“The transition to adulthood starts in preschool.” This sentence is fueling the educational reform in the Kankakee (IL) School District, where conversations about college and careers start earlier rather than later. From the moment students walk through our doors to the time they walk across the stage to receive their high-school diplomas, it’s our job as educators to do everything we can to prepare them for life outside the classroom and for the jobs of the future.
Every day, I push my teachers and principals to think past the traditional style of teaching and to offer our students a chance to explore a plethora of careers through hands-on experiences and 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.” To 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. Today’s students have little to no awareness of the schooling and experience a person needs to earn an M.D. Neither are students likely to be aware of doctors outside of those in the medical field: professors, psychologists, and researchers can be “doctors,” too. When we take the time to dig deeper into specific fields, we open our students’ minds to new career paths they may never have 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; 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 the supplementary curriculum, Defined STEM, which breaks down tasks by grade level, subject, and standard. It also 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 in a real-world setting. When they’re working on the projects, students change their mindsets to think like engineers, designers, doctors, or whatever position is relevant to the task. The students are engaged because they’re using creativity and critical-thinking skills to solve a problem and play a role. 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 or a multimedia presentation. When these career projects are incorporated into relevant teacher lessons, students are pushed to think towards 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 our 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, as part of the required career projects, all students at Kankakee schools are involved in project-based learning, 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 make college and career options available to all students and prepare them for life after primary education. Because we’re starting career and college conversations at 5 instead of 15, our students are more prepared for the transition to adulthood and to find success on whatever path they choose.
Dr. Genevra Walters is the superintendent of schools at Kankakee School District.