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Who are WE? the Evanston Work Ethic progam.

"Our goal is to create a pipeline to employment.”

The Forrest E. Powell Foundation announced last week that it will support 10 ETHS juniors who are interested in pursuing Career and Technical Education after high school. Applications are due Friday, October 14 and are available here and at Hecky's Barbecue, 1902 Green Bay Road.

Here's the rest of the story:

The new Evanston We Program (WE for Work Ethic), which was announced late last week by Foundation, will mentor ETHS juniors who are interested in pursuing a two-year Career and Technical Education (CTE) path rather than the more generally pursued four-year college track.

The program’s Executive Director, Nancy Baker , who also sits on the Foundation’s board, sees the new non-profit’s role as not only mentoring students to pursue a Career and Tech degree, but also to raise awareness about CTE as a post-high-school option.

“We want parents and students who are used to thinking that four-year college is the only way to go to read more about CTE, open their minds, to recognize the career- and life-goal differences that kids identify. To honor diversity in another way,” she explains.

“As parents, we want our children to be able to support themselves and a family, and to do things they want to do. But it’s myopic to think that this is only possible through a four-year degree. There are many lucrative jobs out there that require a two-year degree,” Baker says. “The Evanston WE program will never discourage students from attending a four-year institution, but we will value and support the decision of those students who choose the Career and Tech Ed path. Our goal is to create a pipeline to employment.”

This year, the program will help 10 juniors with career preparation, certification and placement though one-on-one mentoring, workshops, and access to financial aid. “Ultimately, with more funding and interest from the community, we hope to grow. Ideally, we’d love to have 100 kids in the program every year,” Baker says.

The WE program will offer outside career support in which a mentor will be expected to have two quality contacts a month with their student either by phone or in person. “Of course, it will be up to the student and mentor to decide how long they’ll meet and how often. It’s a relatively minor commitment, but it works,” says Baker.

Students will also receive one-on-one customized counseling from the program. “We’ll monitor grades and offer tutoring and workshops through collaborations with JYC and YOU. The program is all about partnering. We don’t want to be a silo,” she says.

Read on for more of my conversation with Nancy Baker.

Q: Why do you think this program is necessary?

A: The four-year college track eliminates students facing different decisions about what they want to do and how they want to get there. There’s a widely held perception in this country that professions that require less than a four-year degree are less interesting, less remunerative and less important. That simply isn’t true, and it’s unfair. We tell kids that the only admirable and dignified path is a four-year college. In other countries, apprenticeships and trades are respected, but not here.

"In other countries, apprenticeships and trades are respected, but not here."

It’s not just that the U.S. college system is inequitable and overpriced, but we’ve failed to address those kids who simply self-identify that they don’t want a profession that requires a four-year college degree. You can discuss the state of the U.S. college system and say it should be fixed. We hope it improves, but in the meantime, thousands of kids are losing out.

Q: What kind of student will benefit from this program?

A: The kids we’ll work with should already have a spark. We can’t ignite that spark, but we can get and keep them more engaged. Forty-seven percent of kids who drop out of high school say that the classes weren’t interesting to them. There are lots of reasons that kids are disinterested in school and lots of kids who aren’t engaged because they just don’t see the four-year college path, which is what’s held out as the norm, as pertaining to them.

Q: Who is eligible to participate in the program?

A: The program is open to anyone who meets the application criteria, which you can find at We'd like the kids we help to have few other financial resources or supports. But this is such a widespread issue, we'd hate to cut out any kid. ETHS is increasingly diverse, and this is not a black and white problem.

Q: ETHS has a CTE department. Why do you think kids need additional support?

A: ETHS is already the gold standard. They’re doing their absolute best job educating thousands of students from many different backgrounds. It’s like expecting a teacher to teach a kid all day and then go home with them. It’s not possible. We’re going to build on the successes of ETHS. They already have an excellent career and tech program. We’ll work with them as partners. That’s why we’re thrilled that Shelly Gates, the chair of the CTE department, has agreed to be on our advisory board.

Q: Do you think this program can help high-schoolers who otherwise might take a wrong turn?

A: According to the ETHS Illinois Report card, ETHS has an 89 percent graduation rate, and 65 percent of those graduates are deemed "ready for college" according to their test results (achieved at least 21 on the ACT). The Report Card also notes that 84 percent of ETHS grads were enrolled in post-secondary education within two semesters of high school graduation.

So we need to ask:

  • What happens to those students who don't graduate?

  • Could the promotion of a non-four-year-college option, mentoring, and enrollment in Career and Tech Ed classes have given those students who dropped out a reason to stay in school?

  • What happens to the students who graduate, but choose to not attend college?

  • What happens to the students who start, but do not complete, a Bachelor's degree?

Now the ETHS statistics I’m referring to are not intended to illustrate that the school is not performing well, but rather to underline the current college environment in the US. And even in high-achieving Evanston, college may not be a productive, desirable, or affordable path for some students.

Q: Could making the Career and Tech Ed path a viable option for some students have an effect on crime rates?

A: National crime statistics show that there’s a 70 percent reduction in drop-out rates of kids in high-school tech programs. When kids drop out of high school, they are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested, and eight times more likely to be incarcerated. In fact, a study out of LA shows that if the drop-out rate decreased by 10 percent nationally, that would prevent 3,000 murders annually.*

"National crime statistics show that there’s a 70 percent reduction in drop-out rates

of kids in high-school tech programs."

Q: What kinds of careers are included in the CTE track?

A: Careers such as Personal Appearance Professionals, which includes hair, makeup, and aestheticians; all the construction trades; catering and cooking; many nursing professionals don’t require a four-year degree and there’s an incredible shortage in that area; lab technicians of all kinds; pharmacy technicians; electricians; vehicle and mobile equipment technicians. And then the new programs that are springing up all over for kids who want to be coders. Google and Apple are snapping them up.

We feel that every time a person sits down to a meal, moves in to a newly built home, has their car or home repaired, we all reap the benefits of trained, skilled career and tech professionals. Yet we devalue them.

Q: Can students be successful if they pursue a two-year degree?

A: Absolutely. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that by 2018, 75 percent of all new jobs will require just a two-year degree. In the meantime, kids are graduating from four-year colleges with $37,000 of debt. Nationally, 50 percent of kids who start college end up graduating by age 25, and 10 percent of minorities finish by that age. The system is so broken. If you look at the numbers as they really are, we have to offer many kids a productive alternative path.

"By 2018, 75 percent of all new jobs will require just a two-year degree."

Q: How much will the program cost for participants?

A: Students and families won’t pay anything for this program, plus students will receive a $500 completion stipend, which they can use toward the program of their choice. And we will offer mentoring all the way through to career placement. We’ve established a partnership with Oakton where, with FAFSA funding and scholarships available, the program could potentially be of extremely low cost or no cost to the student." We are also negotiating with Pivot Point and other trade schools for scholarships.

Q: Who is funding the program?

A: Right now, the Forrest Powell Foundation is the only funding. We are meeting with other grantors both locally and nationally. We’re also hoping that donations increase to the Foundation as word gets out about the program and interest in it grows.

For questions about the program, or to nominate an ETHS junior, contact Nancy Baker at


*“School or the Streets: Crime and America’s Dropout Crisis,” a report from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonprofit anti-crime organization comprised of more than 3,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, other law enforcement leaders—2008 report.


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