By Dr. Genevra Walters
Are we really doing all we can in our current educational system to prepare today’s students for the careers of tomorrow? Since I started in education, I’ve used the motto, “The transition to adulthood starts in preschool.” Today, the phrase is the mantra pushing my teachers and principals to do everything they can to prepare our students for life outside the four walls of a school building.
Knowing that the number of STEM-related careers is growing rapidly and projected to grow 17% in the next ten years, we implemented a new K–8 reading and math curriculum with STEM at the core. The model—which will eventually be infused at every grade level—calls for a focus on college and career prep from a young age. Kankakee’s non-gifted and non-magnet classes are now called “College and Career Academy Classrooms.” Teachers focus on the cross-curricular aspect of subjects, and highlight real-life application, Next Generation Science Standards, and career exploration through project-based learning.
Here are 3 strategies we use to make sure that our students are college and career ready:
1.) Career-oriented curriculum
The curriculum in our College and Career Academy classrooms is dictated by a Career Wheel that guides each grade to focus on a different range of careers. As students move through school, they have a chance to explore a variety of fields and decide where their interests lie. For example, 1st-graders focus on careers in agriculture, food, and natural resources; and third-graders focus on business management, finance, hospitality/tourism, and marketing.
- Kindergarten: human services
- First grade: agriculture
- Second grade: health sciences
- Third grade: business
- Fourth grade: communication systems
- Fifth grade: architecture and engineering
2.) Hands-on Project-Based Learning
During the school year, students undertake four large-scale projects that align with their grade-level and appropriate state standards. We use a project-based learning resource called Defined STEM, which breaks down tasks by grade level and provides additional support materials like videos, step-by-step guides and rubrics in one spot. These tasks are career focused and reinforce the application of STEM content. The projects give students room for individual creativity as they master career skills including problem-solving and collaboration.
3.) Career Inventories
As students enter middle and high school, they participate in career-interest 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 and a Leadership Academy with ROTC. In the coming years, the high school will transition to the same sort of academy model that the elementary school is using now. By the 2019–2020 school year, sophomores will choose an academy for the remainder of their high school journeys that will help them determine their future careers.
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. Since Kankakee switched to a STEM focus, we have seen an increase in students’ performance in math and reading. Setting cognitive ability, skill level, and achievement aside, we’ve made college and career options available to all students through project-based learning. 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.
To learn more about Dr. Walters approach to preparing students for careers, watch her webinar “Cradle to Careers: The Transition for All Students Starts in Preschool”. In this 60 minute webinar, Dr. Walters will emphasize a district leader’s role in preparing students for the global economy and will share best practices for other educators to adopt.
Dr. Genevra Walters is the Superintendent of the Kankakee School District in Kankakee, IL. Follow her on Twitter: @walters_genevra.