A grand vision for career prep

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During class time at Gage Park High School’s Equipment and Technology Institute program, Open Books mentor Dan Meehan works with junior Uzziel Fernandez. The program still includes more technical lessons, but a push to prepare all students for college has led to an increasing focus on academic skills and social-emotional development.  [Photo by Marc Monaghan]

Photo by Marc Monaghan

During class time at Gage Park High School’s Equipment and Technology Institute program, Open Books mentor Dan Meehan works with junior Uzziel Fernandez. The program still includes more technical lessons, but a push to prepare all students for college has led to an increasing focus on academic skills and social-emotional development. [Photo by Marc Monaghan]

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former CEO Jean-Claude Brizard announced in 2012 that the district would open 10 International Baccalaureate programs in high schools across the city, a small but telling detail didn’t make the news: The IB’s then-new Career Certificate program, designed to give students a rigorous IB-style education while tailoring coursework to their career interests, would be a cornerstone of the “wall-to-wall” programs. 

Given the widely recognized success and academic value of the IB Diploma Programme, it makes a lot of sense to adopt the IBCC (now offered by 63 schools around the world, including 36 in the U.S.) as part of Chicago’s expanding IB portfolio. IB programs require significant professional development for teachers and a rigorous curriculum, reducing the odds that a career track ends up as a second-tier, lower-quality option.

The IBCC is one indicator of the district’s vision for upgrading career and technical education. As Associate Editor Rebecca Harris reports in this issue of Catalyst In Depth, the end game now isn’t a job as a mechanic, a hairdresser, a data entry operator or some other occupation typically meant for young people deemed not to be “college material.”  The goal now is more ambitious: Prepare students for post-secondary education—whether at a two-year college, a four-year college or a technical school—while teaching them practical skills and providing them with workplace experience.

The shifting paradigm is driven partly by the “college for all” movement and the advent of the Common Core Standards, which emphasize college- and career-readiness. A vision that reaches beyond 12th grade is a must: The 21st Century workplace landscape is barren of good-paying jobs that do not require some training beyond high school

With these parameters in mind, CPS is seeking to open more programs in information technology, health sciences, engineering and advanced manufacturing—areas of higher job growth. The district has also rewritten curricula to focus on college-going and “soft skills,” the personal qualities and attitudes, such as punctuality and a strong work ethic, that can be the deciding factor in getting or keeping a job. 

Sometimes, young people need an extra boost to navigate the work world. A small federally funded program in three high schools (Harper, Wells and Kelvyn Park) aims to provide this intensive help to students who are at risk of joining the ranks of the “disconnected”—youth who are not in school or in the workplace. 

Yet even here, the goal is broader than job placement (see story on page 14). “You help a kid get a job and they are more likely to graduate high school and go on to college,” says James Zeckhauser, who works for the social service agency Youth Guidance, which operates the program. 

Though small, the initiative shows promise. Almost 70 percent of students have found a job, enrolled in college or further job training, or enlisted in the military by the time they exit the program. Expanding the program to serve the 166,047 “disconnected” youth in Chicago would cost an estimated $249 million. 

Sound too costly? Break it down to each young person, and the price tag is a modest $1,500 per student.

The law of unintended consequences warns that any intervention in a complex system tends to create unanticipated and sometimes undesirable outcomes. In Chicago Public Schools, the law applies in several ways with career education.

One consequence, tied to the district’s ongoing push to open new schools, has hurt already-struggling neighborhood high schools: Career prep programs in these schools have had a difficult time attracting students. 

With fewer students, schools have closed programs and the overall number has declined to 182 this year from 240 five years ago. It’s undoubtedly preferable to offer students training for a better job in a higher-paying field. But as one former Julian High School teacher points out, closing programs has left a void: Teachers used the lure of these programs to attract students who faced the biggest obstacles to finishing high school, making them “kind of a gateway to academics,” he says.

Last year, almost 4,500 students earned some type of credential through career education programs. Yet a third of these credentials were in Microsoft Office programs or financial literacy. Such credentials boost resumes, which is a plus. But fewer than 20 percent of credentials lead directly to jobs, and a relative handful put students directly on a pipeline to the best jobs in higher-paying fields.

At Gage Park High School, teacher Krystian Weglarz points out one challenge to increasing students’ success at earning valuable credentials in high-tech manufacturing: “The same struggles we have in a core class are the same difficulties we face with any other certification, any other course, whether it’s low reading ability [or] low math ability.”

Providing workplace experience has also been a challenge. Selective career programs are the only ones in which all students complete an internship. Summer internships are only part-time and thus less attractive to students who need full-time work. Fewer high schools are now participating in “work-related study” because these internships knock out class periods that many students use to take extra courses or make-up classes.