Walk into any CPS high school and you’re likely to see college banners as well as posters urging students to fill out financial aid forms or go on college tours.

The message is loud and clear: College is the path to success.

The displays underscore an ongoing tension about the value of career and technical education in a society that promotes a bachelor’s degree as the best route to a good job. In a recent broadcast of the ABC newsmagazine “20/20,” some experts challenged that conventional wisdom with the assertion that some students may earn more, and do better career-wise, without college.

In CPS, however, the push for college has taken center stage, putting career education on the back burner. Over the past four years, the rate of college-goers from CPS has risen by 7 percentage points, while the rate of graduates completing career and technical education programs has only increased 5 points. The number of students enrolled in these classes has declined 18 percent since 2004.

The trend is the same on a national level. “We have de-emphasized and de-funded traditional vocational education,” says Carrie Thomas, associate director of the Chicago Jobs Council. “People are not interested in these careers, and our systems aren’t doing a good job of talking about them, making them seem attractive to students and making them accessible.”

Federal and state funding for career programs has been flat for over a decade, says Thomas Hott, executive director of the Illinois Association on Career and Technical Education, the state’s chapter of a national advocacy group. Especially during the past four years, advocates had to fight former president George W. Bush’s administration to keep funding level.

Hott says his organization must also convince lawmakers, educators and parents that technical and career programs are valuable. “Only about 25 percent of careers need a college degree,” he points out.

Craig Chico, president and CEO of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, says many students he meets see college as the only viable route to a good job. Yet they lack the strong academic background to be successful in a four-year institution.

“We are setting them up for failure,” he says. “I know a lot of damn good tradesmen, who work good hours and make six figures. But yet, we tell these kids to go to college and then when they can’t make it, they feel like they failed.”

Valencia Rogers, career development facilitator at Crane High on the Near West Side, says the issue is not just about students’ academic potential.  “A reality exists,” she observes. “Many of these students won’t be able to afford college. Then what are they going to do? I have seen kids with a full ride to college and no bus fare to get there. They have to have something to turn to.”

Only 35 percent of Crane graduates went to college last year.

But Sean Stallings, principal of Manley Career Academy in East Garfield Park, couldn’t disagree more with the idea of directing students into the work world rather than college. His strategy over the past two years has been to prepare students for college by participating in High School Transformation so that students get more rigorous curricula, and by launching small learning communities for freshmen and sophomores so that they get more support from teachers.

Stallings’ work is paying off: Nearly half of graduates in 2007 enrolled in college, compared to less then a third four years ago. While Stallings supports Manley’s career programs, especially the off-campus, hands-on work experience provided for some seniors, he is adamant that students should not be steered away from preparing for college.

“We are all entitled to our own opinions, and I think every child should go to college,” he says. “Imagine if it were your child who didn’t get invited on the college tour and instead was told ‘Let’s go out and look at this workplace.’ We do not want our guidance counselors to become judges [of students’ potential].”

The message that college is paramount resonates with communities, too.

CPS administrators got that message as they discussed the opening of the rebuilt Westinghouse High on the West Side. In 2005, district officials announced plans to tear down the old building—which featured trade programs from woodworking and fashion design to cosmetology and food service—and replace it with a new $110 million high school that would be split between a vocational school and a selective school.

Janice Jackson, slated to become the principal of the new Westinghouse when it opens in 2009, says the community was only interested in preparing students for careers in which the next logical step was post-secondary education.  To that end, they picked radio/TV broadcasting, with an emphasis on journalism; a medical academy; and computer networking.

The goal, Jackson says, is to prepare students for “a competitive journalism school and internship programs [that] right now, CPS students don’t even participate in.”


Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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