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A constellation you should know

A look at Chicago's i.c.stars educational program.

IMG_0133.jpgThis blog post has been sitting on my computer’s desktop for a few weeks now…. I’m finally getting around to telling you about a great week I had at the end of May. It started off with a brief trip to Northern California with stops at Dale’s amazing Maker Faire (equally impressive were his sprinting skills as he leapt into action when a tent nearly blew over), various technology companies and a local high school to visit friends and business colleagues. I even had the opportunity to meet my fellow Edu 2.0 bloggers, Betsy and Marie, for an Afghani dinner and conversation before heading back to Chicago on a red-eye flight. I left Silicon Valley, inspired as always by innovation and ideas, and admittedly, a little envious of general Northern California life.

At the end of that week, though, I had an experience that made me realize that there’s innovation happening in my Chicago backyard, too. Invited by executive director Sandee Kastrul, I participated in a weekly high tea ritual at i.c.stars, a work force readiness program that prepares young people for IT careers in business. My subsequent visit really got me thinking about how we’re supporting adults’ education needs.

I first met Sandee this spring when we both were presenters for a TEDx event at the National School Boards Association Conference in Chicago. As a former science classroom teacher with a background in theatre, Sandee artfully told the compelling story of her journey to create i.c.stars. She basically started her organization after seeing the limited opportunities her high school students upon graduation. Call me jaded, but I’ve grown skeptical of educational programs in general as some seem to pay lip service to notions about affecting change. I was intrigued Sandee’s story, and when she consequently invited me to high tea at i.c.stars, I saw this as an opportunity to see if her work was the real deal.

i.c.stars started about 11 years ago with the primary goal of preparing high school graduates for careers and leadership in business and technology-related professions. The screening process to participate is rigorous according to the i.c.stars web site, “Using multiple interviews and written assessments, candidates are screened for experience overcoming adversity. Our participants have developed a set of resiliency skills that create a profound sense of purpose and ambition for long term community leadership. The same resiliency skills that form the basis of community leadership, also form the basis for business leadership. Our participants stand out from their competitors in the job market as a result of their ability to overcome adversity and thrive in the high pressure, high stress environment of technology and the internet.”

During their time in the program, participants learn a variety of skills through team managed projects. After their 16 week cycle is completed, graduates of the program find employment with the help of i.c.stars staff. The organization notes that 100% of its graduates during the last four cycles have found employment with firms such as Allstate, Grainger, Accenture and Microsoft. i.c.stars also serves as a temporary employment agency for corporations and part of the fees charged for these services returns to the organization in order to sustain its programs.

IMG_0131.jpgHigh tea at i.c.stars is a daily ritual where members of a cycle gather to network and learn from a visiting professional. A selected team member greets the invited guest and interviews them briefly before introducing the visitor to the rest of the cycle. Tea and cookies are served and following the lead team member’s introduction of the featured guest, everyone takes a turn introducing the person next to them and pouring them a cup of tea.

Walking into the board room at i.c.stars on my appointed day was slightly like what I imagine it’s like to be on the set of the Apprentice. Approximately a dozen friendly business-clad young adults were seated around the table, and I had the guest of honor spot at its head. Introductions began and were fairly lengthy, giving insight into the character of each team member. In nearly every single introduction, examples of perseverance were given, ranging from how one person helped another during “Geek Week” to another expressing appreciation for a colleague who came through on projects when other teammates were notably absent. Pictures of work and relationships developed through this introduction ritual, but more importantly, group members were affirming the personal characters and work ethics of their colleagues. It seemed like such a positive, uplifting, and beneficial practice; not only were team members boosted through thoughtful, positive words, but they were also learning to give effective feedback. There’s an art to this for sure, and explicitly teaching and practicing interpersonal skills is important, particularly for young adults who might not have always heard kind words at home or in school.

After introductions, I explained my education and career path, reflecting on the choices I’ve made along the way. I particularly ranted about the current state of American education and my belief that we’re providing unequal experiences for students, particularly in our urban schools. While I’m probably not the typical high tea guest in that my background is rooted in K12 institutions and not corporations, these participants seemed really interested in public school policy. i.c.stars graduates are charged with becoming community leaders; effective leaders know that education systems affect business, so I think my observations might have given them some perspective.

My visit to i.c.stars was memorable for a variety of reasons. First, it makes me contemplate work force readiness, a topic that has not previously held a great deal of interest for me. After hearing Sandee’s stories and meeting her current set of students, I’m wondering how our society is supporting young adults once they graduate (or don’t graduate) from high school. How are we trying to boost people who might have been disengaged from formal education? There seems to be a real need for more scalable programs like i.c.stars when addressing this overlooked niche within education.

A small portion of my day was spent at i.c.stars, but it yielded a big impact on myself and the i.c.stars students. Not only did I stop to contemplate my own life and career paths, but the students practiced skills necessary for business success and potentially learned from my experiences. Just think how powerful it would be for other busy people to take time just hang out with those who are new to a profession. This makes me think of the concept of reverse mentoring and of Google’s 20% time. How is your place of work giving back to others? Being professionally generous with your time and expertise can be mutually beneficial.

Finally, I was struck by the i.c.stars students’ general smarts and motivation. With a tad more confidence mixed with a bit of fearlessness, I think they will be ready for action once they’ve completed their 16 week cycle. Clearly, Sandee and her team have taken a vision and made it happen teaching people to stand on their own two feet and take on the world; they are well on their way towards their goal of creating 1000 community leaders by 2020. What I’d love to see beyond this, is 1000 more strong programs like i.c.stars in place by 2020. What are you willing to do about workforce readiness? What other stellar programs currently exist? How are we tapping into the potential of young adults?

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  • elizabeth corcoran

    Great story, Lucy. i.c. stars sounds like the kind of program that should be everywhere. Anthropologists at Xerox PARC long ago coined the term “communities of practice” based on the observation that we tend to learn most effectively from a surrounding community of mentors and peers. Sounds like i.c. stars is building a great community for a group of motivated young people. It’s also interesting that they focus on the same characteristic that Teach-For-America believes is fundamental to its most successful teachers. (See: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/01/what-makes-a-great-teacher/7841/ . The money quote: “What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record……Those who initially scored high for “grit”—defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test—were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students.”

  • Vera Shabazz

    Lucy thank you for the beautiful way you described I.C. Stars. I am an intern here and I like you was hesitant prior to coming here. Initially I came because after reading about I.C Stars I thought it was too good to be true. After taking the plunge and coming to orientation, I was so interested and motivated that I went home and called everyone I knew and told them of the program.

    I have been here three months and I would not trade anything for my journey. The experience of I.C. Stars is not something that words does justice to. The projects and workshops are fantastic but you must bring your “A” game. This is a program that is for the serious minded person who wants to move on with their lives to bigger and not just better things but fantastic happenings.

    The staff who conducts the workshops and projects are Chelsea Katz, Martin Brown, Eric Lennert, Benjamin Harris, last but not least Sandee Kastrul. Each are so phenomenal with their knowledge and leadership. I have grown by leaps and bounds mentally and emotionally and have a second family.

    If you would have asked me about technology years ago, I would not have been receptive, but today I can say, don’t leave home without it and I.C.Stars is where you should learn it.

    Where in the world could I meet and network with such interesting business professionals as Ms. Luch Gray and the others who have come to I.C. Stars due to the planning of Sandee and Eric.

    This is a fantastic organization and I am dreading the last day, I will miss everyone.

  • Lucy Gray

    Betsy -

    I had no idea that the communities of practice concept originated with Xerox PARC… in education, it’s taken on other forms such as the much bandied about term “professional learning communities”. Even more interesting to me is the perseverance link with Teach for America. Is perseverance something that can be learned or is someone born with that characteristic? If it can be taught, how are we encouraging this in students?

  • elizabeth corcoran

    My recollection is that indeed, the “communities of practice” originated with Xerox PARC anthropologist, notably Lucy Suchman who studied how photocopier repairman learned to fix the machines. Etienne Wegner (http://www.ewenger.com/theory/)has become the name most closely associated with the concept.

    Re persistence: I’m not sure we know much about how to teach it! It’s got the same mystic as falling in love…. :)

  • Fran

    What a great story. I think it really inspires people to take an employment background screening and go for it.

  • Alan Harrell

    I am an alum of icstars and yes it was a life changing experience. I wish many more could experience icstars.

  • Mario

    Great article. I’m in the process of applying for the program, and I sure hope I get it. Everyone at icstars has been just fantastic. I attended one of their Web Studios and learned a ton.

  • Ricky

    It is amazing how many different types of companies use employment background screening to ensure that a prospective employee is a good enough hire for a company!