In Kankakee, Illinois, students begin exploring future careers as soon as they start kindergarten. By engaging in project-based learning units that have a strong career focus, students experience education through the eyes of landscape architects, lawyers, culinary artists, entrepreneurs, and more. “We want them to start thinking early about opportunities,” says Kankakee superintendent Genevra Walters, “and understand the connection between what they’re doing in school and their long-term goals.”
Since becoming superintendent in 2014, Walters has been redesigning the K–12 system so that all children have access to education that prepares them for the future. In the past, the racially diverse district offered programs for gifted students and those who applied to magnet and honors programs, leaving the majority of students in general education.
Although Walters grew up in Kankakee and thrived in local schools, the previous system “never felt like it was equitable,” she says. “Even as a student, I could tell there was a difference between honors and other students.” When she took over as leader of the 5,000-student district, Walters made it her goal “to serve all children well.”
Walters has focused first on “changing the mindset of teachers.” The district’s new emphasis on college and career readiness “is not a throwaway program. It has to be just as creative, with the same high expectations we’ve had for gifted and magnet programs.”
One tool to help teachers redesign instruction is a career wheel for grades K–6, which defines six career strands for students to explore. Kindergartners, for example, learn about human services careers. “Firefighters, police, teachers—those are jobs that students can identify and understand from an early age,” Walters explains. By sixth grade, students are ready to explore more technical fields like engineering, architecture, information technology, and transportation. The early exposure should help students choose from the district’s career academies once they reach high school.
As teachers plan projects that connect to career strands, they expand their own understanding of different professions. “Teachers are learning alongside their students about careers they’ve never considered before,” the superintendent says. They might need to interview community members to understand how landscape architects go about their work or how Uber drivers navigate the gig economy.
Another resource to support teachers and students in the shift to PBL is an online platform called Defined STEM. It introduces students to interdisciplinary content through performance tasks that involve solving a challenge or finding a solution, such as creating a healthy menu and marketing plan for a new restaurant. Scenarios include video content that connects learning with real-world careers and current issues.
Regardless of grade level, content area, or career focus, students “should have multiple ways of showing that they are competent,” Walters says. Budding landscape architects, for instance, can show what they know by creating a physical model, producing multimedia content, or redesigning part of the school grounds for a new purpose.
When Learning Gets Real
One of the district’s most vocal enthusiasts for career-focused PBL is Larue Fitch, who just finished his first year as principal at Avis Huff Center, an alternative program for students in need. Like the superintendent, he is a product of Kankakee schools. Many of his students have been dismissed from traditional school or are transitioning out of the corrections system.
Restorative justice is a cornerstone of the alternative program. “Learning how to restore and repair relationships—a lot of our kids struggle with that,” Fitch says. To tackle that challenge, he worked with teachers to plan a project on goal setting. “We wanted to create a system where students would hold each other accountable over decisions that will shape their lives.” Working alongside teachers to design the project gave him the chance to coach them on PBL strategies.
Students started by creating personal goals and metrics for measuring their progress. Next, the principal recruited mentors to provide feedback and share their insights about achieving goals. Volunteer response was overwhelming. On the day of their first meeting, adults outnumbered students.
“Here were some of the roughest, toughest kids, dressed up and acting like young leaders,” Fitch says. “By the end of the day, they were on an emotional and academic high.” One student told the principal afterwards, “Mr. Fitch, the mentor you linked me with was the same one that tried to prosecute me!” He was already looking forward to their next meeting.
To make sure that this was not a one-time event, Fitch partnered with the state’s attorney for Kankakee County to create ongoing mentoring, job shadowing, and more real-world learning experiences. To show competency in language arts, for example, one student explained how to develop a convincing argument, based on what he learned from sitting next to the prosecuting attorney in court.
Walters wants to see real-world PBL take hold across the district but knows it will take time. “Where teachers have bought into projects, we’re seeing a significant difference on local testing,” she says.
Fitch can point to day-to-day evidence that PBL is changing his students’ experience with school. “We’ve seen an increase in attendance, decrease in disciplinary issues, and increased social and emotional capacity. Students can show their understanding however they want. They can act it out, sing it out, whatever it takes to show what they know,” he says. “I’m starting to hear students say, ‘This is my end in mind. This is my final product. I can do it.’”