Educators have to do a "shift in mentality" and adjust their focus from preparing high school students for graduation to getting them ready for the workforce, according to Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Superintendent David Schuler.
It's why District 214 has decided to emphasize its role in the "cradle to careers" pipeline -- an effort recognized Friday by the Illinois Community College Board. The board, which provides oversight of the state's 49 community colleges, decided to highlight District 214's early career education programs as a model for other districts in the state.
"We have to recalibrate our educational system. We're no longer focusing on graduation as the end point," Schuler said at a joint news conference at Rolling Meadows High School's advanced manufacturing lab. "We are defined by how successful our kids are after they graduate."
Community college board officials visited Rolling Meadows as part of a statewide tour to promote their recently approved workforce education strategic plan. It calls for increasing students' early career-related education, addressing skill gaps, and aligning programs to employers' needs.
Jennifer Foster, the board's deputy director of adult education and workforce, called District 214's Career Pathways program "robust," and an approach that can be used across the state.
The district offers students 43 programs of study under 16 career clusters, such as finance, information technology, and architecture and construction. Students can get early college credits from Harper College and other colleges, along with industry certifications.
Students also participated in 2,750 workplace learning experiences last year, thanks to the district's partnerships with more than 950 businesses.
The approach gained traction in 2008 at Wheeling High School, which decided to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math. Then-Principal Lazaro Lopez, now the district's associate superintendent for teaching and learning, helped bring the effort districtwide.
He's also chairman of the Illinois Community College Board.
Karen Hunter Anderson, the board's executive director, said other school districts may not be able to afford similar programming, but the board can provide a "road map" for them to get there.
"What we want is for all students to have this opportunity," she said. "I remember baking a cake in high school and that was about as much career planning as I got. We've come a long way."