Chicago public high schools teach technology skills for future employment

By Chris Loeber

In an effort to prepare students for the modern workforce, some city schools are rethinking their curriculum to provide high school graduates with the skills needed to land jobs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Feb. 28 that five Chicago public high schools have partnered with leading technology companies to offer students an education focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics—better known as STEM.

The new institutions, called Early College STEM Schools, will span six years and award graduates both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

The partner companies involved in the program include Microsoft Corp., Motorola Solutions Inc., Verizon Wireless, IBM, and Cisco Systems Inc. Each will collaborate with one of the new STEM institutions to develop the education program.

“The kids go to school in the new program, and in the end they will walk out with an associate’s degree in science,” said Scott Cook, a spokesman for IBM. “[After graduating,] they’re well positioned for not just a job, but they’re actually well positioned for a career in technology.”

The participating high schools include Lake View High School, 4015 N. Ashland Ave.; Corliss High School, 821 E. 103rd St.; Michelle Clark High, 5101 W. Harrison St.; Chicago Vocational Career Academy, 2100 E. 87th St.; and a new, unnamed southwest-area school being built at 7651 S. Homan Ave.

Chicago will pay for the STEM schools using a $50 million grant from IBM after being one of 100 cities chosen by the company as part of its Smarter Cities Challenge in 2010.

After receiving the grant, the city partnered with IBM to conduct a study into ways to prepare CPS for careers in STEM-related industries, such as software programming and Web development.

Shelley Stern Grach, citizenship and public affairs director at Microsoft Chicago, said the partner companies will provide mentors for the students and external programs to supplement the STEM schools’ curriculum.

“We have a program called IT Academy that provides training and access to certification for several hundred skills that employers look for on a resume,” Grach said. “Microsoft is not running the curriculum; Microsoft is folding into a program that CPS is working on across the board to maximize STEM education.”

In a 2011 written statement to IBM, Emanuel said schools “attract top employers with the country’s best-trained workforce,” adding that there are 100,000 unfilled jobs in Chicago that require skilled workers.

The number of STEM-related occupations was projected to grow by 17 percent between 2008-2018, compared to a 9.8 percent growth of non-STEM occupations, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

STEM education will provide technology companies with a larger talent pool, and STEM schools will give students the necessary skills to pursue careers in the information technology industry, Cook said, noting that the program is still in its early stages.

STEM schools will teach students valuable IT skills that they can use in the workplace, but “it shouldn’t be at the expense of a broader education,” said Jessica Arnold, a mother who is looking into Lake View High School as an option for her child.

“They don’t call it a college prep school, they call it a STEM school,” Arnold said. “Is the goal [to prepare] kids who aren’t intending to go to college so that they’re prepared to start working right after high school, or is the goal to get the kids prepared for college?”

According to a statement from Chicago Public Schools, the program is designed to meet the needs of each student; some students may earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in four years, others may take six years.

While continuing on to college is encouraged through the program, it is not a prerequisite for enrollment.