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The Case For Shop Class: How Vocational Schools and Gap Years Can Help Ease Academic Anxiety

How vocational schools and gap years can help ease academic anxiety

When New Trier High School student Ben Matejka got his results from the ACT, he was pleased with his score of 27, comfortably above the national average of about 21.  But when Ben told his friends, some of their responses took him aback. He got condolences.

“My score was much higher than the national average, but New Trier is not a typical high school,” said Matejka, 18, a recent graduate, who this fall headed off to start his freshman year at the University of Denver.

That attitude — that students at elite public high schools such as New Trier must do more than just “good” on college admissions tests — is merely one example of the way kids are told there is only one pathway to success.  Many students at high-performing schools such as Stevenson High School in Lake County and Naperville North High School feel they need to get fantastic grades, ace their standardized tests, participate in plenty of extra-curricular activities and sports, and then go on to elite, big-name universities.

But going to an Ivy League school, or even a four-year university, isn’t achievable — or desirable — for every student, experts say, and they argue the mindset that anything else would be failure causes real harm.  Thinking this way can create a barrier for students, they claim, blocking them from seeking nontraditional educational and career pathways, and leading to damaging levels of stress and anxiety.

Meanwhile, tech school instructors, counselors and scientists are trying to open minds to the idea that there are many ways to fulfill potential in children. For some, it’s encouraging kids to pursue a career as an auto mechanic instead of getting a master’s degree in physics. For others, it’s as simple as persuading parents that their “C” students can lead happy, productive lives.

Patrick McGrath, a clinical psychologist, has made a career of talking to kids and their parents about anxiety, stress and school. He said he often begins presentations to parents by asking, “How many of you are OK with your child being average?”

No one raises their hand, he said.

“These are your typical suburban parents,” said McGrath, the director of Amita Health Alexian Brother’s Center for Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders in Hoffman Estates. “I tell them, ‘If you’re wondering why there’s so much pressure on kids, there it is.'”

While McGrath said multiple factors can trigger anxiety, unrealistic expectations and a rigid idea of what defines success are common culprits.

“I had the parents of a seventh-grader once tell me, ‘How will she get into Harvard Medical School if she doesn’t get an ‘A’ in every one of her classes?'” McGrath recalled.

While some high school students are well-suited for a rigorous, science-and-math-heavy curriculum, other teens suffer from anxiety when they find themselves stumbling on the traditional, college preparatory path.

Experts say that while these teens are often as bright as their peers on the academic honor roll, their talents and learning styles are a better match for alternative educational pathways that can reduce stress in the short-term, and lead to rewarding and well-paying careers down the road.

Lianne Musser, a college coordinator at Lyons Township High School, which has a campuses in La Grange and Western Springs, said that instead of automatically applying to four-year universities, more students should be open to other options.

“Right now everyone is expected to go to college,” Musser said. “The expectation is the manager at the Starbucks has to have a college degree.”

While Musser said all students need some post-secondary education, depending on the teen’s interests and abilities, they might want to consider an apprenticeship or training at a technical school.

“For some, that is a better fit,” Musser said. “Students are somehow convinced that if they don’t get a college degree, they’ll never make any money.”

But Musser said that is a myth, as there are a plethora of good-paying jobs in the culinary arts, the automotive industry, electronics or other trades that do not require a four-year degree.

At Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, longtime applied technology teacher Steve Silca has 230 students enrolled in his popular woodworking program, which includes several different class levels, from basic to advanced.

“My students make 450 pieces of furniture each year, from bookcases and tables, to coffee tables and chests,” Silca said. “I think for the vast majority of my students, they look at their woodworking class as one of their favorites. It’s calming to them, and contributes to their wellness during the school day.”

Silca said while he is glad to provide information about union apprenticeships and programs at community colleges, most of his students will not end up pursuing careers in the trades.

“I’m aware that in a white-collar community, there can be a bit of stigma, but I don’t think it pervades our high school program,” Silca said. “We have such a large enrollment, and people’s attitudes towards the woodworking program are very positive.”

Educational options do exist for kids looking to explore other career paths. A comparatively small number of students from Highland Park, Deerfield, Stevenson and Lake Forest high schools, however, choose to take courses at the Lake County High Schools Technology Campus in Grayslake, enrollment figures show.

The campus draws juniors and seniors from two dozen high schools for classes that either lead directly to jobs, or give students a head start on career training at the College of Lake County or a four-year institution. The fields include, among others, automotive service and collision repair; introductory policing and criminal justice; firefighting and emergency medical services; medical assisting and certified nurse assisting; culinary arts; and 3D gaming, app development, game programming and virtualization.

In DuPage County, students can participate in a similar program at the DuPage Technology Center.  Still, Derrick Burress, principal of the Lake County technology campus, acknowledged there remains a stigma attached to vocational education, even though in reality, the courses prepare students for both college and careers.

“When I talk to parents and stakeholders, I tell them that the word ‘vocation’ itself means a calling,” Burress said.

“It is our job at Tech Campus to help our students find that passion and find that calling to pursue a career that they are in love with, because when you find something you are passionate about, it’s not work,” he added.

Burress said there also is value in eliminating a career option while still in high school.

“Even if a student enrolls in a class and decides it’s not the path they are interested in, they are able to discover that while they are juniors, seniors or sophomores in high school, and not when they are freshmen, sophomores or juniors in college,” Burress said. “They are able to check out a career pathway long before most students are able to do that.”

In addition to having the option of attending the Tech Campus, students at Highland Park High School were among the first in the nation to participate in FUSE, an educational program developed by Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy.

The FUSE program, which is also now offered at several Chicago and suburban middle schools, features interactive, “hands-on” learning in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) and aims to help students develop skills needed for the high-tech job market.

Changing the conversation

At Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214, Supt. David Schuler has launched an initiative called “Redefining Ready!” that aims to transform the way schools across the U.S. measure their students’ readiness for college and careers.

Instead of schools relying on one standardized test score – typically, the ACT or SAT – to gauge a student’s readiness for college and beyond, Schuler’s initiative proposes that schools use multiple measurements, including completion of Advanced Placement and dual credit courses, AP exam scores, community service hours, career interest identification and co-curricular participation.

Schuler said it’s crucial to recognize that students learn in different ways, and some of the best students are not the best test-takers.

District 214 also offers kids a chance to participate in its Career Pathways program, which allows them to explore careers through coursework that can lead to an industry credential and workplace learning experiences that include internships.

Students who hope to attend a technical or trade school also are being served by academic courses that are dovetailed to their interests; for example, a construction in geometry class offered to teens at Buffalo Grove and Rolling Meadows High Schools, Schuler said.

“For the most part, we don’t buy desks anymore,” said Schuler, who said officials are increasingly investing in tables with wheels and modular furniture that helps facilitate differentiated, interactive learning and team projects.

“I think a lot of the anxiety that exists in education is because many systems are still operating the way adults learned when they were kids, which is not the way kids learn today,” Schuler said.

And there are ways to help at home, experts say.

McGrath, who serves as assistant vice president of residential services for Amita Health Behavioral Medicine Institute, said parents can temper their expectations that there is only one path to success.

“Parents should know it’s definitely OK for their kids to get a ‘B,’ and getting an ‘A’ in a class is not the end-all and be-all in life,” McGrath said. “You don’t have to compete with your neighbor whose kid was just accepted to an Ivy League school, and your own child is going to the local community college.”

McGrath said he would like to see more academic options for high school students aside from the traditional college preparatory path.

“I would love to see more tech schools as options, rather than doing things one kind of way,” McGrath said.

The perfect college may not be the ‘best’

Some students say they only gained perspective after leaving high school that their anxiety about getting into the “right” college or doing well enough on college entrance exams might have been misplaced.

Isabella Mayer, a junior in Cornell University in New York’s School of Hotel Administration, said the environment at her high school, Hinsdale Central, was competitive. Mayer said some of her stress was self-imposed because her two older brothers were “incredibly successful.” While neither her teachers nor her parents compared her to her siblings, she still had the impression that she was expected to do as well as her brothers at school.

“It was just this all-encompassing (feeling) to be as good as what I thought other people expected,” Mayer said. “My closest friends in high school all felt similar. It seemed like we were all stressed at the same time.”

While Mayer said she does not have the answer to alleviating academic anxiety in high school students, she lamented a culture that traditionally places top students on a very public pedestal.

For example, Mayer said if students get a 36 on their ACT, or are named National Merit Semifinalists, their photographs are displayed on a wall at the high school.

“They are literally putting a spotlight on them. They are being rewarded in a fame-like way … not everybody needs to see that,” she said.

For the students who don’t score as well, “it can be kind of a bummer,” Mayer said.

Mayer said she realized she wanted to work in the hospitality industry by the age of 12. When it was time to apply to colleges, she chose only those with hospitality programs and wound up getting into Cornell University.

“My GPA was not as high compared to the rest of the people at Cornell, but it was right on par with the other students in Cornell’s hotel administration program,” Mayer said.

Mayer has found that once people get to college, “they fall in love” with their school.

“Once you’re here, it’s not important where the school is ranked,” she said.

Turning down the feedback

And some administrators say kids being stressed by technology’s ever-increasing presence can help themselves by dialing back their digital presence.

Schuler at District 214 said students are in constant proximity to their school-issued iPads and their own personal cell phones, and he acknowledged that can prove distracting. But social media engagement isn’t required for school work, he said.

“You’ll see four students sitting in a circle using multiple platforms while they’re working on a project,” Schuler said. “Of course, it can create anxiety if they have five windows open, and some of those are Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter.”

On the other hand, some experts say it’s unrealistic to totally eliminate social media use, let alone all the pressure from a teen’s life. They say parents who attempt to do so could be setting their kids up for failure when they head off to college.

“There is no way a parent can remove all the anxiety and stress in their kids’ lives, because no matter how hard you try, life is unpredictable and will throw you curveballs,” said Dr. Carol Weitzman, a professor of pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine.

“A certain amount of anxiety can be helpful, because it drives development and our ability to recognize and harness our emotions,” Weitzman said. “If we can have these experiences in small, manageable doses, it can help teens disconnect from distorted thinking.”

For recent New Trier High School graduate Ben Matejka, being able to handle a few bumps in the road independently proved empowering.

“Half-way through my junior year, I moved down to a level two for math, and no one in my friends group was in a level two,” Matejka recalled. “There’s definitely a level of ‘this is what my friends are getting,’ but I knew I should not be comparing myself to others, but comparing myself to myself.”

He also said he made a tough decision to quit the high school rowing team. In the end, the decision to leave the team had no impact on his college admission to the University of Denver, Matejka said.

“I liked wearing the gear, but it caused me so much anxiety,” he said. “I thought it was one more season I could put on my college application, but it was totally not worth it.”