From the moment students walk through the door of a Kankakee school to the time they walk across the stage to receive their high-school diplomas, we have to do everything we can to prepare them for life after formal education and the jobs of the future. Since I started in education, I’ve used the motto, “The transition to adulthood starts in preschool.” It’s the idea that conversations about college and careers need to start earlier rather than later.
Today, that phrase is the mantra that pushes my teachers and principals to think past the traditional style of teaching, and to truly prepare our students for life outside the four walls of a school building by giving them hands-on experience and the chance to explore a plethora of careers through project-based learning.
Ask a third-grader what they want to be when they grow up, and you’ll likely get answers like “a teacher,” “a police officer” or “a doctor.” For a child, the idea of what those careers entail is narrow. For example, to a six-year-old, a doctor is the person they see to make them better when they’re sick. In today’s school systems, there’s little to no awareness of the schooling and experience a person needs to earn a medical degree. Also, students are likely not aware of doctors outside of those in the medical field: professors, psychologists or researchers can be “doctors” too. By taking the time to dig deeper into specific fields, we are opening our students’ minds to new career paths they may have never thought of: engineer, builder or scientist.
Starting the career conversation early
In the College and Career Academy classrooms in our elementary school, each grade focuses on a different range of careers, so as students move through school they have a chance to explore a variety of fields and decide where their interests lie. For example, first-graders focus on careers in agriculture, food and natural resources; and third-graders focus on engineering, outer space and plant life. The idea is for students’ knowledge of and curiosity about different career fields to evolve as they progress through elementary school.
During the school year, students undertake four large-scale projects that align with their grade-level focus and appropriate state standards. We use supplementary curriculum that breaks down tasks by grade level and keeps all lesson materials such as articles, videos and rubrics in one spot. The projects give students room for individual creativity as they master career skills including problem-solving and collaboration.
The hands-on projects make the careers come alive, because students can apply their classroom knowledge to the real world. During the projects, students are asked to think like engineers, designers, doctors or whatever position is relevant to the task. This change of mindset engages students because they’re using their creativity and critical thinking skills to solve a problem. They’re not memorizing facts for a test; they’re applying what they’ve learned and demonstrating their skills to create an end product such as a 3D model, presentation, etc. When these career projects are incorporated into relevant teacher lessons, students are pushed to think toward the future and determine what they want to be when they grow up.
As students enter middle and high school, they participate in career-investment inventories and choose from numerous educational tracks, including Freshman Academy, Business Academy and Medical Academy. In the near future, we will be adding a STEAM or STEM Academy and a Leadership Academy with ROTC. Currently, all students at Kankakee schools are involved in project-based learning as part of the required career projects, which puts a spotlight on the collaborative skills needed to enter the workforce.
The format we’ve created at Kankakee prepares students for every stage of life by giving them the skills and experiences they need to be successful. Setting cognitive ability, skill level, and achievement aside, we’ve made college and career options available to all students, and prepared them for life after primary education. Because we are starting career and college conversations at five instead of 15, our students are more prepared for the transition to adulthood and will find success on whatever path they choose.
Genevra Walters is the superintendent of schools at Kankakee School District in Illinois, where the College and Career Academy uses supplementary curriculum from Defined STEM.
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