College and career plans hatch in kindergarten

Superintendent deploys projects and technology so students graduate with long-term goals
By: | August 29, 2016

It’s never too early to start thinking about college and careers. And that’s why kindergarteners at Kankakee School District in Illinois are already on the right path.

Superintendent Genevra Walters, and her two adult children, attended the suburban district 60 miles south of Chicago, while her young son is currently enrolled.

In May 2014, when Walters became superintendent, she brought her experiences in school social work and special education and aimed to help students overcome socio-economic barriers to success.

So in fall 2015, she introduced a new philosophy for elementary education.

The model—which will eventually be infused at every grade level—calls for a focus on college and career prep from a young age.

Kankakee’s non-gifted and non-magnet classes are now called “College and Career Academy Classrooms.”

Students do a minimum of four hands-on, career-oriented projects per year that are based on a specific career strand:

Kindergarten: human services

First grade: agriculture

Second grade: health sciences

Third grade: business

Fourth grade: communication and information systems

Fifth grade: architecture and engineering

After only one year of this new format, math scores have skyrocketed. Associate Editor Kylie Lacey spoke with Walters to find out the inspiration behind the new structure, and what is coming next.

What did instruction in the district look like before you became chief? How is learning being transformed by the College and Career Academy Classrooms?

Drilling was used as the instructional model for students with knowledge gaps—I say drilling kills. I wanted to structure instruction to be engaging. I wanted to increase student performance by exposing students to technology that enhances the quality of—and improves access to—information.

Many students who have a limited knowledge of post-high school opportunities come from low income or rural areas with a lack of resources, including technology. I wanted to implement a model that closes opportunity gaps and infuses technology in a high-level way.

If students are not fluent in technology, their ability to succeed is heavily impacted. Before, our teachers were using the limited amount of technology available superficially—as a paper and pencil replacement.

Kankakee School District

Superintendent Genevra A. Walters

Students: 5,800

Schools: 11

Per child expenditure: $13,846 (2014-15)

Students on free or reduced-price lunch: 81%

Yearly budget: $69.9 million (2015-16)

The College and Career Academy Classrooms require students to use technology for hands-on projects with real-life applicability.

But why so early? Why do kindergarteners need to know how technology may be used in human services careers?

I once heard a reading specialist speak about getting students to think seriously about college or trade school or other post-secondary plans. She said we need to begin those conversations no later than age 9.

If you wait until students are in high school, as we used to do in Kankakee, it is often a huge uphill battle, especially for students with opportunity gaps.

Do other district stakeholders agree?

Initially, the only opposition was that some people thought we were promoting college for everyone, when there are students who will not go to college.

But it is really about making students aware that there are opportunities after high school, and that there are specific skills necessary for different opportunities.

We are connecting with local businesses so students can see real-life examples of how a police officer needs reading skills, or the applications of math that a landscaper uses.

I thought it would take three to five years to really increase instructional rigor and to get teacher and parent buy-in. I’m surprised it took off so quickly. In a year, I’ve seen a real morale change in teachers who have college and career classrooms.

Some families used to have anxiety over the quality of education in our non-magnet classes. But now that we have college and career academies, they don’t feel like they’ve lost the lottery in the education pool.

So how is technology specifically integrated in the College and Career Academy Classrooms?

We have begun a 1-to-1 computer initiative, with the eventual goal of going 1-to-1 throughout K12.

For the 2016-17 school year, all second- through ninth-graders will receive Chromebooks. Kindergarteners and first-graders will have iPads.

We have restructured personnel so teachers have direct support in learning how to use the devices in teaching beyond the basic level.

I want to increase the use of technology to show our students what people are doing in other places around the world.

What are the key benefits of connecting with the students globally?

Our students need to be prepared for a global economy, and working with people who are different from them. I want our students to have open discussions about the differences among people.

And because our district is already so diverse, our students are already open to having these dialogues.

I am hoping each of our College and Career Academy schools will partner with a school in another country or another part of the U.S. and meet via technology. Some of our students have the means to travel to other countries, but most do not. But they all can with technology.

What’s on the horizon for Kankakee? How do you see the College and Career Academy classes evolving?

All kindergarten students in College and Career Academy classrooms will be in the same building in 2016-17, as will all first- through third-grade students.

Different classes used to be spread out in different buildings. I think this will increase the rigor and quality of the students’ projects because it will be easier for students and teachers of the same grade to collaborate. By the time students get to sixth grade, I want them to take a real inventory on a career path that may be of interest to them and have the whole year to explore that strand.

Our seventh- through ninth-grade students have traditionally been a little neglected with career exploration, and I want to change that and infuse college and career readiness training in their academic classes.

Kylie Lacey is associate editor.