On Oct. 10, Kirby Callam, District 65’s Director of EvanSTEM, presented a middle school college and career progression plan to the School Board’s Policy Committee. 

“Every middle school student thinks, in some way, about what they want to be when they grow up,” says a District 65 Middle School Career Program Guide (“Guide”).  The District’s plan is to “capitalize on students’ natural energy and curiosity with a middle school career exploration program so all students can realize their college and career potential.”

The plan envisions that if students participate in meaningful and relevant career-based learning experiences and projects:

● “Students will build confidence through self-exploration and identity development,
● “Students will connect to career pathways and bridge avenues to high school courses and college majors, and
● “Students and families will make sense of and take advantage of the myriad career courses and resources available in Evanston.”

Last year, a diverse group composed of representatives of District 65, Evanston Township High School, Northwestern University, Oakton Community College, local employers, and after-school organizations developed the Guide, which sets forth the vision, values and rationale for the program, Callam told the RoundTable.

The plan does not address the rigor of the curriculum needed to prepare students for college and careers, nor does it set goals for student achievement.

Background

“Middle school is a mess for kids as they come in, because they’re a mess,” said Callam. “They’re just starting to form their identities. They really don’t know who they are, and they don’t get how that connects to the world.”

In addition, the plan says, “Students have unrealistic career plans and know little about the demands of the workplace or how their education choices relate to future careers.”

 “Research shows – and our community has demanded – that we really need to start plugging this because if we start in high school, it’s too late,” said Callam. “And the high school has told us many times, ‘We need your help to start and build this program.’”

In District 65’s college and career program, students will be “doing self-exploration activities and lessons,” and “working in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades through a kind of a progressive and connected program,” said Callam. He added they will be “engaging with local resources, local employers,” and “starting to really connect with who they are to what is there, and importantly, connecting with the high school early on.

“The vision is creating a career ecosystem really that involves our schools, the high school, Oakton Community College, Northwestern and our local industry partners, so that we’re all working together in a coordinated and aligned system.”

Since the spring of 2021, the District has added nine counselors in the sixth through eighth grade schools, and it added a college and career platform called SchoolLinks.

The District has an advisory program and AVID, each of which incorporate college and career programming. It is partnering with Evanston Township High School and Oakton Community College. It has established an Advisory Council that has more than 150 local industry and business partners.

The College and Career Progression Plan

Callam presented a chart that lays out how the program will progress across the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

“In sixth grade, it’s about the development of the self,” said Callam. “In seventh grade, it’s about relationships, and in eighth grade, it’s about next steps, high school, college and career in schooling.

“The career focus is kind of the theme,” said Callam. “In the sixth grade, they do very broad career explorations. And it’s more about understanding where they are. In seventh grade, they start really understanding pathways that they might be interested in based on their assessments. And then in eighth grade, we start talking about more than just pathways but actual careers within those groups. And then, how does high school and college connect to those careers? What are the requirements of courses that they need to start thinking about as they move to the ninth grade?

Callam described the “culminating projects” at each grade level. In sixth grade, he said, they do a career unit project about themselves. They do a slideshow presentation that talks about what they’ve learned about themselves, and what careers and colleges might be linked to that.

They also do an end of the year “STEMpathy Project,” in which students will identify an issue of disability within their school building, such as a physical barrier or a policy of the school.  Students will be expected to come up with a solution and present their work at a fair.

“In seventh grade, we’re actually taking every seventh grader on career field trips with our Mayor Employment Advisory Council. They will go to two industry partners, and they get to choose among six, and all those careers are linked to courses at the high school. So that’s also a connection there. At the end of the year, they do a Career Pathway Project that relates what pathway they’re most thinking about.

“And then in eighth grade, we’re doing college trips, and an Oakton Futures trip for our eighth-grade girls, our students who identify as females.”

At eighth grade, students also do a year-end project called a Game of Life Plan. Students determine what type of career they may need if they want a house and a certain standard of living, and what courses they will need to take in high school and college to have that career.

SchoolLinks Framework

SchoolLinks provides four different assessments that assist students choose a career. A chart presented at the Oct. 10 Policy Committee meeting is reprinted below. The four assessments are

  • Sixth graders take a Career Interest Inventory called Myers Briggs. The assessment “matches interests to possible careers with explanations,” according to the plan.
  • Students take the Holland Career Personality assessment, which matches “personality types to career environments,”
  • Students take an Aspiration Mindset assessment, which is linked to possible careers.
  • They take a Career Skills assessment, which “determines your strongest skills.”

The plan says, “After taking each assessment, students review and process the context and the meaning of the categories and the outcomes from each assessment.

“They group up, share out, and reflect upon their reactions and plans within their career exploration journey.

“Then, via Next Steps, they connect assessment outcomes to career pathways, careers, ETHS pathways, and future goals for college and career.”

 “You can see they do career exploration activities and pathways,” said Callam. “They actually go in and review all the ETHS course pathways that are available online, and with introductions by their teachers, they do goal setting, and they actually go through a college exploration activity, understanding maybe what kind of campus life they want, what kind of school size they want, what graduate degrees or undergraduate degrees are available that might link to the careers that they have.”

The Middle School Redesigning Project

Callam also summarized a Middle School Design Project which, he said, provides “An opportunity to rethink how our middle school organization can provide a more responsive, challenging, empowering, equitable, and engaging school environment for all students.”

The plan is to obtain input from administrators, teachers, parents, students and the community in October through January, and to prepare a draft and then a final report to present to the Board in April.

Callam said one important aspect of the project is to redesign the middle-school schedule “so that we can build in electives, and we can create opportunities for students to have choice and pursue in more depth and detail the arts, career opportunities, and STEM opportunities.

 “If you look at our panorama survey, we score pretty highly in a lot of the panorama SEL [social and emotional learning] categories. But the one that we are rock bottom in at all of our schools universally – and we’re in the bottom 20th percentile – is engagement. There are engagement issues that our students are speaking out to us are severe.

“And with a new middle school redesign project, we’re looking to build career options, college connections, and much better engaged opportunities for our kids to feel connected to their learning and how that relates to their future.”

Superintendent Devon Horton said they had discussed last year about using college readiness labs to give students exposure during an electives period in eighth grade. He added, “ETHS has these amazing career education facilities, but they’re oftentimes not utilized the way that ETHS would like to reimagine them. I think that has a lot to do with what we expose our students to in the middle school so they can understand that a career track doesn’t mean you’re not going to college. And I think that’s a that’s a cultural piece, I think we have an opportunity at D65, to kill that misconception that if you do a trade or you take on something like radio or electronics, that you’re not going to go to college. That doesn’t mean that.”  

School Board President Sergio Hernandez and Policy Committee member Biz Lindsay-Ryan both praised the plan.

Impact of Academic Performance on Career Choices

The RoundTable asked Callam a number of questions about whether a sixth, seventh or eighth grader’s academic performance might impact their career choices at an early stage and how career choices might impact academic expectations – of both teachers and students. The questions include:

“During the process of working with sixth, seventh and eighth graders, will the District’s counselors or other representatives recommend, suggest, guide, or give input on a student’s career choices based in part on the student’s then academic performance? If so, please explain. For example, if a student is not proficient in reading at eighth grade, will the District representatives suggest careers that take that into account, and perhaps suggest careers that do not require a four-year college education? Or will they in any way steer that student away from a career of being a doctor, or a teacher, or a social worker?

“How will a student’s academic performance in sixth, seventh, or eighth grades influence that student’s view of or selection of career opportunities? Will District counselors or representatives tell students, directly or indirectly, that they need to consider their academic performance in selecting a career? Will students who are not performing well at that time, be more likely to select a career that does not require a four-year college?”

The RoundTable also asked whether a teacher might set different expectations for students based on their career choices, or if students might set lower academic expectations for themselves based on their career choices. And whether the push for students to select a career starting in sixth grade might create a two-track system in the schools, one for students who choose careers that do not require a four-year college and those that do require a four-year college?

Callam responded by email:

“There is a consistent approach to the D65 middle school career program that addresses most of your questions.

“We are establishing a career program for middle schools that is based upon awareness, discovery, exposure, and exploration. We have no intention, no expectations, and no guidelines for our counselors or educators to suggest, advise, steer, or direct students into any career decisions. We will not ever review academic performance and link it to guiding students towards specific careers or post-secondary options.

“A critical distinction to note is that this is middle school, not high school. At the middle school level, it is not about career readiness, course assignments, raising or lowering expectations, or tracking based upon academic performance. There are no electives in D65 except at the sixth-grade level when students in the fifth grade can choose between AVID, Advisory, or Spanish for Spanish Speakers.  

“In sixth grade, the goal is for students to do a broad study of the 16 potential career pathways. In 7th and 8th grade, they explore a bit deeper and connect ETHS course pathways to college majors and to career pathways.  As students work through the various self-discovery assessments, they are expected to change their mind and change it again from year to year as they become aware of options and learn more about themselves.  It’s also critical that we do a better job linking the academic work and skill building activities in middle school to how they apply in colleges and careers — if you’re a good writer, what doors open? When you understand budgets, what opportunities do you get? When you love the stage, what type of careers value performance skills outside of acting?

“Last year, a diverse group worked over two months to develop this GUIDE for the District as we implement a college and career focus. It contains our vision, values, and rationale.  We are also aligning our implementation with the standards and practices outlined in AVID’s college and career framework and the American School Counselor Association.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...

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  1. This sounds like a wonderful program that will encourage children and perhaps get them more interested in learning if they can correlate a skill set with a desired potential career path. And I cannot say enough great things about the AVID and STAE programs. My son participated in STAE and is now pursuing a college degree at one of the top public universities in the US – something he might never have been able to achieve without these kinds of programs.

  2. Job one should be concentrating on the 3 R’s- readin’, (w)ritin’ and rithmetic. The ability to read and understand what one is reading, the ability to express oneself and the ability to just make change at the grocery store are fundamental building blocks for full participation in our rapidly changing society, no matter the career path.

  3. Career pathways are great at the right age and if kids are reading, writing and doing math at grade level and above. Unfortunately, in D65 this has become a huge problem. And, by all accounts, progress worsened during the pandemic with no real plan to get kids back on track. Until the district actually creates a plan to address the basics, nothing else should be deemed a priority in the district. The idea that a 12 year old needs to start exploring career pathways when they can’t read at grade level is absurd and a distraction. Even more absurd is that the opportunities to explore different interests exist at ETHS…so why the rush? Another distraction for a district that lacks accountability in providing the basics of education.

    1. The amount of money flying out the door right now for administrative programs that don’t directly touch teachers or the basic of education is mind boggling. God knows how many consultants, instructional coaches, advisors, content providers, and other $24,000 checks have flown out the door for this program…