How Successful Careers Begin in School

At this STEM high school in Cleveland, Ohio, integrated project-based learning and real-world internship experiences build the crucial link between academic achievement and future economic success.

At this STEM high school in Cleveland, Ohio, integrated project-based learning and real-world internship experiences build the crucial link between academic achievement and future economic success.
Jeff surrounded, speaking with students; Senior Lilly Rodriguez

Principal Jeffrey McClellan (above, center) leads MC2 STEM High School, a small public school in Cleveland, Ohio, where high expectations and a family-like culture help students such as senior Lilly Rodriguez (right) discover her career path.

Credit: Zachary Fink

Through the door window you can see the tall, lanky figure of principal Jeffrey McClellan walking back and forth across the small meeting room, head down, brow furrowed as he talks on one cell phone, another at the ready in his other hand. "He's always got two phones and you can tell when it's an important call because he paces back and forth like that," observes one of his seniors with a smile.

McClellan's steady stream of calls can range from arranging transportation for his students (which sometimes means him driving) to approaching a national engineering firm to propose internships for his students. Today he's talking with someone from social services to arrange housing for a student whose family has recently become homeless.

When he hangs up, a boyish, slightly goofy grin spreads across his face as he spots the students at the door. An easy banter ensues; their fondness for him is obvious.

From the needs of the school to the needs of individual students, these are the poles McClellan travels between in leading MC2 (Metropolitan Cleveland Consortium) STEM High School (MC2 STEM) in Cleveland, Ohio. It is a public school dedicated to building and reinforcing that crucial link between academic achievement and future economic success, and McClellan and his team have risen to the challenge.

Since the school opened in 2008, nearly 100 percent of MC2 STEM students have graduated, and 84 percent of the graduates have matriculated into college. The success has been built on three key best practices broken out in depth here with related materials and online resources:

Not Your Traditional High School

MC2 STEM is part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, one of the most economically challenged school districts in the country, where the average high school graduation rate was just 60 percent in 2011. The school was created through a public-private partnership among a number of organizations, with the intention of providing students with an integrated curriculum that is informed by real-world experiences.

The school serves about 300 students, all of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Students attend classes at campuses embedded in business and school sites around the city -- the Great Lakes Science Center, General Electric (GE) Lighting's Nela Park campus, the Health Careers Center (a Cleveland Metropolitan School District building), and various college campuses. At any given time, you may see freshmen and sophomores immersed in workshops with tutors from NASA or in rigorous projects (PDF) and mentorship programs with engineers from GE Lighting, or juniors and seniors stepping up to demanding internships (PDF) at a variety of local businesses.

While STEM is the school's emphasis, teachers cover all subjects required by Ohio's state standards through integrated, transdisciplinary project-based learning. The grading system (PDF) is based on mastery, meaning that every student in grades nine and ten must achieve at least 90 percent on benchmark assessments in order to receive credit. There are no enrollment criteria; students are admitted by lottery and they come from every corner of Cleveland.

So how does a culture of such rigorous demands -- where teachers, mentors, and business professionals commit big chunks of their time to help kids advance -- actually succeed? And, perhaps more importantly, what makes the students buy in to this model that lacks many high school conventions like football or band in favor of time spent in close collaboration with adults in the workplace?

High Expectations + Support = Success

Much of the answer lies in a potent balance of high expectations and multiple forms of support that empowers students to achieve. Academically, students are challenged by the rigor of the mastery assessment system (PDF) and the transdisciplinary project-based-learning model. One of the school's core principles (PDF) is "Master your own path," which carries the not-so-subtle implication that students are accountable for getting their work done, and done well enough to meet professional-level requirements. The key to maintaining these high expectations, of course, is multipronged support for student learning. The school takes pains to provide tutors, mentors, differentiated instruction (PDF), and additional study time with teachers to ensure success to those who will work for it.

Socially, expectations are made plain from day one. Gesturing to the surroundings at the GE Lighting campus, senior Timothy Hatfield says, "This is a busy campus, and very, very strict." With the freshman and sophomore campuses embedded in business sites, there is no running, playing around, or shouting in the hallways. "Every staff member, every employee expects you to be well-behaved and use proper manners," he explains. It is that very requirement of professionalism and maturity that helps foster those same qualities in the students. They see the respect from the adults that accrues to the students who measure up, and it builds a culture of ambition. "If it weren't for those expectations, I wouldn't be where I am today," says Hatfield.

Like a Family

So what prevents MC2 STEM from devolving into a cutthroat culture of overly ambitious teenagers, mature and goal-oriented on the one hand, but wanting for both empathy and humility on the other? The answer, in a word, is family. The adults and the students of MC2 STEM all describe an affection for and reliance on one another that is indispensable. Senior Y'von Norton explains, "I rely on my teachers for guidance. Since I am at STEM 40 weeks out of a 52-week year, that sort of makes them my second set of parents." Adds senior Lilly Rodriguez, "We are comfortable like in a family. We ask more questions, we learn more, and we gain confidence because we are comfortable with the adults and our classmates." Clearly, the extra mile traveled by the teachers, mentors, and business professionals is having a big impact.

Given the size of the school, its multiple locales, and broad levels of institutional support, the sum of MC2 STEM's parts is not easily replicable. But each of the strategies indivdually has considerable impact and effectiveness, which is why the MC2 STEM team is presently sharing their best practices with six Cleveland K-8 schools that have recently been converted to STEM schools. The school has shared many of those same resources with us as well.

Take a look and see if one of their strategies might work at your school.

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This article originally published on 10/31/2012

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