Arriving at Chicago’s Wheeling High School on brisk October morning, we sensed that something awesome was about to happen. The anticipated arrival of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other dignitaries generated a palpable energy that spread to us – college interns soaking in the behind-the-scenes excitement at the official opening of the school’s new nanotechnology lab.
However, we found WHS itself — powered by strong leadership — to be a true lightning rod for student success. It has harnessed partnerships with employers to spark students’ interest in nanotechnology and other Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) career pathways – which is also the aim of newly-announced federal Youth CareerConnect grants.
Tucked into a modest community in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, Wheeling is among the first high schools in the nation equipped with a nanotechnology lab. Nanotechnology allows users to examine matter atom-by-atom, and is typically studied only in industry laboratories and on college campuses.
Former principal (now Associate Superintendent) Dr. Lazaro Lopez secured an investment from the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition of businesses, colleges and research labs for the $615,000 lab. The ISTC is partnering with Wheeling HS to coordinate the lab’s use as a regional resource for other schools as well as businesses as part of the Illinois Pathways program, which aligns education, business and government resources to provide students career pathways in high-growth STEM areas. Illinois Pathways is partially funded by an ED Race to the Top grant. Additional funding for the lab came from District 214.
Nanotechnology is just the latest element of Wheeling’s structure to support STEM careers, spearheaded by Lopez beginning in 2007. Named Illinois’s 2013-2014 Principal of the Year, Lopez wanted “kids to graduate from Wheeling High School with a future.” HIs vision is becoming a reality.
While still in high school, students can gain real-world experience in STEM fields, from nursing to manufacturing, and now nanotechnology. Through a dual-credit partnership with nearby Harper College, students are often able to transition out of high school with industry certification or college credit – an impressive feat for a school with 40 percent of its students classified as low-income.
Since the school began its STEM focus, students have earned during their years at WHS:
- 108 industry certifications
- College credit for 460 dual credit classes
- College credit for 3,171 Advanced Placement classes, which have had enrollment spike by 161 percent at Wheeling since 2005.
Noting the widespread excitement surrounding Wheeling’s innovation, Secretary Duncan told reporters that it “isn’t just about jobs.”
“It’s about being excited about coming to school every day,” he said. “It’s about having relevance to the real world.”
Lopez seemed thrilled but not surprised by the impact of his vision turned into reality.
“I knew that our teachers could deliver, and our students could take the leap,” he said, during a panel discussion with the Secretary, and a teacher and students.
As two college students – a physics major and a future educator – we certainly hope that other high schools follow Wheeling’s example. We’re excited that the U.S. Department of Labor’s new $100 million Youth CareerConnect grant program that will help many schools to make that leap!
Aliana Piatt and Elliott Washington are interns in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach in Chicago