Edward Osby, a welding instructor at Simeon Career Academy, points to the white marker board in his classroom and notes that the math problem on it is not one that should stymie high school students. Yet months into the year, he’s still teaching it.

“Students should know how to convert six-tenths of a yard into inches,” Osby says. Such a proclamation—that students are behind academically—is not unusual in CPS. At almost 85 percent of high schools, the average scores of incoming freshmen are far below national norms.

In Osby’s welding class, students immediately see how their gaps in knowledge prevent them from being successful as welders. He points to coat hangers made by his students. Without the math skills needed to measure properly, the hangers ended up looking like tangled messes.

“You can’t complete the simple projects,” says Osby.

Academic preparation is more than a must-have for college-bound students. Even students planning to go straight from high school to work need to achieve at high standards. In today’s highly competitive, technical world, many blue-collar jobs require the same level of literacy and math skills as those needed for college, according to a study done by the testing company ACT.

And there’s ample evidence that CPS graduates aren’t meeting those thresholds. Along with taking the college entrance exam their junior year, CPS juniors take a work skills test, called WorkKeys. In 2007, about 64 percent of students scored a five or below in reading. Five is the benchmark considered necessary for success in the workplace.

Not ready for basic work

Nearly a third of CPS students lack the minimum math skills deemednecessary to do even the most basic jobs, such as sales clerk,according to ACT’s job skills assessment test WorkKeys, given to alljuniors. The majority of students lack the ability to do slightly morecomplicated jobs, such as bookkeeper or medical technician.

Students lacking skills for basic jobs
 School  Reading skills Math skills
 Chicago Agricultural 6.8% 17.7%
 Prosser  10.8%  20.6%
 Simeon  10.3%  27.5%
 Farragut  18.2%  32.0%
 ACE Tech  19.1%  42.8%
 Dunbar  12.3%  44.2%
 Chicago Vocational  20.5%  50.5%
 Manley  27.2%  55.3%
 Tilden  32.8%  66.7%
 Districtwide average  15.0%  33.0%

Note: Juniors take the WorkKeys test as part of the Prairie State exam.Students can score between a 0 and a 7. ACT considers a score of 3 thebenchmark score that shows the ability to handle a basic job.

Source: Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS WorkKeys data.

A 2001 report on manufacturing in Cook County faults the Chicago school system for its high dropout rate and low percentage of students performing at national norms. As a result, graduates lack an “adequate educational foundation” to qualify even for many factory jobs, notes the report from the Chicago Labor Federation.

Those who have studied effective career programs say the best strategy is to get freshmen up to speed on basic skills so they have time for career-related classes in sophomore year and beyond. In Chicago, however, many students may need longer than freshman year.

A report on the CPS Class of 2004 found evidence that career programs can help students catch up. The report found that students who took career classes had higher grades and fewer absences, were more likely to graduate and improved their scores on standardized reading and math tests more than similar students not in the program. The study was published in 2005 by University of Illinois at Chicago professor Helen Roberts.

At Austin Polytech, a model career academy that focuses on pre-engineering and manufacturing, balancing career education with the need to teach basics has been difficult.

Designers of Austin Polytech are still trying to mesh their lofty goal of getting students ready for high-tech manufacturing with the reality of students’ skill levels, says Dan Swinney, executive director of the Chicago Manufacturing Council. The council was integral in Austin Polytech’s creation.

Many students come in Polytech with low math skills—some as low as 3rd grade—and the school has had to work on how to accelerate learning in a short time. One advantage is that the school offers much of its career and technical classes as after-school programs, leaving the school day free for core courses.

Osby, who points out black and Latino students must break through an “old boy’s network” to get into trade unions after high school, adds that many unions have yearly tests to get apprenticeships. If his students don’t pass, unions won’t let them in. He estimates that maybe 15 out of 100 students will do well enough on the tests to get apprenticeships.

Freshmen have a long way to go to be successful, he admits. But Osby tries to convince them they can do it. In his classroom, he has a book about teaching civil rights next to a math book. To him, the two are related. 

“I tell them that they are behind, but that is not the measure of a man,” Osby says. “What is a measure of a man is when they step up.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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