This article is part of a series of stories on work force development in Evanston. Previous stories centered on the Youth Job Center and the City’s Youth and Young Adult outreach programs.

The winds of post-secondary education have shifted from college-only to college-and-career, as, nationwide, educators steer high school students to broaden their perspectives.

Adults are advising students as young as 14 to take the long look and begin to craft their post-high school future. In opening up choices to young teens, high school officials are straddling pragmatism and idealism.

For some students, the freshman-year dream of college will fade in the cold light of academics, family or other obligations. For some, a chance to get on with their lives with good pay and potential seems more substantial than a different career that, at best, is four years away. For still others, the dream career is worth pursuing though four years of college – and sometimes beyond.

Nearly eight years ago, in the July 26, 2011, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson wrote: “The future facing the young people who most need broader opportunities, as well as our potential for increasing the education, skills and capacities of the labor force, depend on our ability to combine realism, pragmatism and idealism.

“We can’t accept the level of inequality currently generated by our economy and our social structure. We can’t accept the limited opportunities facing people as a result of accidents of birth or unavoidable life circumstances. But we do have to recognize that there is wide variety in capabilities, interests, attitudes and preparation. There is a vital need for people with many different types of training in our economy. We should be sure that everyone has all of the information available about both the potential benefits and the potential risks involved in whatever choices they make.”

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first passed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, has been reauthorized eight times. It was revamped and renamed under President George W. Bush as the No Child Left Behind Act and again under President Barack Obama as Every Student Succeeds Act.

Under this newest version of ESEA, “we have to show that we are providing college- and career-readiness – and it’s for every student,” said Shelley Gates, chair of Evanston Township High School’s Career and Technical Education Department.

Freshman Planning

ETHS challenges its students from the beginning of freshman year to think about their post-high-school future. Each student prepares an individual career and academic plan (ICAP) that is updated and changed over the high school years to provide a framework for life after graduation.

Ms. Gates and Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction at ETHS, recently described to the RoundTable several ways in which the high school is working to make certain that each student has a plan for the future and the preparation to start toward it upon graduation.

At graduation, an ETHS student should have a direction in mind and should be sufficiently prepared and educated to enter a four-year college, a two-year college, the military, an apprenticeship or an entry-level job. Even if a student does not plan to attend college, an ETHS education should be rigorous and broad enough not to foreclose a graduate from attending college in the long-term.

Ms. Gates said, “I think 99% of our kids are planning to go to college … and I think it’s because our school gives kids the sense that you can do whatever you want to do.”

Dr. Bavis agreed that most freshmen have an academic plan that would steer them to college. “We want them to find their passion, something they care about, that will lead not to a dead-end job but to a satisfying, well paid career in which they can advance. … So, we ask, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up? What’s your passion?” And so, this is part of that process. And it’s not a forced choice.”

According to the Illinois State Report Card, 78% of all students who graduated between January and July of the 2017 school year enrolled in college within 16 months of graduation, Dr. Bavis said.  

A Framework for a Pathway

The ETHS Pathways Programs of Study Guide, prepared by the school’s Student Services Department, is designed to help students negotiate the high school’s rich choices with a realistic eye on the future.

The guide is a matrix of courses – required, recommended and elective – as well as suggested activities for students to consider in choosing their coursework at the high school and planning for their future. The introduction reads in part, “Whether an ETHS student is preparing to attend a four-year university, a two-year college, trade school, the military, apprenticeship or the workforce, the exploration of possible career pathways is vital. Though many … students may continue to change their minds about their career pathway interests, it is valuable … to explore multiple areas while still in high school to assist in the decision about where their skills and passions exist.”

The guide aligns with the National Career Clusters Framework, with grids showing classes to take in preparation for a career in 16 areas: agriculture, food and natural resources; architecture and construction;arts, A/V technology and communications; business management and administration; education and training; finance; government and public administration; health sciences; hospitality and tourism; human services; information technology; law, public safety, corrections and security; manufacturing; marketing; science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and transportation, distribution and logistics.

“The State of Illinois is working to make sure that every high school has pathways that are based on these career clusters,” Ms. Gates said.

ETHS combined some of those clusters into 11. Rather than a stand-alone category, for example, “business” is now in the combined cluster “business, marketing, management, and finance.”

“This kind of encapsulates our vision of how we would like young people to go through high school with the idea of what their interests are, what their skills are and then how those things can be a part of the post-secondary plan that they make as opposed to just having a one-size-fits-all, which is pretty common in the United States – that the way to be successful in life is to graduate high school and go to college,” Ms. Gates said.

“First of all, because so many young people don’t end up going to college. What about those students? And also, how many kids go to college and don’t finish, and how many students go to college and rack up enormous amounts of debt and then perhaps get out of college and still not know what they want to do.”

The technical term for this, Ms. Gates said, is “floundering – which is basically a series of ineffective choices that many young people make in order to attain a career pathway that works for them and pays enough money for them to live on.

“The world of work has gotten so complicated. There are many more pathways but they are not necessarily as obvious to young people.”

As high school administrators speak with local businesses, “we are understanding the mismatch between what we think young people should be doing and then seeing the information we’re giving students – it’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s not the whole story,” Ms. Gates said.

She added, “What we want to do is make it so that young people and their families can be smart consumers of post-secondary education and training, and they can make really good decisions based on actual information, as opposed to this idea that ‘If you really just go to college, the whole world will open up for you.’ We’re finding that doesn’t work for everyone [but] it certainly works for a lot of our students – and we’re very lucky we provide an amazing education here at ETHS.”

Dr. Bavis added, “We’re saying, ‘Let’s explore these possible pathways. Let’s look at this as a resource – it’s broken out by employment sector.’

“In health care there are some careers that require an industry credential, some require an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree or higher – so you can be interested in health care and you can be pursuing a pharmacy technician’s license or you could also want to be a neurosurgeon. So, some of these courses that you would take would be the same regardless of whether you’re going to go into a career right after high school or a four-year college.”

Until senior year, said Ms. Gates and Dr. Bavis, the choice of a pathway is malleable and revocable, as students explore their options and find their passion.

“Match is so important,” Dr. Bavis said, “Taking a kid’s passion – wherever it lands. Eventually it has to be a career passion. That’s non-negotiable in our economy. You have to have a passion.”

Evanston Township High School students preparing for the future will find colleges and employers expect some of the same skills. Among these are oral and written communication, problem-solving skills and teamwork.

Pete Bavis, Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction at ETHS and Shelley Gates, Chair of the Career and Technical Education Department at ETHS, were among the ETHS administrators who spoke with local businesses interested in hiring ETHS students.

Dr. Bavis told the RoundTable many employers said, “We need kids who can communicate; we need kids who can write well, who can express themselves well. Kids who have soft skills – problem-solving, think on your feet, customer service orientation, teamwork. …

“How do you do it? You do it by having a strong foundational academic experience for kids. Kids need to be able to write well, interact with others, have all the things you associate with a liberal arts foundation: speak well, write well, work well with others data, communicate. More kids do have access to AP classes and Advanced English classes. … That’s foundational – that feeling of belonging, that feeling of self-confidence.”

Mayor Stephen Hagerty, founder and Executive Director of Evanston-based Hagerty Consulting, described to the RoundTable what his company assesses in its hiring process.

Most will have to have at least a college degree, Mr. Hagerty said, “I’m looking for people who have done something consistently well – 3.5, a record of achievement or success – can be in a variety – music, sports – some achievement outside of just their academics. And what I always talk to folks about – I want some core competencies. I want some with liberal arts backgrounds – economics, business, finances – psychology – who have done well.

“But you have to have strong core competencies. You have to be able to write, have oral communication skills, pay attention to detail, be able to analyze issues and apply logic. And have initiative and a desire to learn – we’re always in an environment where we’re having to learn. I don’t necessarily look for people who have degrees in emergency management – we can teach you this – you have to have a passion for government and wanting to help people.”

Mr. Hagerty said some few of his employees do not have a college education. In hiring for that department, “we are looking for people with a good head on their shoulders, attention to detail, reliable, mission-focused, productive, collaborative. We can train employees on the other things.”

Wherever a student is heading after graduation, “We know there are certain things that are not negotiable,” said Dr. Bavis. Communication, problem-solving, teamwork – these will take students ever closer to a good future.”

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...