Rockford Revamped Its Career-Focused HS Academies. Can It Improve Outcomes?
Students are taping drywall they hung a few weeks ago. The sound of hammers and saws echo from another room.
“This house here was built last year at Guilford. You were in that class, right?” said Jack Turner. He’s the construction manager at Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity. “Yeah, so they built the house last year.”
The student he just spoke to is in a construction class at Guilford High School. The class works both semesters and builds one house per year.
“The house will be done, the dedication is before school’s out,” said Turner.
Across the hall, in the room with the hammers and saws, another group of students work.
Two stand on ladders sanding the ceiling as dust rains down on their faces.
Rockford Public Schools rebranded their high school academies this year. Students from Auburn High School are shadowing potential jobs in the community through the district's partnership with Alignment Rockford.
Unlike the construction class, they’re only job shadowing for the day. Every few weeks a new batch of shadowers briefly join the construction.
Drake Austin is a sophomore at Auburn High School in Rockford.
“We usually do projects in a shop class, but I personally wanted to do this because it's something to be interested in, you know, maybe a future job,” he said.
Austin is in the production academy, which includes career paths like construction and engineering.
He’s still a sophomore, which means if he really wanted he could still switch academies. Or he could stay on this career arc and maybe join the construction class himself.
The other academies are business, service and health. Auburn offers a few extra paths as well, unique to the school: creative & performing arts and gifted.
Rockford Public Schools rolled out the academy model nearly 10 years ago. The goal was to give students hands on college and career readiness opportunities.
Susan Fumo is the executive director of school improvements at RPS. She says around 50 Auburn students were shadowing different jobs that day.
“They're not sitting and doing a worksheet that's just regurgitating information; like these kids have to solve problems. They've had to experiment with the different types of sanders which I didn't know how to do,” said Fumo. “I mean, that's what they're going to have to do in the real world.”
It’s an experience all Rockford High School students complete before they graduate. Fumo says RPS also hopes it will improve the pipeline of students from Rockford schools to Rockford jobs.
“And I sanded something too!” Fumo adds. “She did. She did a great job,” said Eric Mnirajd. He’s a junior at Auburn. He says he’s interested in this type of job too.
Especially somewhere like Habitat for Humanity where he can work: “Not for the satisfaction of building but for the benefit of others.”
Across town, a few students look at x-rays. They’re shadowing at Hulsebus Chiropractic.
One of them is Ricardo Aparicio, another Auburn junior.
“I was kind of leaning in to physical therapy and since like physical therapy and chiropractors have to have the same base knowledge,” he said.
He’s part of the health academy. But even though shadowing typically lines up with their academy, that’s not always the case.
The other student learning how patients are evaluated is in the business academy.
They’re both joined by an RPS academy coach, Katie Haun, who explains the process:
“Auburn is different in the sense that all of our students didn't have a freshman academy to explore,” she said. “A lot of our students chose in eighth grade and they didn't really know what they were choosing. So I tell them, get your feet wet in the academy that you've been given but if you have interests in other areas, let's go with your interest.”
They may not have a freshman academy, but they do get to attend a freshman expo. The event features 100-plus booths from local businesses and industry professionals. Students explore the careers and see if it affirms their new pathway.
“Eventually we're hoping for internship and capstone experiences,” said Haun. “We're not there just yet.”
Rockford high schools still struggle according to state metrics. Two of the district’s four high schools, including Auburn, earned lowest-performing ratings on the Illinois Report Card last year. That’s due to test scores, but also because they have graduation rates below 67%.
The district did make some changes. With the rebranding, the academies now have local business sponsors. And all freshmen now take a full-year college & career readiness course. They’re confident the approach will yield not just better test scores, but careers.