Prosser Career Academy proves it: Vocational education isn’t a thing of the past
When Prosser Career Academy opened its doors in Belmont Cragin in 1959, it was not uncommon for high schools to feature active woodshops, auto shops, metal shops and other spaces for students to train for vocations. Today, Prosser is one of the few institutions within Chicago Public Schools to focus on providing such programming to its students. Principal Mark Schall, who has spent over 30 years as an educator and administrator, is very cognizant of this fact.
As Schall explained, the focus at Prosser has shifted from vocational training to producing students who are career ready. This is exemplified the school’s one-of-a-kind Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. At the end of their freshman year, students tour the school’s “shops” and choose the one that interests them most. These classrooms fill their own wing of the building and include options such as auto body, digital media, culinary arts, machine technology and gaming. During the 2018-19 school year, students had a special first-time opportunity: a “renewable” shop for solar energy technology.
CTE is predicated on the idea that “students come to Prosser to learn and get certifications in these particular areas,” Schall said. He made it clear that this does not “preclude (students) from going to college and earning a four-year degree,” it only adds the “opportunity for students to work in a particular field, get certifications, open their own shop, and become professionals and entrepreneurs.”
“A lot of kids enjoy coming to Prosser because it is a little bit different and there are different opportunities,” Schall added. Prosser’s CTE offerings are further enhanced by the presence of an International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Students can even study both CTE and IB tracks through a specialized bridge program. This is a central part of the school’s focus on college and career readiness.
While some question the purpose of a career academy, Schall firmly supports his school and what it provides students. “These are real-world skills,” he explained. Critics can be dismissive. Schall has heard comments like “Well, you’re teaching these kids to change their oil,” but CTE is much more than that. It’s fixing scratches and dents and painting cars; installing brakes and working on engines; learning how to construct and repair HVAC systems – and that’s only three shops’ worth.
“It’s the doing part that’s so fun,” Schall explained. Last year, the HVAC instructor had students in his shop building cocoons for the homeless to sleep in during the winter. This project was a perfect example of the viability of CTE said Schall, who was quick to point out the teacher wasn’t doing all this work on his own. “The kids were actually closing the seams and then checking (the cocoon) to see whether or not it held the warm air, and I was just astounded by that,” he said. “It’s not just the theory, but the actual – the doing – that’s so cool.”
Schall was also excited for Prosser to receive funding for repairs and new equipment for the CTE shops provided by CPS’s $1 billion commitment to updating schools across the district.
The influx of money will not only rejuvenate the school’s infrastructure, but also allow Prosser “to be on the cutting edge of new programs like the renewable energy shop,” said Schall. “We have to be relevant with our CTE programs, and we have to be as up to date as possible because we want our kids to be college and career ready,” he noted. “There are jobs to be had” in these industries. Exhibiting that is just part of how Principal Schall seeks to provide the “maximum experience” for his students.