Career education one remedy for ‘boring’ high schools

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

Mayor Daley sounded like a teenager a few weeks ago, saying the problem with high school is that it is “boring.”

Now that he has found common ground with the kids, he should ask them what they would do to make it more interesting. Judging from some students Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher has talked to recently, we suspect he would be surprised by their answers.

Ervin Makalaj, a 2003 graduate of Amundsen High School, was enrolled in a training program to earn certification in CISCO computer systems. With the promise of a paying job, the program was very interesting—until his senior year, when an ailing teacher and a trainee were assigned to teach the class. According to Ervin, he and most of his classmates flunked the certification exams they took in June. Now a freshman at University of Illinois at Chicago, Ervin is unable to earn extra money for school at the higher wages that CISCO certification would justify. His advice to the mayor would be to hire good teachers.

Another kid the mayor should consult is Samella Watson, a senior at Marshall High School. When Samella was 13, her grandmother turned her on to baking cakes. In high school, she opted to study culinary arts and had the opportunity to job-shadow chefs at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Marriott Hotel. Then last year, a kitchen renovation project at Marshall stalled, leaving kids in the program without working ovens or stoves for two semesters. “Without the kitchen, we can’t have the hands-on experience we need,” Samella says.

Samella would advise the mayor to ensure that classes have the materials and facilities they need. Both students were enrolled in what theoretically should be some of the least boring programs in the system, yet they both ended up twiddling their thumbs. If the school system can’t make its career education classes interesting, there’s scant hope for the rest of its programs. Picked apart and patched together under pressure from the federal government and two administrations, career education is a dilapidated program in need of an overhaul.

According to Jill Wine-Banks, the newly installed education-to-careers chief, both the mayor and CEO Arne Duncan have charged her with making career programs work, but also ensuring that all high school students are workforce-ready by graduation.

Wine-Banks’ initial efforts have been focused on the bare basics—making sure every high school has picked a staffer to serve as its education-to-careers coordinator, and weeding out dead-end vocational courses such as barbering and travel agency.

For the bigger challenges, Wine-Banks can look to Boston, where a heavily engaged business community has made solid connections between schools, jobs and continuing education, and to the city’s own Manley High School, where a nonprofit program called the Umoja Student Development Corp. has done the same. Since Umoja was launched at the West Side school six years ago, graduation rates have improved, and more students are going to college. More than 70 percent of the 2003 graduating class was accepted into colleges compared to only 10 percent in 1997. Observers of the program say Umoja gets much of the credit.

According to a Johns Hopkins researcher, two key characteristics of effective dropout prevention programs are setting students sights on an attainable future and empowering them with the skills and knowledge that will get them there. That’s what Umoja strives to do.

Evaluating facilities and teacher qualifications are on Wine-Banks’ long-term to-do list. However, as the experiences of Ervin and Samella show, those exercises can come none too soon.