How District 207 career program is helping students 'get it right'
When Maine West High School senior Angel Contreras entered high school, he had hopes of going to college to study engineering because he loves working with his hands.
But without the means to pay his way through a four-year university, Angel struggled to find the answer to many of the questions high school students face regarding their future.
He needed another option.
He was able to find it in a way he now describes as "perfect" for his goals through Maine Township High School District 207's Return on Investment Career Services.
With guidance from his teachers and Maine West Career Coordinator Kayla Hansen, as well through his own hard work, Angel is seeking a spot in the Industry Consortium Advances Technical Training apprenticeship program. The organization partners with manufacturers who would hire Angel and pay for his postsecondary schooling, leaving him debt-free and excited for his plans after graduation.
"I don't have to worry about what school am I going to go to, what am I going to do, how am I going to pay for it," Angel said.
Billed by the district as the first of its kind in the nation, the program requires each student at the three District 207 high schools -- Maine West in Des Plaines and Maine East and Maine South in Park Ridge -- to participate in counseling that helps them find their ideal paths after graduation.
Superintendent Ken Wallace said changes in the work and economic worlds sparked the program's creation. College students, he said, were taking on enormous debt and entering job fields where they struggled to make ends meet.
"When I got here in 2005 we really had two jobs -- get a student through high school graduation, get them enrolled in college … (now) that's not nearly enough," he said.
Wallace's goal for the program is to "get it right" for the 6,400 students in District 207. The goal of sending as many students as possible to college is outdated, said Wallace.
Getting it right means figuring out what students love to do, what they're good at, where they can make a living and what jobs are in demand. "We have a lot of first-generation students, a lot of students whose families don't have the resources, didn't have the education background themselves and we think it's really important that we do right by them," Wallace said.
To do this for thousands of students requires the help of data analysis tools, and District 207 uses three in its curriculum. Students entering high school indicate their interests and aptitudes using YouScience, which offers career guidance and direction. PathwayMANAGER allows students to look at career opportunities and education levels needed for different occupations. And JobsEQ analyzes information about specific career fields, such as the demand for workers and median salaries.
The district also has partnered with nearly 600 businesses to provide internships and apprenticeships. That gives students work experience in a field before they spend mass amounts of time and money on their education, only to end up in a career they dislike.
For students like Maine West senior Hilton Steele, it did just that. An internship with KGH Architecture Firm in Rosemont left Hilton feeling appreciative for the learning opportunities, but also realizing that his interests lie in a more math-based career like civil engineering.
"I'm really happy I got the chance to do it because for awhile I was really in between both choices," Hilton said. "You can only learn so much by looking online and talking to people."
Hilton plans to attend a four-year university to study civil engineering, and is considering the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Milwaukee School of Engineering among his options. Like Hilton, Angel has taken advantage of the district's partnerships. He leaves school two days a week for his internship at the Technology & Manufacturing Association in Schaumburg. He hopes to achieve National Incident Management System (NIMS) certification in mill and lathe, which is a nationally accepted certification.
District 207 Career Coordinator Laura Cook has noticed an increase in enthusiasm for students who take advantage of the opportunities offered in the program. It's especially important for students who come into high school unsure of their interests and aptitudes, she said.
"Some of the kids that we work with can't think about a future because they think one isn't out there for someone like them," Cook said. "Part of our job is to show them that there is a future for everyone in this school."