Suburban high school students showing strong interest in career and technical education

Stevenson High School senior Gavin Meng and his classmates hatched a plan for their lemonade stand to outsell the competition just before winter break.

Meng's team at the Lincolnshire school devoted most of its money to buy lemons for a freshly squeezed product sold at a basic stand while the other group went for an eye-catching inflatable bar, but offered a cheaper powdered lemonade. Each team had a $50 budget and agreed to donate all profits to the Animal Welfare Institute.

This competition, however, wasn't just a bunch of teenagers having fun in a school cafeteria. The lemonade stands were an entrepreneurship class marketing assignment as part of Stevenson's career and technical education program.

"For me, it's always been engineering or business," said Meng, pausing from his lemonade duties. "So, I'm definitely going to pursue either one of those in college and this is a really good hands-on experience for that."

Courses such as Stevenson's entrepreneurship class exemplify the growth in career and technical education (CTE) enrollment at high schools statewide. Of 611,732 high schoolers in Illinois, there were 284,680 enrolled in CTE in 2019 - an increase of nearly 5,000 since 2016 - despite overall pupil declines, according to the current State Board of Education report card.

The report card shows Stevenson was among the suburban CTE enrollment leaders with 1,962 students. Others with strong CTE enrollment are Huntley High School at 1,806 students and Barrington High School with 1,703 teenagers.

Career and technical education courses, typically taken as electives, allow students an opportunity to become well prepared for their majors before starting college or qualify them for some jobs right after high school graduation. Students can even earn college credits in advance in certain courses.

Stevenson's director of applied arts, Wendy Custable, said CTE also is valuable when students find out in high school that a certain profession is not for them before entering college.

"It's a cheaper route, right?" Custable said. "An example might be in our web development and game development courses. Kids think, 'Ooh, fun, I play games.' Well, there's a lot that goes into those. There's the coding. There's all that design work on the other end. They're like, 'Oh, I didn't know what that meant' or 'I didn't know this is what it entails.'"

Dual credit focus

Erika Schlichter, assistant superintendent for learning and innovation at Huntley Community School District 158, said the high school's career and technical education program continues to evolve.

"One of our goals is to make as many CTE classes as possible dual credit so our students could actually get those college transcripts before they leave high school, which is a huge benefit to them financially but also their careers," Schlichter said.

Geometry in construction, fashion, small engines and personal finance are some of Huntley High's CTE offerings. Schlichter said trade unions related to automotive work and welding have been contacted in an effort to learn about apprenticeship programs and how Huntley High potentially can help meet employment and other needs.

"We're just realizing that there's such a richness there, that it's going to prepare kids to go to a two-year college, a four-year college, directly to careers, really helping them focus on what they want to do and what they want to be and then being able to provide it," Schlichter said.

Authentic courses

Barrington High School Assistant Principal Ben Rodriguez said he recently observed a student counseling session that illustrated how career and technical education can be part of an overall plan.

Rodriguez said the student has a goal of taking higher-level classes at Barrington High and attending college, but the counselor asked whether there was a degree focus or career interests. He said the counselor and student then crafted a plan to include CTE courses for next year.

Culinary arts, video production, financial accounting and certified nursing assistant are some of Barrington High's CTE choices. Rodriguez said the school is exploring the possibility of having certain endorsements attached to the culinary arts course that would allow students to enter the field straight from high school.

Rodriguez said having students experience "really authentic courses" mirroring a potential career can help guide their future path. He added that Barrington High's CTE offerings are guided by student interests.

"Even if a student says, 'You know what, I didn't necessarily like everything about my course in (certified nursing assistant), but I really liked the insurance part of that course,' from there, they could take courses in business and courses related to that," he said. "Even if they're not necessarily going into the medical field, there's still a lot of exposure to a lot of things they could go explore later."

  Teacher Mike Anderson helps 15-year-old Lucas Cohen work on a game that he is developing for a career and technical education course at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Brian Hill/
  Teacher Courtney Croak at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire helps some of her students with a project for a career and technical education course. Brian Hill/
  Shoaib Khan, 18, works on completing his automatic marble-sorting project for a career and technical education class at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Brian Hill/
  Stevenson High School Director of Applied Arts Wendy Custable discusses a trend of more students enrolling in career and technical education courses. Brian Hill/
  Sophomore Gabriel Majocha measures a wall during a review for finals in his geometry in construction class that's part of the career and technical education program at Huntley High School. Students were measuring the area to calculate how much material would be needed in certain construction projects. Rick West/
  Huntley High School junior Justin Karavakis solders a circuit board during a digital electronics course that's part of the career and technical education program. Rick West/
  Dennis Diaz, 15, presents a salad that he prepared for the judges in a culinary arts class that's part of the career and technical education program at Barrington High School. Mark Welsh/
  Caroline Colella, 16, with Parah Muldoon, 15, and Emma Paulson, 16, prepare food in a culinary arts class at Barrington High School. The course is part of Barrington High's career and technical education program. Mark Welsh/
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