Real World Learning in Chicagoland Pathways

Key Points

  • Schools like Barrington, Central, Elk Grove, and Art in Motion are empowering students through entrepreneurship, career pathways, and creative endeavors, shaping them into future-ready leaders.

  • Collaborations like the DuPage County Work-Based Learning Consortium are instrumental in providing students with practical experiences, such as internships and apprenticeships, preparing them for successful transitions into the workforce.

For the last five years, Kansas City educators have been visiting high schools across the country in search of great examples of real world learning including client projects, entrepreneurial experiences, internships, college credits, and industry recognized credentials.  Last month, a group of principals visited rural, suburban and urban Chicagoland high schools featuring real world learning experiences in career pathways. 

Barrington High

In the northern suburbs of Chicago, Barrington Community Unit School District 220 serves about 8400 learners and is known for its sense of community. Barrington High School features a Health Sciences Lab, an entrepreneurship and culinary arts program as well as a new emphasis on environmental sustainability. 

Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning at Melissa Byrne described the recently adopted strategic plan and updated mission “to empower personal excellence in every learner.” She led an extensive outreach process that culminated in a new learner profile.

The class that most brings the Barrington profile to life is INCubatoredu, a year-long entrepreneurship class from Uncharted Learning. Teams of students spend the first few months spotting a problem worth solving, then they develop and test a business model. The class culminates with an investor pitch at the end of the year. (Late last year we interviewed a few students from Frisco ISD who participate in an INCubatoredu program.)

Real World Learning highlights at Barrington High include:

  • 24 pathway programs in 7 career fields.
  • Mature entrepreneurship program in middle and high school with strong community support. 
  • GEM (Grow, Excel, Magnify), a flexible learning program for seniors that encourages interdisciplinary community-connected projects that extend pathway learning. 

Central High

An hour west of O-Hare, Central High School brings college and career readiness to life for 1,300 learners in a rural community. Working with counselors and SchoolLinks, 8th grade students self-assess their interests. In 9th and 10th grade they explore college and career options and in 11th grade, they analyze their interests and experiences to start to make a plan. Finally, in 12th grade, they create their individualized postsecondary plan. Juniors and seniors can earn dual credit from the local community college as either a part-time or full-time student, with the potential to earn an AA/AS. Students participate in one of 11 career pathway programs that each feature robust community partnerships.

Central High Veterinary Science lab 

Real World Learning highlights at Central High include:

  • Veterinary Science program (that serves students from multiple districts) and is the only NAVTA approved program in the area. All 24 students earned a veterinary tech assistant credential in April.    
  • Mature entrepreneurship program in middle and high school with strong community support.
  • Expanding media production program that live streams sporting events.
Central High INCubatoredu classroom 

Elk Grove High

Under Dr. David Schuler’s leadership, District 214 became widely known for its commitment to career pathways. The high school district offers 16 career clusters, with many pathways offering supporting experiences through clubs and activities as well as internships, work-based learning experiences, and industry certifications. Schuler has gone on to lead AASA, but Associate Superintendent Dr. Lázaro López is extending D214 pathway leadership.  

Elk Grove High is one of six comprehensive high schools in D214. It serves about 2000 students. It was one of the first high schools to add an INCubatoredu entrepreneurship class. One student team we observed was working on a sports performance app targeted toward student athletes. They described the extensive effort behind opportunity recognition (i.e., finding a problem worth solving) and the agility needed to make late pivots to improve product-market fit. 

Real World Learning highlights at Elk Grove High include:

  • 86% of graduates complete college-level coursework
  • 99.9% of students identified a career pathway (we’d love to meet the 2 holdouts)
  • Mature entrepreneurship program with strong community support
  • Career Development Academy allows students to secure paid internships and attend school 2-3 days per week
Elk Grove print shop and digital media space 

Art in Motion

Founded in 2019 as a part of the Distinctive Schools network and backed by rap artist Common, Art in Motion seeks to empower the creative in each child to “provide the resources and opportunities needed for [their] dreams to take flight.” There are about 500 students in grades 7-12 who engage in real-world projects, self-directed learning and small group instruction. Each student meets with a mentor weekly and is encouraged to answer the question, “How will you take your creativity into the world?”

Real World Learning highlights at Art in Motion include:

  • Pathways in music, dance, visual arts, literary arts and digital arts
  • Creativity as a transferable skill is taught across the curriculum
  • Serves as art hub for the southside community
Gary Comer Youth Center rooftop garden

Gary Comer College Prep 

On the south side, the Comer Education Campus includes the Gary Comer Youth Center, Gary Comer College Prep and Gary Comer Middle School. The schools serve about 800 students and are part of 18 campus Noble Network

The Youth Center adds extensive in and out-of-school programming for middle and high school students including urban agriculture, media and tech, fitness classes, art and media classes, summer camps, and leadership and social development. 

Real World Learning highlights at Comer include:

  • Strong guidance and academic support surround a rigorous curriculum rich with college credit opportunities. 
  • Rooftop gardens and 2 acres of adjoining community gardens in support of agriculture courses.

DuPage County Schools

Just west of Chicago, GPS Education helped to create the DuPage County Work-Based Learning Consortium. Students enrolled in the program can experience paid internships or apprenticeships with local business partners. We visited cooking equipment manufacturer Antunes and talked to high school students rotating through stations and advancing toward high wage employment. Other manufacturing pathway opportunities in DuPage are shown below. 

Thanks to all of the host schools and intermediaries who made these visits a valuable professional learning experience. 

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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