Partner Spotlight: Q&A with Shadia Daniels

Shadia Daniels is the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Business and IT Cluster Manager at Chicago Public Schools. She works in partnership with the Geospatial Semester Project to bring GIS to the IT and business clusters. In honor of February being CTE month, Shadia sat down with Claire Cronin to discuss the various pathways and opportunities offered to students through the department.

Claire: Can you please describe your journey to this current role?

Shadia: My career journey began in 1997 when I boarded a Greyhound bus alone to Chicago with one dollar in my pocket and two suitcases. I had recently completed my undergraduate work at Miami University of Ohio, and decided not to move back home to Georgia. I was raised in Savannah, Georgia, and I wasn’t quite prepared for big city life – but I fell in love with Chicago during a brief visit in 1996. Although there was some uncertainty around moving to a new city alone, I had a lot of hope and determination, and I felt like that was all I needed. Two days after arriving in Chicago, I started working at a temp agency for about a year while I mapped out my career path. I had an education degree and started working in technology-related temporary roles, and I often wondered how I could merge my passion for education with my blooming technology interests. Throughout my temporary assignments, I connected with Computer Science (CS) and Information Technology (IT) professionals to learn about different industry roles, and engaged in a significant amount of self-study. Soon after, I landed my first position as an IT instructor at a business college, and within three years, I was teaching at two colleges simultaneously. I furthered my education for years to pursue and earn additional degrees in education and technology, while continuing to develop and deliver CS and IT training for traditional and gifted student populations. I then started working for an IT consulting firm that did a lot of work within Chicago Public Schools (CPS). I worked in a CPS high school delivering CS and IT career training and education, and decided five years later to apply for a CTE IT program. I worked as a CTE Game Programming instructor for several years, and then after wanting to have a larger impact on IT career education in CPS, I sought a district-level position and was hired as a CTE IT Curriculum Specialist. Nine months later, I applied for and transitioned into the role I have today as a CTE Business and IT Cluster Manager.

Claire: I saw you were once nominated as Teacher of the Month. One student described you as being “a teacher who knows how to handle everybody”, and another student said of you, “She’s not there to make you learn. She’s there to show you that there is more to this world, and you can absorb it if you want to and show you that you can.” Can you please speak to these comments?

Shadia: Sure. I was very touched by that nomination and award. The statements students made in that video are a big part of why I do what I do. Not for the acknowledgements, but because of the opportunities to connect with students to help them better understand how to make critical connections to their futures. As a classroom teacher, it was always important for me to provide a safe space for my students to be their authentic selves, and learn the skills and strategies to successfully navigate the paths to their futures. Knowing I made that impact in the lives of my students by helping them see their own potential means a lot to me, because I’ve always tried to cultivate a feeling of family within my classroom. We learned together and supported one another. When needed, we encouraged and spurred each other on, but we also challenged each other.

Claire: Can you please tell me how your background and heritage has prepared you to be the educator those students are describing you as?

Shadia: A big part of what I cultivated in my classroom was a feeling of family and connecting with others. It was always important to my parents that their children be good people and do right by others, and I carry that with me wherever I go. When I go home to Georgia for family gatherings, the importance of family and connecting with others through storytelling is always felt and experienced – they are very much a part of who I am. Within teaching, there is an art of storytelling and finding ways you can make meaningful connections with students to share your content knowledge and expertise. As an African-American woman in IT, I don’t represent the mainstream population in the discipline, and the vast majority of my former students are underrepresented as well. Through the connections I made with students, I was able to help them visualize Computer Science and IT career opportunities they may not have previously considered for themselves.

Claire: Is there anyone or any experience, in particular that has motivated you to create that environment with students?

Shadia: It really is attributed to my upbringing. My father said education is my calling. He’s a lifelong educator, and has been in the classroom for the majority of his career. If I was to say anyone or experience, it’s definitely my father and the stories he told while he was a teacher, the passion he had, and still has, for education; then the love I developed for it and the desire I have to help others. My parents have been, and continue to be, my lifelong motivation to push forward, share what I learn, and help others. Their love, support, guidance, and advice are so essential to who I am, how I lead, and how I interact with others.

Claire: Can you please provide a brief overview of the CTE department at CPS, and what made you interested in becoming involved with it?

Shadia: Within CTE, there are 16 national career clusters, and we have 12 of them within CPS. A career cluster is a grouping of different professions in the same field of work sharing common features. Each career cluster has different pathways, and a pathway is a sequence of study or preparation for a particular career. For example, within the IT cluster, there are pathways for Game Programming, Web Development, and Networking. Within CPS and CTE, those 12 career clusters are divided among four Cluster Managers, and I’m one of them. We are led by Sarah Rudofsky, CTE Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Work-Based Learning. Cluster Managers lead teams of Curriculum Specialists, Instructional Support Specialists, and Work-Based Learning Specialists. Curriculum Specialists develop curriculum for CTE clusters. Instructional Support Specialists work in partnership with CTE teachers to provide professional development opportunities and instructional support. Work-Based Learning Specialists connect teachers and students with college and career professionals, and support students with employability-skills training and college and career partner engagement experiences. Many of my former college students didn’t receive career training until they became adults, but I am consistently impressed that CTE students have the opportunity to receive valuable streamlined career preparation as youth. I have worked in IT Career Education for my entire professional career, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work for such a wonderful school district and department.

Claire: How, and at what point, are students made aware of CTE?

Shadia: Some of the awareness comes by way of marketing and recruitment efforts from CTE directly, through our Outreach and Program Support team. Students may be introduced to CTE through a high school fair; while attending one of our summer camps as a middle schooler; through shared marketing materials; or by attending a local recruitment event at a school that offers a particular program. Some students also learn about CTE as freshmen in high school, as the majority of our programs of study begin at the sophomore level. We have district-wide application opportunities for CTE, and some eighth-grade students apply to high schools that offer programs they may already be interested in. When I taught CTE Game Programming, a great majority of my students came to the school for that particular program. We also work in collaboration with CTE teachers, and school counselors and administrators to share information about our programs of study. I’m encouraged that CTE is increasingly coming to the forefront at local, state, and national levels – which has helped spread the word about the value of career and technical education.

Claire: What are the main goals of the CTE Department?

Shadia: The main goals of CTE are to provide academic, technical, soft-skill, and employability skill training and learning opportunities that prepare students for success in college and careers. A traditional college education is a goal for some of our students, but we want all of them to know that through a CTE program’s opportunities, they can receive a head start with extensive career knowledge and preparation. Our students graduate high school with a wealth of technical knowledge, relevant industry credentials, employability skills training, and significant partner engagement experiences. 

Claire: Can you please provide an overview of the Chicago geospatial semester, and what made you interested in becoming involved?

Shadia: The Chicago Geospatial Semester has been invaluable in preparing our teachers to help students bring data to life, and form connections between what they’re learning in class, and the communities and world in which they live. It has helped educators and students realize the power of data and how it is used to not only inform us, but make decisions that impact our lives. From an IT perspective, I understand how important data is, but I wanted to provide our CTE IT teachers with a collaborative learning and working opportunity to engage in conversations around this work. I believe the experience will in turn allow for additional collaboration in the classroom, and prepare students to approach future learning opportunities based on what they are experiencing with the GIS technology.

Claire: The IT pathway seems to be a more obvious fit for GIS, but how do you think GIS is relevant for other pathways such as business?

Shadia: Some of the same thoughts around the approach for IT can be used within our CTE business pathways. Within Entrepreneurship, when students are enrolled in their initial year in the program, they start learning about business, making business decisions and plans, and begin thinking about how those plans can be shaped by existing data and trends. Within Accounting, as we’re looking towards incorporating more artificial intelligence in finance curriculum, we are considering additional ways we can incorporate data collection and analysis. I definitely have interest in bringing the technology to business pathways as well.

Claire: What value do you think high school experiences with GIS have in terms of future opportunities for students?

Shadia: Experience with GIS gives students a pause to think about how they use data, and how the collection and analysis of data has transformed the ways we live our lives. Through GIS experiences, students learn to think more strategically about what they share with others, and understand how powerful data analysis can be in decision making. The skills students learn with GIS are transferable to multiple disciplines, however, they can also provide an important foundation for the exploration of careers in the data industry. 

Claire: What would you want the community to know about the benefits of CTE clusters and pathways?

Shadia: I’m encouraged by the increasing conversations and initiatives in support of career and technical education, and the greater understanding of its benefits. College is still a great option, and CTE provides students the opportunity to get a jump start on their career. CTE students don’t wait until they get into college to explore a career, they receive rigorous and relevant career training and industry partner engagement opportunities throughout high school. CTE students can also earn multiple industry certifications that some academic institutions accept as earned college credit. There are so many benefits, both academically and technically. 

Claire: Where can students and parents go to find out more information about the CTE programs through CPS?

Shadia: The website provides a general overview of the different CTE clusters and pathways. The best route would be to connect with the CTE Cluster Managers – we’re all listed on the site – to find out more information about the programs offered.

Claire: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Shadia: I have devoted my entire professional career to CTE, because I believe in the power of career education to transform lives. Although I’ve worn a couple of different hats in corporate spaces, my work has always involved IT career education and training. It is my passion, my lifeblood, and hopefully what I will do until I retire.