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Chelsey Houston, 20, and Siera Gunn, 23, fold linens at West Georgia Technical College to prepare for a test to become nurses’ aides.
Students prepare for a test to become nurses’ aides. Credit: Terrell Clark for The Hechinger Report

Four years ago, Marilyn Gutierrez expressed interest in becoming a teacher, but was unsure about the steps needed to achieve that goal.

Gutierrez participated in my high school district’s education pathway, where she took college-level courses and interned as a teacher. These experiences paved the way for Gutierrez to become the first in her family to attend college and pursue a bachelor’s degree in education.

Gutierrez’s story is just one of many that demonstrates the need for a curriculum that goes beyond typical classroom learning and focuses on career readiness.

Related: Modern apprenticeships offer path to career — and college

Our career pathways program provides students with a sequence of career-focused courses and opportunities to accumulate early college credits, earn industry certifications and participate in authentic workplace experiences prior to high school graduation. The program links classroom learning to the knowledge and skills needed in the real world. Students graduate with a clear purpose and momentum as they enter college and the workforce.

”We should no longer expect learning to be limited to the classroom, ending each day when the bell rings.”

To help students discover their futures, we provide online career exploration tools, facilitate advising sessions with our career advising team, and organize annual workshops and events dedicated to exploring careers across all industries.

If students are unsure which direction to take, we provide additional support and interventions. Students explore career areas guided by teachers engaged with local industry and area professionals. Our students don’t just talk about it, they do it by starting businesses, earning early medical credentials, and designing and building from scratch high-mileage vehicles or robots ready for a cage match.

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This work has led to the creation of our Center for Career Discovery. Here, we provide opportunities to support students’ skill development, decision-making and post-secondary goals. Last school year alone, the center provided over 2,700 workplace learning experiences and internships across the district.

Our career pathways program has established partnerships with over 900 area businesses that directly impact our students’ education.

The result is clear: Schools can serve as economic engines when directly engaged in developing the talent pipeline essential to local employers. In one community, we learned from officials and business leaders that the candidate pool for manufacturing jobs was severely limited, leading us to offer hands-on credentialing in advanced manufacturing. Our collective efforts supported the retention and attraction of businesses in the manufacturing sector even during the recession. Students gained career guidance and hands-on experience, while providing local business with the talent pool essential to remain competitive.

Through students like Gutierrez, we have seen our goals realized. Thanks to her experiences in the pathway, she will help satisfy the demand for skilled and experienced teachers.

We are also continually engaged with industry partners on how best to incorporate growing workforce opportunities into our career pathway program, including such fields as cybersecurity and aviation.

Over time, our roles as educators have evolved. We should no longer expect learning to be limited to the classroom, ending each day when the bell rings. If we emphasize career readiness within rigorous academic programs, we can help our students discover a future that ensures employability, while serving as an economic engine for our communities.

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

Dr. Lazaro Lopez is the associate superintendent for teaching and learning at High School District 214, the second-largest school system in Illinois, which covers eight communities in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Lopez also serves as chair of the Illinois Community College Board.

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