Preparing students for success without college

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A well-known author was startled to receive a repair bill from his plumber for several hundred dollars, after about an hour’s worth of work.

“What?! That’s more than my doctor charges,” the author said.

“You’re right,” the plumber replied, nodding his head. “It is more than I charged as a doctor. That’s why I’m now a plumber.”

Jokes about the high price of plumbing work are common, and they underscore a reality that is often ignored in discussions about high school reform: Not all careers require college, and not all students need college.

Plumbers, physician’s assistants, carpenters, machinists—all of these are viable jobs that students could get a head start on in high school. Yet each year, about 7,000 seniors earn a diploma but fail to enroll in college and have no preparation for work. That is a road to disaster. Today’s tough job market is no place for a teenager or young adult with no direction and no work experience.

Meanwhile, a recent report on jobs in Illinois points out that thousands of jobs go begging each year, enough to put every one of those 7,000 graduates to work—if they had the right training. These jobs include nursing, fire-fighting and transportation, none of which requires a four-year degree.

As one administrator at a South Side career academy told Associate Editor Sarah Karp, “Kids need to know that these are not second-class careers.”

All too often, however, career and technical education in CPS is second class. The district is successfully pushing more students into four-year colleges and universities but has ground to make up when it comes to career prep. Many students who begin career programs never finish. Those who do—like one young man from Richards who studied accounting but has no idea how to find a job when he graduates—typically finish without any work experience or industry-recognized credential that could help them land a job.

Career education could also help the district curb the number of dropouts. Thousands of teens are at risk of dropping out each year and joining the ranks of the unemployed. One young woman, an alternative school student and former dropout, said the results sometimes are worse.

“When we fill out applications for legit jobs and we don’t get anything, drug dealing is the only thing we have to do for money,” she said. “It is a guaranteed job.”

Studies show students in career programs are less likely to drop out, and that stands to reason: Students whose classes are connected to the real world—especially low-income teens who need to work to help their families—are going to be more motivated and willing to stay in school. It’s all about making education relevant.

CPS officials have taken the first steps toward revamping career and technical education. Two of the new Renaissance 2010 schools show promise in preparing students for high-tech manufacturing and construction trades. Four more career-prep schools are slated to open this year and next. The mayor’s office is getting into the game, bringing together stakeholders. The head of CPS’s recently created Department of College and Career Preparation, Greg Darnieder, has begun talking to principals about the need to include career education in their school improvement game plans.

“Our intent is to retool the whole strategy,” Darnieder says. That means beginning with the end in mind, whether it is college, the workplace, an associate’s degree program or an industry certificate.

The district’s strategy, however, must keep in mind the skepticism of parents who remember a time when minority children who were not considered “college material” were pushed into dead-end vocational programs. These parents don’t want to see their children’s academic potential and future prospects shortchanged by career programs that are nothing but old-style voc-ed in modern clothes.

CPS got a taste of this skepticism when it began making plans for the new Westinghouse High. Parents rejected the concept of one school with separate vocational and college tracks. Instead, they demanded career programs in which the next step after graduation would be additional post-secondary training.

The district’s strategy also must acknowledge the reality of today’s workplace: Most decently paid jobs require some training beyond high school. Even entry-level jobs require skills similar to those needed to get into college.

The district also should set out clear indicators for judging schools’ progress on this front.  Each school’s score card should report on enrollment and graduation rates for career programs, as well as participation in internships during students’ junior and senior years, when career training begins in earnest.

Getting kids into college shouldn’t mean giving short shrift to career preparation. Schools must do both to serve students well.