Why the Transition to Adulthood Should Start in Preschool

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? Think of your current job. Are you tasked with memorizing facts, filling out worksheets and taking formal exams? Probably not.
In today’s society, we depend on the workforce to be creative, innovative and collaborative while applying their knowledge to solve real-world problems. The challenge for educators is this:

How do we effectively teach those skills to our students so they’re able to seamlessly transition from school to college to career?

Since I began in education, I’ve used the motto, “The transition to adulthood starts in preschool.” I believe that conversations about college and careers need to start earlier rather than later. Today, the phrase is the mantra pushing my teachers and principals to think past the traditional style of teaching and to truly prepare our students for life outside the four walls of a school building.
b37f9147-818d-4a58-b2e1-8e34141c9464_Screen20Shot202016-06-2020at2010.21.1720AMHands-on, project-based learning makes STEM feel relevant because students have to use knowledge from all areas of study to complete a task. Demonstrating their skills through projects also prepares students for the challenges they will face after graduation—and it offers them a chance to explore a plethora of careers.
While our gifted and magnet programs have traditionally been a top priority for our district, it’s my mission to level the playing field by providing STEM and career exploration opportunities to everyone.
At the beginning of the 2015 school year, we implemented a new K–8 reading and math curriculum, and renamed general ed “College and Career Academy Classrooms.” Knowing that the number of STEM-related careers is growing rapidly, I put STEM at the core of our general ed overhaul and added a cross-curricular focus on real-life application, Next Generation Science Standards and career exploration through project-based learning.
af2f2927-1647-4a79-aca2-d599e5ba7d7e_Screen20Shot202016-06-2020at2010.19.4020AMThe curriculum in our College and Career Academy classrooms is dictated by a Career Wheel that puts students in the driver’s seat of their own education. 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 business management, finance, hospitality/tourism and marketing. The idea is for students’ knowledge of and curiosity about different career fields to evolve as they progress through elementary school.
6417c952-5b0e-4459-8520-b9d9a62ef3e6_Screen20Shot202016-06-2020at2010.24.0720AMDuring the school year, students undertake four large-scale projects that align with their grade-level focus and appropriate state standards. We use supplementary curriculum from Defined STEM, which breaks down tasks by grade level and keeps all lesson materials such as articles, videos and rubrics in one spot.
Hands-on projects may take the form of building models, solving problems, creating videos or writing magazine articles—and the list goes on. 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 to the real world. During the projects, students are asked to think like engineers, designers, doctors or whatever position is relevant to the task. This change of mindset engages students because they’re using their creativity and critical thinking skills to solve a problem. 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 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.
6412420c-89f9-4d11-9073-2813d3f2235f_Screen20Shot202016-06-2020at2010.21.5420AMAs 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 STEM Academy 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, each sophomore will choose an academy for the remainder of his or her high school journey.
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. See our students in action by watching this great video featuring performance tasks and Defined STEM.
Students are more engaged working in cooperative groups, and they’ve even organized a “dress for success day” every month. 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.
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Dr. Genevra Walters is the superintendent of the Kankakee School District in Kankakee, IL. Follow her on Twitter @walters_genevra.

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