Prosser machine shop Credit: photo by John Booz

For Latifah Pierce, a senior at Prosser High School, a metalworking course in machine shop is opening the door to an array of career options. The program offers Pierce an opportunity to earn one of seven certification credentials created by the National Institute for Metalworking Skills. Prosser launched its technical certification program two years ago, and it is gaining the attention of employers, some of whom pay certified entry-level machinists an additional $5.25 an hour on top of base pay.

“I was going to transfer, but I liked my shop so much I stayed,” says Pierce. “With this, you can go out and get a job.”

Good jobs for graduates is exactly what new Education-to-Careers Chief Jill Wine-Banks wants for more Chicago Public Schools students. But it won’t be easy.

When the district phased out traditional vocational programs, it failed to replace them with curricula that integrated higher academic requirements with career and technical skills. While some career programs have clear connections to real jobs—information technology, construction and health, for instance—others, such as travel and tourism, are tied to fading industries.

Compounding the challenge is an inadequate tracking system that is unable to keep tabs on what high school students do after graduation. Meanwhile, Wine-Banks is just beginning to establish cooperative relationships with the business and industry groups that can connect students with jobs.

About 30 percent of the more than 100,000 students in CPS high schools are enrolled in career and technical education courses. More than half of them attend one of the city’s 11 career academies, one of which is Simeon High in Chatham, which opened a new $40 million building in September.

This is the third time since 1990 that CPS has tried to shake up vocational education. In 1990, the district was spurred to action by the federal Carl Perkins Act, which required schools to beef up the academic component of vocational programs and prepare students for postsecondary training in community colleges.

In 1997, former CEO Paul Vallas closed the door on dead-end vocational courses and opened up other ones through joint programs with area colleges. Notable was College Excel, a program that allows average high school students to enroll in technical college courses and earn dual credits. (See related article.)

He also beefed up high school graduation course requirements, mandating that all students pass three years of math and three years of laboratory science.

High school reformers say tough graduation standards pave a path to college for students in career education programs. “Career and technical students must take a real academic core,” says Gene Bottoms, director of High Schools that Work, a reform model that requires four years of math.

Now CEO Arne Duncan has put education-to-careers, the new moniker, on the drafting board once again. In April, he hired Wine-Banks, a lawyer and former business executive, and charged her with ensuring that every CPS career education graduate walk out of high school with the credentials that employers are seeking for entry-level jobs.

“The mayor and Arne are very interested in making sure we train our students to go into the workforce immediately after graduation, either as a career path or as a way to earn money while they go on to further education,” says Wine-Banks.

Enrollment declines

Chicago’s struggles to revamp career education programs mirror the national scene. Pressure to raise high school students’ academic performance has diverted attention from career programs, which are suffering from declining enrollment and poor image.

“It’s too early to tell what’s taking its place,” says Richard Kazis, executive director of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based policy and advocacy organization for youth workforce development. “A big question mark is how much of our technical education will take place in high schools versus colleges.”

Wine-Banks says getting a handle on the quality of existing education-to-careers programs is her first priority as she attempts to integrate high school course work with practical, job-training skills.

Integrating academics with a vocational curriculum has been a longstanding challenge. While some vocational teachers may try to work subjects like geometry and even trigonometry into their courses, building bridges with academics continues to be difficult.

Today, CPS career training consists of three-course sequences in 11 industries, which are available to varying degrees in every high school. Students may choose to apply to one of 11 “career academies,” where every student declares a career major.

A recent national study shows at-risk students who attend career academies are more likely to stay in school. In Chicago, dropout rates at career academies in 2002 ranged from a low of nearly 6 percent at Prosser High to a high of 35 percent at Tilden High.

Over the next 12 months, Wine-Banks will assess career course offerings with the goal to shut down outdated programs. (She’s already eliminated barbering and consolidated travel and tourism into hospitality, which includes culinary science and hotel management.)

In a letter sent last month, CPS gave high schools with low career education enrollment rates the choice between closing their programs or building enrollment. Decisions will be made in December.

Eventually, Wine-Banks plans to evaluate facilities, equipment, internship opportunities and teacher qualifications in every high school career program. She also wants to determine how career program graduates are faring on post-secondary licensing tests, and how many jobs are available in those industries that CPS offers course work.

Schools innovate

Since shedding traditional vocational programs, some CPS high schools have replaced them with innovative initiatives that connect students with career options.

Since small business is a leading source of new jobs, high schools are partnering with outside groups to teach students entrepreneurial skills.

Juarez High, for instance, offers two programs: Headstrong Enterprise, which created and launched a shampoo product this summer, and Bikes for Chicago, which repairs and services bicycles at local cycling events. This summer, teachers from Juarez and seven other CPS high schools attended training sessions sponsored by the National Foundation for Entrepreneurship Education.

“These kids are getting exposure at an early age,” says Bonnie Keyes, program director of the Illinois Manufacturing Foundation, which helped Juarez develop its entrepreneurship programs. “They’ve got something real to put on their resume.”

With help from the Illinois Institute for Entrepreneurship Education, the education-to-careers office is revamping its business curriculum to include more instruction about creating a business from scratch. “Most of the teachers have been teaching some kind of business planning, but up to now there has been no mandate that they implement the business plan and see if it works,” says Zira Smith, director of teacher training for the Institute.

Outside partners are also working with schools to fill gaps in career education and counseling. Chicago Women in Trades exposes middle and high school girls to nontraditional occupations, and often finds girls have had little counseling about their futures.

“We provide college information and general career counseling to make up the slack,” says Melissa Barbier, director of girls’ programs.

One model is the partnership between Manley High and Umoja Student Development Corp., which seamlessly integrates college and career awareness, says Barbier.

Meanwhile, Wine-Banks is making connections with the business community, and is recruiting industry leaders to serve on a new career education advisory board.

Experts support the idea of industry leaders making program recommendations, but add that they also need to get their hands dirty. One example of how this works comes from Boston, where the nonprofit Boston Private Industry Council assigns one career specialist to every high school to help students land internships and set goals.

CPS eyes grassroots models

Other career education models are cropping up in CPS small high schools and charters. Gage Park High is home to a small school that focuses on manufacturing technology. A trade group, Chicago and Cook County Building and Construction Trades Council, is looking to open a charter school next fall where students would be exposed to at least 16 different trades over four years of high school. The group is exploring sites and recruiting a committee of labor leaders and contractors to serve on its board, says President Michael O’Neill.

With an eye on grassroots models, Wine-Banks has a number of initiatives on the drawing board, including:

Improving career education and awareness in earlier grades. “I’d like to see career exploration start in grade school,” she says.

Identifying students’ interests earlier. “Kids pick their high schools, and sometimes they don’t have the program they want,” she notes.

Tracking students who graduate from high school. CPS is developing a partnership with the National Student Clearinghouse to determine which colleges its graduates attend. Wine-Banks anticipates the system will produce its first report next year.

Expanding opportunities for career education students to earn industry-recognized credentials by the time they graduate. Some CPS career programs—nursing, computer networking and cosmetology, for instance—already offer such credentials. But no credential exists in other industries, such as business. “Anything that doesn’t already exist is trickier,” she notes.

Last year, Prosser High’s machine shop became the first in the city to become accredited by the National Institute for Metalworking Skills. Students who wish to take the Institute’s certification exams are not required to complete an accredited program, but doing so gives them a leg up, says Executive Director Stephen Mandes. Most programs with this credential are found in postsecondary training programs and colleges.

Prosser’s Latifah Pierce is hoping to earn it. If the lathe part she’s fashioning is approved by a committee of industry experts, and she passes a written test, she will earn one of seven entry-level certifications for machinists. “It’s challenging,” she says, “but as long as you work hard for it, you can do it.”

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