Students of all ages need hands-on experience in career education

Students don’t get sufficient chances to learn about the array of jobs available to them in a meaningful way.

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Chicago Public Schools students celebrate after getting autographs from Daytona 500 champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. outside the Field Museum after a news conference to promote the upcoming NASCAR Chicago Street Race, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. NASCAR announced that it would partner with CPS on a design competition and curriculum to promote careers in STEM:

Chicago Public Schools students celebrate after getting autographs from a NASCAR champion outside the Field Museum, where NASCAR announced a design competition and curriculum to promote careers in STEM.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

When it comes to promoting equity in education, an often overlooked but essential strategy is providing students with hands-on career education experiences.

We can’t wait until high school to do this work. It has to happen throughout grades K-8, too — especially if we want to help young people from historically marginalized backgrounds and communities chart their college and career paths and achieve upward mobility.

In theory, the Chicago metro area is an ideal place to do this work. A dynamic global region, its 11 major economic sectors employ millions of people and generate nearly $1 trillion of annual economic activity.

Yet often our students don’t get sufficient chances to learn about the array of jobs available to them in a meaningful way. During my 22 years as CEO of Communities In Schools of Chicago, more than one principal has told me they had students who’d never been downtown.

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A small but important step

This phenomenon of geographic and class isolation takes on further weight in light of findings from a pair of 2022 reports from Opportunity Insights at Harvard. In those studies, researchers found that promoting cross-class connections is a powerful strategy to boost social mobility. Helping young people from under-represented communities experience professional workplaces can be a small but important first step in the life-long process of building social capital.

Regardless of where in the city our partner schools are located, principals and teachers are committed to opening students’ eyes to diverse career opportunities. They want to demystify what an average day looks and feels like for many different careers, and they want their young people to start becoming comfortable in a professional workplace and feel as though they belong there just as much as anyone.

Thankfully, our schools have found a willing partner to create these kinds of bridge-building experiences in Chicagoland’s business community. In recent years, Communities in Schools has taken elementary school students from Englewood, Back of the Yards and other communities on the South and West Side to workplace mentoring experiences hosted by an array of businesses, ranging from suburban-based freight companies to downtown investment banks.

Just last month, the Black Employee Resource Group (BEACON) at United Airlines hosted sixth- to eighth-grade students from one of our high-need Southwest Side elementary school partners, where more than 95% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and almost half are English learners.

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The students got a backstage tour of United’s global hub operations at O’Hare Airport and were introduced to the many different jobs that keep passengers safe and on time on the more than 500 daily United flights through O’Hare. Not only did they got an up-close look at security and baggage handling operations, they boarded a wide-body Boeing 767 and talked to a pilot. For many, it was their first time aboard an airplane.

Students were wowed and inspired by the field trip. One seventh-grader called the visit a “once-in-a-lifetime special experience” to hear how all of the United team members spoke with pride about their jobs.

Developing horizon-expanding career education opportunities across the K-12 spectrum takes time and a lot of planning. No organization can meet schools’ demand for such experiences single handedly.

Say yes to a partnership

Yet between Chicago Public Schools, which has prioritized expanding career education opportunities, and our region’s extensive network of post-secondary education non-profits, there is considerable bandwidth to build many more strategic school/business partnerships that benefit students from all socio-economic backgrounds.

Are you a company leader in a growing field or economic sector? Do you and your colleagues perform work that young people should know more about? Would your company benefit by creating hands-on opportunities that can inspire students’ future career plans?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, the time to explore creating a formal partnership with a school in need may be at hand.

Contrary to the popular parental myth, kids really do want to learn what adults do at work. They just need the opportunity to see it up close and in person.

Jane Mentzinger is CEO of Communities In Schools of Chicago, one of the city’s largest education non-profits that works with Chicago Public Schools students.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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