangement with Daley College and the Illinois Institute of Technology that can lead to a bachelor’s degree in manufacturing technology.

In addition to job shadowing, internships and part-time work, some students also attend off-site training programs. For example, Project TEAM, an auto mechanic training program sponsored by Uptown Center Hull House, offers a 10-week series of hands-on, after-school seminars, with each seminar devoted to a single topic within auto mechanics, such as suspension or brakes.

“Because the class period in high school is so short, the idea of Project TEAM is to give kids more hands-on skill building,” says director Susan Purdie-Dixon. “Sometimes 40 or 50 minutes isn’t enough to take a part off, put it on and get some practice. Employers want people who not only know some theory but who have hands-on, marketable skills.”

On June 1, representatives from Edge/Up worked out an agreement with central office for juniors and seniors to earn credit for unpaid, off-site learning experiences like Project TEAM seminars. Because sophomores, who are not covered by the agreement, take St. Augustine computer classes after school, that work will be counted as assignments for their classes at Lake View, says Andrea Brown, an Alternatives staffer who facilitates Edge/Up’s work at the school.

It took a community

Edge/Up illustrates the potential of community involvement in schools.

Before Edge/Up, Senn had been developing its school-to-work program independently, first with metal works and then with auto shop. Meanwhile, Lake View’s Arnold approached Alternatives to help her find ways to ease students’ transition from school to work. Because Alternatives, which focuses on youth issues, was already involved with both schools, the organization helped link school personnel, students, parents and businesses.

In 1994 the Organization of the North East (ONE), an umbrella group with 52 member agencies in Edgewater and Uptown, sponsored a working group on economic development. Alternatives, St. Augustine College and Project TEAM were among the participants. Members of the working group hashed out an economic development plan that stressed job training for youth “as a preventive measure,” says Joaquin Villegas, who represented St. Augustine.

The group boosted Senn’s and Lake View’s work by increasing their industry contacts and finding community-based training programs like Project TEAM to supplement the school curriculum. “We don’t have the energy to set up this model alone,” says Lake View counselor Steve Maras. “We could not be as far as we are without them.”

As a result, when the School-to-Work Opportunities Act made federal money available, “we just pulled the pieces together,” says Leff.

Despite the program’s happy beginnings, Edge/Up’s partners are worried. “That’s a big fear we all have—that Paul Vallas wants to get rid of voc-ed,” says Rita Young, a guidance counselor who was instrumental in starting metal works at Senn.

Although Edge/Up reached agreement with central office on credit for off-site training and persuaded it to purchase liability insurance to cover job shadowing and off-site visits, other issues remain.

One controversy concerns the use of paid industry professionals, or “meisters,” in the classroom. When Lake View’s Arnold developed cancer last spring, Alternatives hired Lou Bracich, a retired draftsman who now teaches at Wright College, as a meister because “a sub would not be brought in on the basis of whether they knew drafting,” says Andrea Brown. “We knew we had to bring in someone with technical expertise.” Currently Bracich teaches the drafting skills while an FTB substitute handles attendance and grades.

Although Bracich is the only meister to have taken such a prominent classroom role, what a meister’s role should be is not yet settled. Brown insists meisters “do not co-teach. They’re almost on a consulting basis.” Under state law, a teacher must have a teaching certificate or be working toward one.

Another issue is the current high school schedule. Edge/Up is working with Leadership for Quality Education to present proposals on increasing the length and flexibility of the high school day, which might, for example, permit a Project TEAM seminar to be held during school hours. Small-schools proponents advocate similar reforms, like block scheduling for interdisciplinary classes, and Leff has hopes that central office’s high school restructuring team will take these ideas into account.

“If there’s anything I’d like to get across, it’s that basic skills and technical education are compatible,” says Leff. “People often pit them against each other, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”