In the Classroom

Partnership merges high school AP courses, applied science

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Warren Township schools had to make cuts this year after a drop in federal poverty aid.

Should top students who are interested in both career technology fields, like engineering, and advanced academic courses, like physics, have to choose between them?

That’s what happens in a lot of high schools. Career technology is seen by some as a less academic track, but a new partnership of two top education groups that create high school courses wants to change that.

Choosing between career-oriented and academic electives isn’t easy, said Steve Rogers, chairman of the engineering and technology department at Warren Township’s Walker Career Center. Sometimes parents shy away from courses they aren’t sure will look challenging to a college or employer.

“But when you can have documentation for parents to say, you know, you should take both, then we won’t have stigma that engineering classes aren’t the same relevance as physics classes,” Rogers said.

That’s the idea behind a partnership between the College Board, creator of the SAT and Advanced Placement classes, and Project Lead The Way, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that develops curriculum for applied science and project-based classes.

The partnership would create new high school class sequences, or “pathways,” of both AP and Project Lead The Way classes and give students a certificate to show colleges they’ve completed a demanding course load.

“It is very much focused on pathways and helping kids not just do this once, but do this over time and invest in this and get the kind of preparation to build the confidence to find that this is the thing they are going to fall in love with,” said Anna Jones, senior vice president for Project Lead The Way.

Project Lead The Way moved its headquarters from upstate New York to Indianapolis in 2011. Its CEO, Vince Bertram, was named to the Indiana State Board of Education by Gov. Mike Pence earlier this week.

The organization seeks to encourage more students to study science and math by creating classwork that is rooted in problem-solving and applying the subjects to real life. Schools that participate pay a yearly fee for the curriculum, between $2,000 and $3,000. More than 400 schools in the state offer Project Lead The Way classes.

College Board is headquartered in New York and has been around for more than 100 years. The nonprofit writes tests, designs curriculum for Advanced Placement classes and offers resources for parents and students planning for college.

The partnership between the two would be fairly straightforward, Jones said.

The companies would take the existing Project Lead The Way programs — in engineering, biomedical science and computer science — and create options for how AP science and math classes could fit in. For example, a student might be on the Project Lead The Way engineering track and take introduction to engineering and principles of engineering as well as AP Physics.

Students who complete a combination of at least three AP and Project Lead The Way classes will earn the recognition certificate beginning in 2016. To be eligible, however, they must pass all the classes and earn a passing score of three, four or five out of five on an AP exam.

“This credential is designed to value the work that our students are doing that are participating in AP and Project Lead The Way,” Jones said. “So it really is building, frankly, the strength of both organizations.”

Showing the value of career tech classes

Rogers, who has worked as a Project Lead The Way teacher since 2003, said he likes that the pathways could be used to show parents how students could map out their classes during high school. That way, they might better understand what classes would help their kids succeed in college.

For many STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — professionals, that means both content-heavy AP classes and ones rooted in projects and problem solving like Project Lead The Way.

Oftentimes, Rogers said, it’s not clear to parents why students should forgo an AP or core academic class to try the Project Lead The Way classes. Universities typically count passing AP exam scores for college credit, but many don’t do the same for other courses. That means kids who take Project Lead The Way classes in engineering might be repeating basic skills classes in college.

“We have kids every year that take three, four, five (engineering) classes and go on to Purdue and Rose-Hulman (Institute of Technology) and really get no benefit,” Rogers said. “The class was a benefit, but nothing credit-wise to help the kids out.”

Edward Biedermann, with College Board, said the pathways might also help diversify both programs’ students.

“All too often we see some students think of themselves only as (career and technical education) students and not try to take AP, and other students may think of themselves as college-bound students who take AP and don’t focus on classes with applied learning,” Biedermann said. “This partnership is a way to get all types of students into an AP course that has the potential for college credit.”

Rogers said that though he’s just recently heard about the partnership, he thinks it has the potential to be mutually beneficial for students — AP kids can learn more about STEM careers they can pursue after high school, and Project Lead The Way kids focused on career and technical study, who might not be thinking of college, will be encouraged to earn college credit.

Plus, the new recognition might strike a chord with colleges and push them to cut repetitive introductory classes down the line, Rogers said, saving students time and money.

“It makes sense that we’re putting those courses together into more of a defined pathway because, let’s be honest, they need AP Physics, they need AP Chemistry,” Rogers said. “They might as well see it now when they’re in a class of 20 because they’ll take freshman chemistry in a lab, and it could be 200 kids at Purdue.”

How this Indiana teacher helps hospitalized students transition back to school

PHOTO: FS Productions / Getty Images
Nurse talking to girl in hospital bed

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

When Sara Midura meets her students, they’ve often just gone through a crisis.

As an educational liaison at Riley Hospital for Children, Midura is both a teacher and an educational advocate for patients in the Simon Skjodt Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit. She helps them keep up with schoolwork and transition back to school once their hospital stay is over.

“Many times, the students who come to us are either slipping through the cracks or seen as having huge ‘behavior issues,’” Midura said.

Her work includes easing the anxiety of a student returning to school; partnering with the family, school, and treatment team to make sure a student’s behavioral health needs can be met; and finding a “go-to person” at school who understands the student’s situation.

Midura, who was recently named one of the top 25 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how she supports hospitalized children and how the lack of mental health resources in schools can affect students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I decided to be a teacher in kindergarten — I loved my teacher and loved school, so it felt like a no-brainer to my 5-year-old self! I proceeded to force my friends to play school with me in my basement and made lesson plans during days that I stayed home sick. I toyed with other ideas for professions through my K-12 education, but solidified my desire to be a teacher as a camp counselor during my high school years.

How do you get to know your students?

Since I only have my students for a short period of time, I try to capitalize on the time I have with them by having them fill out a “school profile,” which really serves two purposes. Since the first time I meet the kiddos is almost always their first day on the unit following a crisis, I know that they are not functioning in their prefrontal cortex and are in crisis mode. They understandably are typically shut off, so the school profile is a great way for them to easily and safely let me get to know them a bit. It starts a good rapport, and I can always connect to something in there. Then each day I just make sure I check in with them, always reminding them that I am their advocate. We talk about school, life, and anything else. It can be easier to get to know them since they are in such a small group setting of up to 10 kids. This is my favorite part of the job!

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I am certified in Applied Educational Neuroscience (I took a nine-credit hour graduate course at Butler University with Lori Desautels), so I run a group on my unit every week called “Brain Club.” In this, I teach students about their brains, stress, emotions, and how the coping skills we teach them in their therapies and on the unit are truly brain regulation strategies. We talk about the different parts of the brain, which ones we function in where, our amygdala and fear, and so much else! The kids typically love brain club and are so engaged!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My iPad! Between playing music — I cannot work in silence! — looking up information to help students with their assignments, and using the different educational apps to fit all of my kids’ needs, I bring my iPad with me everywhere.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Mental health resources, or the lack thereof in many districts, greatly impact what happens inside my classroom and on my unit. There are many schools that are so underfunded and lacking resources, leaving staff burnt out. In my mind, this creates and unsafe environment for my patients returning to school. My patients need a school staff that can understand mental/behavioral health.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

The first really challenging case that I had was a few months into me working on the unit. We had a very high-achieving student who was going through some intensive setbacks, and the student’s dad was extremely concerned about school. I assured him that we would be able to “fix” everything with school and ensure that it went back to his expectation of normal, but that ended up not happening. This experience taught me that I cannot ever promise any outcome, but I can promise families that I will be with them each step of the way to ensure that education matches the treatment needs. This has changed my approach to speaking with families.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Navigating all of the different school systems and cultures during such a short hospitalization period can be very difficult when discussing behavioral health needs. I have my patients for about a week typically, so trying to provide enough support and education to patients, family, and school staff can be very challenging. I often feel like I don’t have the capability to serve schools as well as I would like to with supports! It is also difficult to not know how my students are doing after they are discharged — I wonder about them so often.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I’m not so sure that this was a misconception rather than an underestimation, but I really did not comprehend until I got into teaching how huge of a difference a teacher can make on a child’s life. Now what I know about the brain and mental health is that one positive, intensive relationship with a teacher can absolutely change the course of a student’s life — it’s amazing to watch.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

This is very nerdy of me, but I loved reading books that relate to behavioral health, so currently I am reading “Life Without Ed,” a book told from the perspective of someone who battled an eating disorder. I work with many kids with eating disorders, and it is such a terrible, heartbreaking disease that I greatly misunderstood before working on my unit.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I received about teaching was to “fill your four circles consistently.” One of my amazing professors from Butler, Theresa Knipstein Meyer, gave a lecture one day about how crucial self-care is for educators. She showed us the theory of the four circles, where you have to consistently be taking care of different aspects of your health for the circles to be balanced and keep “your fire within” ignited. I think that it is so easy for educators to pour their entire hearts and souls into teaching only to get burnt out, and I have had to be conscious about taking care of every aspect of my life. This makes me a much better teacher and person, and I am so grateful to have learned that.

future of work

How Chicago schools are using cool classes like aviation and game design to repopulate neighborhood schools

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Students in a pre-law class at Chicago's Mather High fill out college applications on Sept. 19, 2018. The class is one of the school's career technical education offerings that it hopes will attract more students to enroll in the school.

Vocational education used to mean machine shops and sewing classes, programs aimed at students who weren’t headed for college. But career education has changed to fit the tastes of today’s students and the needs of the 21st-century job market, and now encompasses courses ranging from game design and aviation to architecture and digital media.

And Chicago schools are expanding their array of career-prep courses in hopes of enticing students back to languishing neighborhood high schools.

A tour of Mather High on Wednesday demonstrated how Chicago schools are viewing career education differently. It’s a means of both attracting students with training in popular subjects and using those practical classes to teach fundamental concepts — all very much aimed at sending some career-track students to college.

For example, Mather’s pre-law curriculum includes a criminology course where students learn about psychology, as well as a mock-trial element where they learn classical principles of rhetoric and argument. The pre-law program also dedicates time to helping its students submit college applications — hardly the focus of traditional trade-school curricula.

At Mather in West Ridge, second-year Principal Peter Auffant reversed a five-year slide in enrollment after expanding career-related classes. About a third of Mather’s 1,500 students are enrolled in one of its four career-education tracks, including a brand-new pre-engineering curriculum. A digital media track is slated to begin next fall. Besides more than three dozen classes, career-related offerings also include internships, such as stint working in city council members’ offices or at downtown law firms.  

“CTE allows us to provide very unique programming that students can’t get anywhere else,” Auffant said, referring to the commonly used shorthand for career technical education. “We leverage that to create stable enrollments.”

Mather senior William Doan is a case study. Three years ago, the West Ridge resident was looking at high schools outside his neighborhood — selective-enrollment schools as well as those offering the rigorous, college-preparatory International Baccalaureate curriculum, but ultimate chose to stay close to home because Mather’s pre-law program aligned with his interest in law enforcement.

“It kind of just drew me in,” Doan said. “You get a taste for the law and how it really is in the real world.”

Doan’s experience reflects a trend that’s shaping curricular decisions in Chicago and around the country. Congress this summer approved $1.1 billion to expand career education. Such offerings are among Chicago Public Schools’ most popular, according to a report released last month by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.  

Some of those programs focus on traditional vocational education, such as the building trades program at Prosser High in Belmont Cragin that Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced this month would be funded with a $12 million investment. Others like those at Mather include non-traditional offerings, described as “21st century CTE” by Jarrod Nagurka. He is advocacy and public affairs manager for the Alexandria, Virginia-based Association for Career & Technical Education, which sponsored Wednesday’s school tour.

Nearly every Chicago high school has at least one career offering, though access to the most popular programs varies across the city, as does the breadth of the programming at each school. One factor among mid-sized schools such as Mather is the administrative burden of supporting extensive career programming alongside other elective programs such as International Baccalaureate.

“To do both (IB and career education) really well you have to be larger,” Auffant said.

So Mather is pursuing a hybrid strategy that uses career-education classes to teach college-prep concepts. Teachers use real-world vocational settings to explore the academic concepts that undergird them.

“The foundation of curriculum design is backward design,” said Sarah Rudofsky, the school district’s manager of curriculum and instruction for CTE. That means consulting with industry partners about the skills graduates need, then building curricula to suit. In a pre-law course, for example, those core skills are destined to overlap with traditional college-prep coursework, but geared to a practical application.

“It’s important to us to change the conversation from ‘CTE is for students who don’t want to go to college’ to ‘This program is for any young person who wants to have some employability skills before they graduate from high school’ — applied math, applied science and applied literacy,” Rudofsky said.