Gage Park High School senior Harriet Agymang stands in front of a leaderboard in the Equipment and Technology Institute classroom that tracks students’ college applications and acceptances. [Photo by Marc Monaghan] Credit: Photo by Marc Monaghan

On a November morning, the first agenda item in Krystian Weglarz’ class is to have students review the process of obtaining copies of their grade transcripts and ACT scores in preparation for completing college applications. 

Next, Weglarz takes a tally to see how many students have improved their ACT scores. “If it went down, you don’t have to submit that one,” he says. “You just keep the higher one.” 

Weglarz then hands out permission slips for a field trip to the Illinois Institute of Technology, and reminds students that a speaker from DeVry University is slated for a visit. “You want to be here,” he says. 

Students give their weekly update on career and college news. One young woman got into Miles College in Alabama with a $12,000 scholarship. Another got into Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill. Another received a full-tuition scholarship from Wilberforce University in Ohio.

A leaderboard on the wall shows how many acceptance letters and scholarship offers each student has earned. The same students, Weglarz notices, have good news week after week.

“What is it that you’re doing?” he pries. “We just turned in our stuff early,” one student says.

Another student sighs, noting the hard work involved. “I’ve been looking for these schools since my sophomore year.”

“Everyone should have those success stories,” Weglarz tells the class. Students who are lagging behind in their college search should get advice from those who are doing well. 

Next, students work in teams on a postsecondary research project. Finally, Weglarz offers a reminder: “Where are you at with the Common Application process? Or similar? Next thing you know, it is tomorrow; it is January.”

The agenda might not seem surprising for a class of seniors, except for one detail: Weglarz teaches at Gage Park High School’s Equipment and Technology Institute. Students learn about advanced manufacturing and automotive technology, how to follow technical instructions and get the chance to earn certification through the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council. 

But there’s also a strong post-secondary education component, something that the district has made the centerpiece of its overhaul of career program curricula. Fueled partly by the college-for-all movement and partly by the new, more rigorous Common Core Standards, education policymakers around the country as well as in Chicago are trying to bridge the gap between college-prep and career-prep education. 

At the same time, here in CPS, the number of career programs has fallen over the past five year, to 182 this year from 240 in 2008-09. “As the district has raised standards, schools have decided to shut down programs on their own,” says CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman. “Another contributing factor is decreasing enrollment. Schools facing low enrollment have had to close programs.” 

Though admission standards remain generally the same, CPS students are entering career programs with better academic preparation: This year, 33 programs had average EXPLORE scores of 14 or higher for incoming 9th-graders, a dramatic increase from just seven such programs in 2011-12. (A score of 14 on the EXPLORE is considered the threshold for reaching college-readiness on the ACT.)

The new approach has benefits. Students who aren’t on a solid college-prep track get an extra push toward post-secondary education—something that is virtually essential for the good jobs of the future. For lower-income students in particular, getting into college or earning a specific credential for a job in an in-demand field could be a ticket out of poverty. 

Yet the district has a long way to go to make its career education overhaul a success. 

College enrollment rates for students who finish a career education course sequence are only slightly higher than for CPS as a whole: 60 percent compared to 56 percent. Among students in the Gage Park program, 70 percent of those who graduated in spring 2011 (the most recent year available) enrolled in college. 

Fewer students are completing career education course sequences, with the number falling dramatically to 2,173 in 2011-12 from 3,108 in 2007-08. At Gage Park, for example, two classes of sophomores enter the Equipment and Technology Institute each year. By senior year, just one class is left.

Many career education programs have a hard time attracting students because they are in struggling neighborhood high schools. At more than one-third of the programs, 10 or more students were offered seats for each student who eventually attended. On average, nearly seven offers were made to fill each seat. 

Chicago is part of a national trend on the career education front. Stephen DeWitt, deputy executive director of the National Association for Career and Technical Education, says districts around the country have sought to link college and career education in recent years. “The focus on that is important,” DeWitt says. “It is helping students to realize that college is a potential option for them.” 

Recent research predicts that the number of jobs requiring two-year degrees will grow, and that some industry-recognized career credentials may lead to increased earning potential.

DeWitt says other districts are raising academic expectations, too.

“With the Common Core State Standards, it is going to become more important,” DeWitt says. 

Adding more challenging coursework, he adds, may help keep potential dropouts engaged in school. 

Karina Romano and Giovanni Fernandez are classmates in Gage Park’s Equipment and Technology Institute. Their goals differ, but both say they have benefitted from the program’s approach. 

Romano, a 17-year-old senior, plans to study creative writing in college. She doesn’t see a contradiction between that goal and the three years of study in Gage Park’s program.

“It still helps me research [colleges],” she says. “It’s helped me to keep going, not to give up [and] reach goals that are realistic to me.” 

Romano’s older sister tipped her off that the program would help her make it into college. Her sister is now studying anthropology at Hamline University in Minnesota.

“I just wanted to be in a class where people care about your education,” Romano notes. “She told me Mr. Weglarz was a big help. They helped me prepare for the ACT. They helped me write my personal statement.” 

The Gage Park program has closer ties to colleges—like Illinois Institute of Technology, Ranken Technical College in St. Louis, the University of Dayton, Universal Technical Institute and DeVry University—than to businesses.

Still, Weglarz admits that there are limits to what the focus on college can accomplish. “No matter how much we help them get ready, with the financial obstacles, with travel, with family responsibilities, students may go first semester” but then drop out, he says.

Fernandez, also 17, wants to further his education too. But his goal is tied to what he’s learned in the Technology Institute: He wants to study automotive technology at Ranken Technical College. 

Fernandez had planned to go to work right out of high school. But then his father, who works at Graphic Packaging as a machine operator, gave him some advice. “He told me, ‘You don’t want to be like me. I get home tired, I go to sleep and I go back the next day. Do something you love to do,’” Fernandez says.

The Gage Park program caught his attention. Now, Fernandez has learned skills that will be useful in automotive technology, such as following technical instructions. The workplace safety certification he earned in his junior year should be helpful in the job hunt, too.

In all, about a half-dozen students in the class are aiming for a career related to manufacturing.

“It is more important to expose them to a variety of technology [fields], to postsecondary options, and to give them the soft skills they need to succeed in any job,” Weglarz says. Soft skills are the personal qualities that are important for any career field, such as the ability to communicate, a strong work ethic, problem-solving skills and a positive attitude.

To get students in a goal-oriented frame of mind, Weglarz has them write letters to their future selves, which he mails to them five years after they graduate from high school. On a Facebook page for the program, Weglarz stays in touch with alumni and often invites them back to speak to current students. 

Xian Barrett, a former teacher at Gage Park and at Julian High School who is now national program director at New Voice Strategies (the parent organization of the advocacy group VIVA Teachers) says that students who face the most obstacles to staying in school have been hurt the most by the shift in career education.

Julian, for instance, closed programs in fashion design, cosmetology, carpentry and culinary arts. Teachers in those programs, Barrett recalls, tried to use the lure of those disciplines to recruit students who were gang-affiliated or had had trouble in elementary school. The programs became “kind of a gateway to academics,” he says.

“This idea that kids in the highest-need situations need to continually roll the dice on whether the program they are depending on, in some cases to a life-and-death level, is going to survive—I think there’s an element of injustice to that,” Barrett says. 

Decisions on whether to drop or add programs are typically made, he adds, “without any understanding of community context or input from communities, especially the students themselves.”

At Julian, five career tracks remain: business, allied health, broadcast technology, game programming, and digital media.

Kimberly Saunders, who has taught broadcast technology for over two decades, says that students learn to operate the latest equipment, practice their writing skills—“In order to do a production you have to do a proposal, a script, a video shot sheet and a storyboard,” Saunders points out—and create videos that are broadcast by Channel One News, a national high school news service. 

CPS data show that over the past several years, half or more of her students have gone on to college.

On a recent morning, the class practiced talk show production, with some students taking on the role of hosts, some running light and sound boards and others portraying actors being interviewed.

“Above all, they are learning how to work with other people,” Saunders says. 

Julian’s broadcast program has had success in sending students on to college. But Barrett takes issue with the “college for all” concept.

“Students have come to me directly and said, ‘This constant push that to be a good person you have to go to college, it seems like they’re saying my parents are bad people,’ ” he observes. “I see this direction of setting high bars and demanding that kids clear them to get opportunities as [a strategy of] disengagement.”

Julian and other career academies are struggling to become the citywide draws that the district envisioned when planners began working to better distribute career education programs among different areas of the city.

But career academies also struggle to attract students who live closer in.  According to CPS data, more than two-thirds of students who live in the attendance boundaries for career academies—more than 29,000 high school students—choose to attend elsewhere.

Counselor Krystal Kay, who was previously Julian’s career and technical education coordinator, says Julian is losing out to charter schools and to other schools with career education programs. Even though students come from 96 elementary schools, the school’s total enrollment is just 1,057 students, down 9 percent from last year.

“It is important for families to know they can get a quality education in a neighborhood school in a [career and technical] program,” she says. 

Yet many students come into high school clueless about what they want to do, so career education becomes a tougher sell. “They do not want to be in a three-year program just to get exposure,” Kay says. “We have to do more career awareness at the elementary level.”

Marketing is essential, notes health science instructor Judy Granger. “A lot of times people say, ‘I didn’t know you had that program.’ I would place my students up against the students at Sullivan (which has a more well-known health sciences program.) They need to know they have the same opportunities here on the South Side.”

In Julian’s business and finance program, sophomores practice typing and formatting business memos. Juniors take an accounting class as well as a class in entrepreneurship. As part of that class, they open a business and sell to customers at two open houses, keeping the money they earn. 

During senior year, all students take classes but then leave mid-day to go to jobs at places like Northern Trust Bank, Seaway Bank, Walgreens, and the Starks & Boyd law firm. It’s one of just a handful of similar work-study programs in schools across the city. 

The promise of a paying job is a huge draw for students, business teacher and work-study coordinator Joyce Ingram says.  But it’s not enough to counteract the enrollment decline.

“You have students who are living in neighborhoods that are relatively dangerous, and if they want to participate in a program that is across town, in an area where they’re not wanted, they don’t go,” Ingram points out. 

Several students from Mikva Challenge, a civic engagement program, said they had no idea career education programs were available, and would have appreciated an opportunity to enroll. 

Jordan Henderson, a 16-year-old junior at Lincoln Park High School, said that when he was selecting a high school as an 8th-grade student at Sabin Magnet, the focus was on selective schools.

In retrospect, Henderson says he would have liked to study computer programming. Next year, he hopes to take an Advanced Placement course in Java, a programming language.  But in a career academy program, Henderson would have tackled the subject sooner. 

Vincent Calderon, a 17-year-old senior at Hancock High School, also says he did not know career programs existed. He, too, wants to be a computer programmer. But his school has no programming classes to offer—just courses in Microsoft Office and in web design. 

Crane Medical Prep High School faces similar challenges. It’s one of several academically selective, health-focused programs that CPS has opened in the last several years. In theory, 40 percent of the seats are for students who come from the neighborhood, and 60 percent are for students from the rest of the city. But everyone must have a stanine score of at least 5 in reading and 5 in math on their 7th grade ISAT to qualify for enrollment at Crane. 

“We adhere to the policy primarily because we have a very robust math and science curriculum,” says the school’s principal, Fareeda Shabazz. “They say, ‘I want to be a cardiologist,’ ‘I want to be a pediatrician.’ (But) the five is already a very low bar, and students who come in any lower won’t be able to handle the rigors of the programs.”

After sophomore year, students choose a career track known as a major. They can choose nursing, allied health, or pre-med. But the school is still working to nail down whether nursing and allied health students will be able to earn credentials, and if so, which ones.

The school started this year with just 150 freshmen, but this spring is set to make 300 offers in hopes of having a larger freshman class. 

“We are looking for those numbers to increase tremendously,” Shabazz says. “There are many students in the city that are prepared for a curriculum this rigorous; (but) the biggest challenge has been the reputation of Crane High School.”

She points to the contradiction between the lack of applicants for Crane’s selective program, and the district’s lack of selective program seats: “A lot of parents leave the city because there aren’t a lot of viable options for students who don’t get a perfect score on the selective enrollment exam.”

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This story has been updated to correct a student’s name.

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