Despite the challenges of COVID-19, over 100 high schools across Illinois are implementing College and Career Pathway Endorsement systems under the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness (PWR) Act.
Ridgewood High School, located in the Chicago suburbs, was the first in Illinois to award the College and Career Pathway Endorsement to Class of 2020 graduates who successfully completed the Education and Manufacturing and Engineering pathways. “When the PWR Act first announced the endorsements, we were ready for it,” says Assistant Principal Eric Lasky. “Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Kelsall’s focus has always been on personalized learning and offering students experiences that are important to them, so Ridgewood has long been creative with schedules and integrating curriculum.”
That focus led to a new, innovative approach to education, combining competency-based education with a college and career pathway focus that was rolled out two years ago. For Principal Gina Castellano, the process began much earlier. “I started as a school counselor here for nine years, and there was a common theme. When students got to senior year and I asked, ‘What do you want to do? Where do you want to go? What are your interests?’ they didn’t know. We began having multiple conversations throughout the building on how we could address this need for our kids, to better equip them for life after high school.”
As the conversations grew, Ridgewood administrators turned to the community for input. “Our community clearly said they wanted to see students graduate with skills, including collaboration and problem-solving,” said Principal Castellano. “They said all the things we were thinking and we knew our kids needed. That forced us to really change the way education was done.”
To meet their community needs, Ridgewood became a competency-based education pilot school, which shifted the focus from content and seat time to student-driven learning inside and outside of the classroom. Ridgewood started by designing two, one-of-a-kind integrated courses: Geometry in Construction and Algebra 2 in Business, both of which teach math concepts through real-world applications. Administrators also introduced the nationally recognized Project Lead the Way Engineering curriculum and content, now a required freshman course that also earns dual credit with Triton College.
The positive response to these curriculum changes pushed administrators to keep innovating, launching a pathways model while expanding its dual credit partnerships. “Every Ridgewood student now chooses a career pathway focus,” says Assistant Principal Lasky. “Our students can tell you what career cluster they fall into and the earning potential for the career options in that pathway. For the Class of 2023, our goal is for all students to complete a College and Career Pathway Endorsement. We would also like a large number of students to graduate with an associate’s degree or other postsecondary certificate.”
Ridgewood’s College & Career Pathways Model
Here’s how it works: In fall 2019, Ridgewood introduced its new career exploration experience which is integrated into freshmen classes. By the end of freshman year, each student declares an interest in either arts and sciences or business and technology, which helps determine which electives they participate in sophomore year. “Then we taper that even further to their career interests so that by junior year they’re not only experiencing elective courses in their career pathway but also having internship and dual credit opportunities outside the building,” says Principal Castellano. Interest areas include Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources; Architecture and Construction; Arts and Communication; Automotive; Business; Culinary; Education; Health Sciences; Information Technology; Law and Criminal Justice; and Manufacturing and Engineering.
In this model, pathways are not just for CTE students. “We do have a Distinguished Scholar pathway,” notes Assistant Principal Lasky. “One student who had focused on engineering went on to Harvard last year, and another student in the education pathway matriculated to the University of Chicago.”
While Ridgewood is approved by the Illinois State Board of Education to award the College and Career Endorsement in all pathways areas1, their existing curriculum and methodology allowed them to award the Education and Manufacturing endorsements this past spring. Despite the current challenges of social distancing, Ridgewood anticipates even more students will earn endorsements to the Class of 2021, across additional pathways. “We want to create a pathway for every student,” says Principal Castellano. “Our end goal is for students to know what they’re passionate about and learn all their skills through project-based learning and outside experiences to meet all our graduation competencies.”
For the ten Class of 2020 graduates who earned the endorsement, that goal is being realized. For the five manufacturing graduates, all received job offers in manufacturing, which three took while two enrolled in college to major in engineering. Of the five who earned the education pathway endorsement, three are now pursuing education majors in four-year colleges. That includes Julie Clark, who is now a freshman at Illinois State University majoring in English with a focus on secondary education. “The education pathway has definitely prepared me for my college experience. The observations, presentations, and mini-lesson plans we did in my Survey in Education class made me excited about teaching and administration. My dual credit course at Northeastern improved my writing skills significantly, which is already leading me to better grades on my English assignments. And, I was able to graduate with six early college credits.”
“Ridgewood High School is a poster child for the PWR Act, embodying all of the key components of the legislation,” says Juan Jose Gonzalez, Pathways Director at EdSystems. “They are using a competency-based learning system, offer Transitional Math and English courses, and are equipping students to make informed decisions about college and career, as evidenced by being the first in the state to award graduates with the endorsement. We are proud to have helped guide and encourage the Ridgewood administrators along the way.”
“For communities focused on the State’s goal of ensuring that 60-percent of all adults have a college or career credential by 2025, awarding a College and Career Pathway Endorsement is an important step to be celebrated,” says Executive Director Jonathan Furr. “Ridgewood High School is proof that schools and systems can find new ways to better equip students for college and meaningful employment in high-demand occupations here in Illinois.”