Crane High School Credit: Photo by Cristina Rutter

A couple of years before President Barack Obama tapped CEO Arne Duncan to become the nation’s education secretary, Duncan’s pal and new boss lent his now-famous image and voice to a public service announcement about the district’s career education program.

In the 60-second spot, Obama lauds these programs as offering a competitive edge by combining rigorous coursework with industry knowledge and hands-on experience.

That may have been Duncan’s dream, but it is far from reality.

About a quarter of CPS high school students—some 24,414 in 2008—take a class in career or technical education, like cooking or computer programming, at some point. Some $40 million was spent on career programs last year.

But according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of 2008 data from CPS, only 3,108 graduating seniors actually completed a career or technical education program, generally a sequence of three classes that together lead to some formal certification of knowledge or skills in a particular industry or for a specific job.

Why this matters

Career and technical education can be a powerful force in keeping students in school and can help students who don’t go to college make a smooth transition to the workforce. Over the past decade, CPS has tried three times to revamp the program and is about to try again. Here’s what they’re up against:

  • Nearly a quarter of CPS high school students take career or technical education classes, but only about 3,000 finish the three-course sequence.
  • About 1,000 students complete majors in which industry-recognized credentials are issued and many schools don’t place students in internships or apprenticeships—two essential elements of good career programs.
  • District career and technical education programs do not reflect the needs of the current labor market: jobs requiring mid-level skills.

Ideally, a high school diploma along with a skills credential would lead to jobs for graduates who don’t go to college. Yet the outlook is bleak for students who head for the work world: According to a district report, a year after graduation, only about half of those few students who completed a CPS career education sequence had found a job; only a quarter worked consistently throughout the year; and those who did still earned less than a full-time worker at minimum wage.

The statistics do not include the thousands who dropped out of career programs before graduation or never graduated.

In recent months, Duncan took another stab at turning around career and technical education, putting one of his trusted senior staff—Greg Darneider, who founded the Office of Postsecondary Education—in charge. It marked the second time Duncan has tried to invigorate career education with new leadership, and at least the fourth time since 1990 that the district has made a major change to the program.

The most dramatic change was in 1997, when former CEO Paul Vallas did away with traditional vocational education programs, which were widely criticized and viewed as merely a holding place for students who were not considered college material.

Yet today, many of the district’s Education-to-Careers programs, whether in career academies or regular high schools, continue to flounder. CPS’ major high school reform project, High School Transformation, makes no mention of how career and technical education fit into the curricula.

Providing high-quality career training is a task that school districts across the country are wrestling with. 

Studies show that career and technical education can be a powerful force to help keep students in school—but only if done right. Effective programs are small, have cohesive curricula tied to industry needs and have connections to businesses that can offer internships and provide jobs to graduates.

For the most part, CPS’ career and technical education doesn’t fill the bill. A highly critical August 2006 report commissioned by Mayor Richard M. Daley pointed out that not only do few students complete programs or earn credentials, fewer than 10 percent of students get internships.

In response to the report, the district has gotten two small technical schools off the ground and has four more in the pipeline. CPS has hired staff to concentrate on developing more internships for students.

But overall, high schools have not been held accountable for moving students through career programs or making sure they acquire specific job-related skills. Jill Wine-Banks, who ran Education-to-Careers until last year, says some principals “abused the program.”

Some high schools had few students completing programs but Wine-Banks says she was unable to strip these schools of federal funding for them.

“The way the system is set up, these principals were free to do whatever they wanted and there was no oversight or consequences for doing it,” Wine-Banks says. 

Some principals admit that career education needs better direction. Others say that such programs are not a major concern, because of the push to get students to enroll in college.

But CPS is beginning to pay more attention to the task of preparing students for work, noting that, in a best-case scenario, schools would do both college- and career-prep well.

Darnieder has comprehensive change in mind. Though he’s still new to the job, he has begun having hard discussions with principals about goals for career and technical education and how their schools need to operate in that context.

“Our intent is to retool the whole strategy,” says Darnieder, who runs the newly formed Department of College and Career Preparation. “We want to make sure that there are clear next steps for these students, whether it is employment, certificates or college.”

Chicago Public Schools has 11 career clusters, including automotive repair and hospitality. Some high schools offer as many as 17 majors within those clusters, while others just offer one or two options.

But these programs vary widely across the district. Some have well-designed curricula and good outcomes for students. Others have disjointed coursework and few success stories.

Ideally, career academies would enroll students who have applied and are interested in the specialty being taught. But in reality, about half of career academies—Manley, Tilden, Richards and Farragut—function as neighborhood high schools that take all comers, whether or not students are interested in the career tracks offered.

All students at career academies enter career-oriented classes their sophomore year, but schools differ widely when it comes to the number of students who complete the career sequences. The program is designed to have students take an orientation course during their sophomore year, a basic career training course as juniors and advanced training as seniors.  Under this scenario, a third of those enrolled would complete the sequence each year. But that rarely happens.

At the best of the career academies, like Dunbar in the South Side neighborhood of Douglas, about 21 percent of those who enroll in classes complete the sequences, compared to just 8 percent at Farragut, according to a Catalyst analysis.

Sullivan High’s Health and Medical Careers Academy is one of the district’s more successful programs, boasting a 30 percent completion rate for students who enroll.

To be admitted to the Sullivan program, students must have above-average scores on standardized tests, a C-plus grade point average and good attendance. Candidates who meet these criteria must pass an interview and submit a letter of recommendation and a writing sample. Once accepted, students must maintain a 2.5 grade point average and a 95 percent attendance rate.

The academy classes are taught on the third floor of Sullivan, in a long, rectangular room, filled with posters of brains, hearts and medical terms. In one corner are two gurneys with plastic dummies lying on them.

Students take honors classes in science and double periods of career courses, staying together as a group for each class and grade level. Students laugh as they say they are each other’s family and, like a family, they get on each others nerves. They also get individual attention from teachers.

Earlier this year, Jessica Carodine says she almost dropped out. Faced with a difficult physiology class, she cried and told her teacher, Judy Ginsburg, that she couldn’t do the work.  “I did not feel like taking my brain the extra mile,” Carodine says. But Ginsburg wouldn’t let her quit, urging her to give it more time. Now, in mid-year, Carodine is starting to understand the lessons and says she’s glad she stuck with it. 

Between junior and senior year, students get a summer job at a hospital, clinic or pharmacy.

Maricela Bustamante, a senior at Sullivan, describes her experience this past summer at Rush Hospital as “awesome.”

“I was worried that I would never get accustomed to sick people, but I developed close connections,” she says. “I saw things I never thought I would see.”

As a senior, Bustamante took classes after school at Wright College, (a City College of Chicago) and became a certified nursing assistant. This will give her a leg up on a good job when she goes to college.

Ginsberg says all of her students aspire to become either a physician, a nurse with a specialty or a veterinarian. Indeed, district data show that nearly all of Sullivan’s medical academy graduates go on to enroll in college.

But those who don’t go on to college have other options. According to the American Medical Association, the starting salary for a medical assistant is $28,000. In fact, medical careers are one area where jobs are plentiful. The state estimates that on a daily basis, Illinois hospitals need 1,000 nurses; across the board, medical staff are in short supply.

Sullivan’s success is not the norm, however. More typical is Richards Career Academy, where attendance boundaries, rather than career interests, determine who enrolls.

Many students who show up don’t know that they have to enroll in one of Richards’ four career programs. And given space constraints, there is no guarantee that they will get the major they want. 

Finding teachers and setting students up with internships is often a problem. When a computer science teacher left the school, administrators had a tough time finding a replacement, so the program was scrapped and students simply transferred to the school’s culinary arts program.

Richards is just now trying to build up its internship program, says Assistant Principal Mary Dolan. The problems wear on the students.

Senior Maria Dell-Martinez says she chose the medical career program because her aunt is in the field. But much of the program has been a disappointment, she notes. The medical careers teacher was deployed to Iraq and has been gone for 18 months. During that time, students dropped out of the program. Internships never came through.

Job prospects, too, are uneven. While culinary arts and medical assistant training can lead to jobs straight out of high school, law and accounting are fairly useless without at least an associate’s degree—and two-thirds of Richards graduates do not enroll in college.

Dolan wonders whether students would be better served with career tracks in fields that do not require college. She suggests that the school consider becoming a hospitality academy—several years ago, she notes, Richards got two new stainless steel chef’s kitchens.

But she also sees the value in adding more career tracks that would train students for jobs right out of high school.

“There are wonderful trade and technical schools,” she says. “I want to make sure that we have electricians and carpenters. Kids need to know that these are not second-class careers.”

Making sure that career and technical education leads to something tangible for students is a challenge across the nation. A report released in July on the state of career and technical education in New York City revealed problems similar to those in Chicago, particularly problems integrating career training and curricula for core courses.

Career and technical education schools that are considered model put a lot of effort in building relationships with businesses. Massachusetts has made it a requirement that every program have an advisory committee with industry leaders as members.

Michael Ananis, executive director at Rindge School of Technical Arts in Cambridge, Mass. says these committees help seniors get internships and graduates land jobs. Every Rindge graduate who completes the career and technical program earns an industry-recognized credential that is issued by the state’s Department of Education.

Several states, including Massachusetts, Alabama and Florida, have recently changed their policies to spell out more clearly what their expectations are for career and technical education. Florida, for example, now requires two-thirds of students in career majors to earn industry certification or college credit after four years; programs that don’t meet the requirement will be scrapped.

The report also points out that for the first time, the federal Perkins grant for career and technical education now allows states to use the money to review curricula and make sure it is rigorous and in line with other reform efforts.

Illinois has an effort underway to revitalize career-oriented curricula, but it is voluntary and doesn’t have much muscle.

Although Wine-Banks notes that not every field issues credentials, she also says more students should complete career tracks and have something to show for it when they graduate. Graduates also ought to have a good line on a job, she adds. To that end, her department created a formula to determine which career majors would lead to job opportunities, Wine-Banks explains, but ran into political barriers when it tried to shut down ineffective programs. 

Kelly Sparks, who oversees research for the Office of High Schools, is keeping an eye on how career majors line up with available jobs, using employment reports from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. The office will also make sure students take career courses in the right sequence; in the past, some students took advanced classes before passing the basics.

Accountability will be a priority moving forward, says Kelly. “This is a major policy change coming down the pike,” she says.

In initial discussions with principals about retooling career ed, Darnieder says he hasn’t encountered much resistance. Another change in the works regarding funding is aimed at ensuring that schools comply with the new quality controls.

Currently, schools use federal funds to pay for all equipment, supplies and training for career and technical education. Darnieder says he might make principals pick up part of the tab, which he thinks would ensure their buy-in to the program.

“Right now, they are getting money and don’t have to put anything forward,” he says.
Sparks says it is particularly important to her and Darnieder that career programs provide a solid path to good jobs for students who don’t enroll in college. “We need them to have employable skills,” she says.

The need for these changes is real. The story of Jesus Garcia at Richards is an example.

Garcia is an earnest young man with good grades who is president of Richards’ student development committee. He’s an accounting major, a career track that only one in four students completes. As graduation looms on the horizon, Garcia has no definite plan for what he’s going to do after high school.

He’s thinking about taking classes at a community college, but his priority is to get a job. His mother needs help making ends meet, he says. “She has worked too hard for too long.”

But after four years at Richards, Garcia is still clueless about where to look for a job and what he’s capable of doing. He has no credentials or work experience in accounting or bookkeeping.

Says Garcia, “I really don’t have any ideas.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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