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As we hopefully begin to emerge from the pandemic, we’re only starting to appreciate its full impact on our children’s lives, learning and futures.

The pandemic took the lives of hundreds of thousands of family members. It led to a troubling rise in mental health issues, a so-called second pandemic. And during periods of remote and hybrid instruction, academic progress for many students stalled, particularly for those who were already struggling.

Unfortunately, many students disengaged from learning entirely during this period. In Chicago Public Schools, for example, data shows that attendance dropped precipitously, especially among Black students. A quarter of the district’s lowest-income students stopped attending class all together.

District leaders and educators won’t solve these problems by focusing solely on making up lost academic time. In fact, if piling on more academic work comes at the expense of content that is meaningful and exciting, the approach could further disengage students. That’s why my district is reimagining high schools with a strong focus on helping students become leaders in their own learning and the learning of others — a pathway to future success and economic mobility.

In 2017, I became superintendent of Rich Township, where, today, 95 percent of students are Black or Latino and over 99 percent come from economically disadvantaged homes. My career to that point had afforded me some wonderful opportunities to learn, lead and inspire others, but I had not yet worked with students from environments like the one in which I was raised.

Before coming to Rich Township, I spent five years in Community High School District 155, a northwest suburban school district with an abundance of resources. Over three-quarters of students there are white and just 23 percent come from a low-income background. Students there were encouraged to create and collaborate, and challenged to become leaders and innovators. In Rich Township, however, the prevailing culture was one of trying to get students to focus academically and get more right answers on tests.

The difference between these two districts could not have been starker. Students at 155 were being trained to be leaders; Rich Township students were being trained to be managed.

Why did one district prepare students to be leaders and the other district prepare students to be followers?

Related: OPINION: Career planning in middle school prepares students for better workforce choices

I immediately saw my most important job was to address the different way we teach students in these different ZIP codes.

So, we redesigned the high school experience, allowing incoming freshmen to learn about career pathways that would guide their coursework for the next four years. As part of this redesign, we created a “super school” with two campuses —Fine Arts and Communications (including business) and STEM.

At both campuses, we introduced experiential learning approaches that allow students to work together to learn important knowledge and skills while exploring their passions and solving real-world challenges. For example, we created an advanced manufacturing lab where students work with peers in the business program to develop products and then take them to market.

We alsobegan using Uncharted Learning’s INCubatoredu, the same youth entrepreneurship program we provided to students in district 155, so that our Fine Arts and Communications students can get firsthand experience as problem identifiers and problem solvers. In the program, student teams identify a challenge — often a problem that has meaning to them or their community — and then brainstorm, design and develop a solution.

Why did one district prepare students to be leaders and the other district prepare students to be followers?

At the end of the year, the teams pitch real investors for funding. While some may win seed money, many more won’t. But that’s the point: The goal is for every student to develop an entrepreneurial skillset, identify their passions and learn to persevere in the face of setbacks.

Students also have a chance to work closely with entrepreneurs and business owners, who play a vital role in demystifying the business world. This is critical, as most of our students didn’t know anyone who had started a small business, run a corporation or invented a product — much less envisioned themselves doing it. The mentors not only provide industry expertise, but also coach students in time management, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and interpersonal communication.

According to Julia Freeland Fisher of the Christensen Institute, our schools have historically failed to help minority students make the kind of connections that can lead to social mobility. She says, “schools fail to pursue instructional models that could connect authentically what happens inside classrooms with the wide range of industries in the real world.”

That’s a problem we’re solving in Rich Township now. Investing in students through youth entrepreneurship is helping our district achieve what other districts might take for granted — access to role models and hands-on learning opportunities. These experiences are helping our students become active participants and leaders in their own learning and futures. That’s especially important for many traditionally underserved students who desperately need opportunities to discover what motivates them.

In Rich Township, our students are striving for continuous improvement and for ways to rebound from perceived failures. This mindset is not only the key to learning and economic mobility, but will be the cornerstone to thriving post-pandemic and building a successful life.

Johnnie Thomas is superintendent of Rich Township High School District 227 in suburban Chicago.

This piece about experiential learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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