Future of Learning

How one Chicago high school turned the corner using full-time internships

Real-World Learning gets real: Could the key to school success be spending less time in school?

CHICAGO — One spring morning, 22 stories above Chicago’s Wabash Avenue, Aurice Blanton ignored the stunning spring view of Lake Michigan. He had work to do. He toggled his computer between a budget spreadsheet and his color-coded schedule, double-checking figures for an upcoming meeting with his supervisor at CNA Insurance.

Aurice Blanton, a senior at Chicago Technology Academy, looks over his schedule during a month-long internship at CNA Insurance last May. Every senior spends a month working outside of school at full-time internships throughout Chicago.

Blanton, a high school senior, was interning for the firm’s information technology group. He liked the spreadsheet work, he said, not because of a newfound love for insurance or accounting, but because it has taught him that he’s more capable than he thought.

“This was something I never thought I could do,” he said. “I hated math. Numbers used to intimidate me.”  The day’s other meetings included lunch with CNA’s senior vice president of corporate communications, a mini-lesson on project management and a check-in with the staff member serving as his mentor.

As an African-American teenager from inner-city Chicago, Blanton didn’t look like most of the other people in the high-rise offices, and that was kind of the point. Most students at his school, Chicago Technology Academy (ChiTech for short), don’t come from places with a lot of college graduates and corporate connections, the sort of folks who can show young people, by example, that they can prosper in the professional world.

So, for the past two years, every ChiTech senior has spent a month out of school working full time at (largely) tech-oriented internships. With this “Real-World Learning” program, ChiTech joins a growing number of schools devoting big chunks of the year to internships, despite the perennial classroom time crunch.

The internships are also part of a larger turnaround effort at ChiTech, centered on project-based learning. The school, where more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 14 percent are counted as homeless, was founded in 2009 to teach skills valued by the booming technology sector. But it was nearly shuttered three years ago due to poor student performance, a reckoning that forced an ongoing re-evaluation of which “real world” skills really matter and how best to teach them.

Related: In one state, students are ditching classrooms for jobs

Over lunch at the CNA company cafeteria, a handful of interns chatted with T J Pavlov, a psychology teacher who oversees ChiTech’s Real-World Learning program and regularly checks in at student worksites. Last fall, Pavlov said he helped the school’s 74 seniors create “interest inventories” and upload their profiles to a youth-oriented networking startup based in Chicago called Yolobe. The students matched their interests with postings of paid internships from about 30 of the school’s corporate partners, including the educational software company Codemoji, the advertising agency DDB and Black Tech Mecca, a think tank studying technology use and development by African-Americans.

Near the end of lunch at CNA, Pavlov advised the students to save some of their stipends for taxes, because they’re independent contractors with no withholding. “Just to be safe,” he said, eliciting scowls and protests of,  “Wait. Whaaaaaat?!”

Financial literacy is one of several side lessons of the full-time internships for his students, along with learning to navigate lobby security without state-issued identification and how to behave and dress at the office.

Then there are the larger lessons, such as building a network of professionals willing to help them succeed, gaining a vision of the world beyond high school and taking initiative. Before Real-World Learning, Pavlov said, “our students were having a hard time making decisions about their plans after graduation, because they couldn’t envision it.”

While a lot of the internships are technology oriented, they’re not necessarily stepping-stones to technical careers. For instance, Makesia Gavin, who interned at Black Tech Mecca last school year and then at Yolobe over the summer, plans to study social work and criminal justice in college. “I’m actually interested in being a juvenile probation officer,” said Gavin.

Asked about his internship at DDB advertising, ChiTech student Devante Jordan mentioned three things — the plentiful snacks, the scooters used to speed around the office and Jennifer Garner. He had Photoshopped endless images of the actress for the agency’s Capital One credit card ads.

At first, Jordan didn’t see the point of the Photoshop chores. But DDB had purposefully spread pairs of ChiTech interns into different departments — such as account management, copy writing and art, where Jordan worked — and brought them together to sit in on client meetings and brainstorming sessions to show how their individual work contributed to the team effort of making an ad.

Soon enough, Jordan took to his role so intently that he’d introduce himself to office visitors with a smile and a handshake and say, “I’m Devante, and I’m an art director.”

Last February, as a senior at ChiTech, Devante Jordan spent a month interning in the art department of DDB Worldwide advertising in Chicago.

Even before the month-long internships, ChiTech had a real-world focus. It was founded as a contract school (similar to a charter) with Chicago Public Schools, by civic-minded tech leaders appalled that their booming industry was struggling to find enough new talent despite being surrounded by neighborhoods where, quite often, roughly 50 percent of the young adults were unemployed.

In the fall of 2009, ChiTech’s first students filed into its squat, 1950s-era building of drab yellow brick, an abandoned elementary school in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The outdated architecture didn’t dampen enthusiasm for the new school, however, which boasted a curriculum stocked with classes in coding, entrepreneurship and software such as Excel and Photoshop. Tech leaders spoke at assemblies and mentored students. Field trips toured local startups.

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Academically, however, ChiTech soon struggled. Despite the innovative ethos of its tech-world backers, the school’s approach to core subjects was “very traditional,” according to Wesley Davidson, an English teacher at ChiTech. “Our principal was very textbook driven,” he said.

By 2014, when ChiTech applied for its five-year contract renewal, it was a low-performing school, with just 57 percent of students graduating after four years and less than half going to college.

“We were close to being shut down by the district,” said Lance Russell, chair of ChiTech’s board of directors. “And frankly, they would not necessarily have been in the wrong for doing so.”

Instead, the district gave ChiTech a year to turn things around. As part of the deal, they partnered with High Tech High, a San Diego-based charter school network and a national leader in project-based learning.

Rob Riordan, High Tech High’s cofounder, recalled the first visit his team made to ChiTech.  A metal detector greeted them (standard at Chicago high schools), and when they tried to visit classrooms, all the doors were locked. The cramped hallways were dim and barren.

“It felt like jail,” Riordan said. A staff shake-up ensued. About half of ChiTech’s teachers did not return that fall. ChiTech hired a new school director, Linnea Garrett, who pushed classroom experimentation and innovation. More school visits, professional training and in-class coaching sessions followed, both in San Diego and Chicago. In May 2015, the district extended ChiTech’s reprieve until 2018.

Classes became organized around student projects displayed in twice-annual “exhibitions” open to student families and the public. For example, students in music, physics and psychology courses made a three-octave chromatic pipe organ with PVC pipes they affixed to a stairwell wall. Engineering students used computer-aided design software to build 15 “Little Free Libraries” and placed them in neighborhoods where libraries and bookstores are scarce. A coding class programmed a blackjack video game for exhibition visitors who also played analog casino games made by algebra students studying probability.

The exhibitions energize students, because having an audience raises the stakes for their work and makes it more real, or “authentic,” to use the term favored by project-based learning advocates. The ultimate goal, said Riordan, is to cultivate a “collegial pedagogy,” in which “students and teachers are working together toward an end that none of them can see yet, or in pursuit of a question to which none of them yet knows the answer.”

Related: How diplomas based on skill acquisition, not credits earned, could change education

As part of the push to make school more authentic, Garrett and her team learned that High Tech High students do full-time internships for three weeks to a month during their junior years. Closer to home, she noted that seniors in the prestigious University of Chicago Laboratory High School do month-long independent study projects.

“We asked, ‘Why can’t our kids have experiences like that?’ ” said Garrett. There were plausible answers. High Tech High wasn’t under threat of closure due to student performance. Chicago Lab School graduates routinely go to top universities, while ChiTech was struggling to get graduates into any college whatsoever. But Garrett didn’t buy this reasoning.

“It’s an access issue that creates this belief issue,” she said. “Our students come to believe that these opportunities are not meant for them. ‘If I’m not able to do it, then I don’t deserve it. So, I’ll only reach for this low bar.’ ”

Still, when ChiTech leaders piloted Real-World Learning in 2015, they minimized the risk of academic fallout by limiting the program to four of their top students, who spent that May interning at CNA. The success of those four students gave Garrett and her team the confidence to place the entire senior class into internships in 2016.

Students in a coding class at ChiTech working on the blackjack video game station in preparation for the school’s end-of-the-year public exhibition of student work.

Mixing term-time internships with classroom academics is not a brand-new idea. School networks such as Big Picture Learning charter schools and the Catholic school network, Cristo Rey, have done real-world learning since the 1990s, for example.

The idea has gained new momentum recently among schools hoping to make learning more personalized, relevant and student directed. For instance, ChiTech is affiliated with Schools That Can, a national nonprofit promoting models of success in urban schools, which recently narrowed its focus to real-world learning.

“More and more, we were noticing this disconnect between what we’re teaching in K-12 and what students are expected to do beyond school,” said Casey Lamb, chief of operations and development for Schools That Can. “We were hearing frustration from schools that were interested in trying real-world learning, but lacked the confidence and resources to pursue it.”

In May, the nonprofit released a rubric for integrating academics and internships, covering topics such as external partnerships and the public exhibition of student work.

The document also covers assessments for interpersonal skills and habits of mind. According to Lamb, “assessment is one of the biggest challenges in this,” not only for tracking student progress, but for vetting the long-term value of real-world learning itself, about which there is very little direct research to date.

But there is some indirect evidence. Studies suggest that standardized tests, such as the ACT and SAT, are fairly poor predictors of college persistence compared to high school grades, while a nascent body of research has found that the “soft skills” that real-world learning seeks to foster — such as a can-do attitude and a resilient “growth mindset” — are strongly linked to college success.

ChiTech’s recent academic measures are encouraging, but still a mixed bag. On the one hand, students now seem far more engaged in school and committed to college. From 2014 to 2016, the percentage of ChiTech freshmen on track to graduate in four years rose from 63 to 78 percent. Meanwhile, administrators report, the school’s four-year graduation rate climbed from 57 to 77 percent in 2017, and college enrollment rose from 48 to 68 percent (with about 80 percent of the 2017 class expected to enroll this fall).

On the other hand, ChiTech’s standardized test scores have remained stagnant and well below district averages. For example, from 2014 to 2016, the school’s average ACT composite score barely ticked up from 15.4 to 15.6, compared to a district-wide average of 18.4 and the ACT’s “college ready” threshold of 21.

Folks like Laura McBain, director of external relations and the Education Leadership Academy at High Tech High, say standardized tests are the wrong focus.

“If you’re thinking, ‘God forbid, the school’s test scores are dragging,’ if that’s the basis of your decision-making, then your decision-making is wack,” she said, “because you’re thinking about your school and not your kids.”

As her colleague Riordan put it, “We’re trying to do learning 2.0, and so it makes no sense to evaluate it with assessment 1.0.” Nevertheless, the test scores and other traditional measures will play a big role in the evaluation of ChiTech’s turnaround, and its continued survival as a school.

In the run-up to the internships, Pavlov tapped ChiTech’s daily half-hour advisory period to get seniors ready for a professional office environment. He also prepped the employers, helping them structure month-long work experiences appropriate for high school students. Common tips included matching students with staff mentors in addition to their immediate supervisors, and establishing a longer-term project that interns would be expected to work on when not engaged by a daily task.

At DDB advertising, which first participated in Real-World Learning last year, interns took the same presentation class as all new hires. The interns also had ample opportunities for public speaking, such as interviewing DDB employees in a video about the internships or introducing the Chicago-based poet/activist Malcolm London when he performed at the agency. Michelle Auger, DDB vice president and director of human resources, met twice a week with all the interns, who took turns speaking to the group about their current projects and predicaments. The intern assignments, public speaking and twice-weekly debriefing all worked well, even if working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. didn’t.

“We quickly realized that was too long. We’d never had high schoolers in the agency before, and we had to learn just where they are with their attention spans,” she said. So, they eventually decided to cut the interns loose at 3 p.m. Still, the agency got a lot out of the ChiTech students. “We really enjoyed having them here. And it was a nice surprise to see how many people at the agency wanted to get involved,” said Auger. “We definitely want to have them back next year.”

Indeed, the willingness to keep taking interns, as all but one employer from 2017 have said they would in 2018, is another metric of Real-World Learning success for Pavlov. After each internship, he surveys employers about how it went and what could be improved. Last year, ChiTech also asked several corporate partners to form a Tech Advisory Committee to meet periodically with teachers to enhance the collaboration on projects and internships. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Pavlov and Garrett plan to infuse preparation for the Real-World Learning experiences into every class in every grade.

What that means, Garrett explained, is breaking down “soft skills” such as collaboration, communication and a growth mindset into subskills that students should be expected to master in each grade.

Related: A school district is building a DIY broadband network

“These are workplace-ready skills, but in school we just don’t talk about them. We explicitly say, ‘You’re able to solve a linear equation,’ or ‘You know how to properly place a comma,’ but we never say, ‘You were able to come together as a team and solve this problem,’ ” said Garrett. “Our goal is to have intentional soft skill development in every course, so kids can progress and monitor their development, just like they can in math class as they master math skills.”

Pavlov added, “We’re very reflective. We find that it’s a very valuable growth tool for both teachers and students.”

And as a school, they remain ready to keep trying new things and make improvements based on those reflections, because they know that both ChiTech and its students still face enormous challenges both inside and outside school walls — from cost-cutting by a district in the midst of a years-long budget crisis to gun violence (Chicago’s 300-plus shooting deaths in the first six months of 2017 included a former ChiTech student and a staff member).

“Our students need these opportunities,” Pavlov said of the internships, “and we value them just as much as, if not more than, we do those traditional educational experiences.”

Back at CNA Insurance, still with his back to Lake Michigan, Blanton toggled to one more screen — a PowerPoint presentation he’ll give at the end of the month about his internship experience.

One slide was labeled “key takeaways” from the internship, “but I’m going to turn it into something more, something that really impacted me to keep me going on my path and changed my perspective of what I want to do in life,” said Blanton, who plans to study education at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He had long wanted to be a teacher, but he’d now changed his focus from physical education to science and math due to his internship experience.

“Ultimately,” he said, “my main goal now is to become a principal.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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