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‘Academies’ mix college, career lessons for every student: Pathways to Prosperity

September 26, 2018

‘Academies’ mix college, career lessons for every student: Pathways to Prosperity

EDITOR’S NOTE: During the next several months, Plain Dealer reporters will examine “Pathways to Prosperity” -- ways schools, businesses and organizations are or aren’t preparing students to make a living wage in today’s regional economy.

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Jerelle Jones is only a few weeks into his freshman year at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, but he’s already envisioning a career as a surgeon.

He’s thinking of a life 10 years from now where he is performing surgeries on digestive systems at a hospital in another city, has a wife and two children, and drives a fancy car.

“I wake up in the morning with the excitement of savings someone’s life,” he said, reading his life vision aloud in a class for freshmen known as “Academies 101.”

Finding a vision for a successful life, then creating a 10-year plan to achieve it, is a first step for all freshmen at the “Academies of Cleveland,” a new approach adopted by the Cleveland school district for five of its high schools over the past few years.

Though only a few dozen districts in the U.S. use this exact “career academies” model, the Akron school district is also among them. That district launched academies at seven of its nine high schools this fall and plans to add it to others next year.

It’s a key way the two largest districts in Northeast Ohio are trying to close the “skills gap” between the skills young adults have and what they need to compete for jobs in today’s economy.

Particularly in Cleveland, where some of the schools were considered failing before the conversion to academies, it’s a way to show students from poor neighborhoods that there is a path to a middle-class life.

“We have a responsibility to let kids see a world bigger than the neighborhood they live in,” said Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon. “We should be featuring as many real world experiences as kids can have.”

Here’s how academies work

Like many schools today, the academies mix together college prep and career prep on a daily basis.

“It’s not either-or,” said Erin Frew, an assistant superintendent with the Cleveland school district. “It’s ‘and’ both.”

They plunge students into a career mindset right away, using the Academies 101 or freshman seminar class to make them think about goals and how to achieve them.

“Vision plus action equals success,” Danyele Andrews, the Academies 101 teacher at Martin Luther King tells students, as they present goals of playing professional basketball, or of being a lawyer or orthopedist. Those visions sometimes include houses, cars, or lots of children that would tax most family budgets.

“You can have everything you want, but what does it take to live that lifestyle?” Andrews asks.

For academy students, regardless of whether they are aiming for college or a trade, that starts with picking an academy – a smaller school within the high school campus - that covers a broad career field. They will then pick a narrower career path within that field. At a school like Cleveland’s Max Hayes High School, that can mean enrolling in the Manufacturing and Construction Academy, then later picking welding or engineering.

The schools then – ideally – teach students traditional core classes like math, English and history using examples and problems from that field.

“Modern education shouldn’t be trigonometry with no context, but it should be practical application of those skills,” Gordon said.

Students will take field trips to businesses as sophomores, shadow someone in their field as a junior and either do an internship or research project on the field as part of their senior studies.

Nashville pioneers the model

The Nashville, Tennessee, school district became the inspiration for other cities, including Akron and Cleveland, when it added the academies model just to spark student interest in school.

In 2007, Nashville schools were among the worst in Tennessee. They had poor attendance, test scores and a graduation rate hovering around 60 percent.

“We were facing state takeover,” said district spokesperson Ameerah Palacios.

The district, chamber of commerce and others tried to spark a turnaround by shifting most high schools to the academies model promoted by the national Ford Next Generation Learning foundation, sometimes adding it to vocational programs, but also replacing old college prep programs.

Today, more than 350 businesses and non-profits work as partners – a handful connected to each academy - to help guide what students need to learn to succeed.

One high school added a computer applications class, for example, after businesses said graduates would claim to be proficient in programs like Excel, but turned out not to be.

Business partners also show students what the work world is like. A freshman career fair has students “dress for success” and practice introducing themselves, shaking hands and doing short interviews.

The schools also take seriously the goal of blending career topics into all classes. Students in the “Therapeutic Services” path at Nashville’s Hillsboro High School last year had a project that studied people’s diets. Melissa Wrenne, the academies “coach” for Hillsboro, said students read the book “Fast Food Nation” in English class, talked about carbohydrates and lipids in biology class and dug even deeper in their health science class. In geometry class, students used what they learned to design doctors’ offices.

“It makes everything relevant to them,” Wrenne said.

Research on the effectiveness of the model is limited, since data is not tracked well. The most-cited study on different academies variations found in 2008 that they tended to boost future income of participants 11 percent, more so for men than women.

By some measures, the Nashville program has been a success. The graduation rate has risen to about 80 percent. The high school attendance rate has risen nearly 4 percentage points to almost 95 percent. And suspension rates have fallen dramatically.

But there’s no clear analysis on how the test scores and graduation rates compared to the state over time, as tests and scoring have changed in that period.

And while the academies have constantly adjusted to better meet the demand for certain skills in the region, neither the district, Ford or the local chamber of commerce can say if the academies are resolving any local skills gap. Research is just starting on that issue, but since it was not a major concern 10 years ago, no one tracked it.

Academies have limitations

Some Nashville parents balked, mostly early on, at enrolling students in a career academy.

“This is all vocational and that’s OK for ‘those kids,’ but my kid is going to a four-year school,” Hillsboro High School Principal Shuler Pelham said parents would protest.

His response: Ask if their kids could afford college or graduate school without having to work. If not, a skill would let them make money and build experience while in college.

“Would you rather have them flipping burgers or working as a nursing assistant or EMT in a field in their career?” he would ask them.

Though they try, the academies can’t help most students with gaining initial work experience. Nashville’s academies can only place about 20 percent of seniors in internships.

Samatha Perez, director of education for the Nashville chamber, said internships for all would be ideal, but it’s not a simple process. Companies need to sort out liability and insurance issues, find appropriate tasks for students, have someone supervise and evaluate them, decide what to pay them, or, if students receive credit, sort out whether the business goals meet those of the school.

“There’s a lot of things that go into an internship,” she said. “It’s not just a matter of opening your doors.”

Evidence was good enough for Akron

Akron Superintendent David James didn’t need employment data to convince him academies were right for his district. He saw what academies did to graduation, attendance and behavior in Nashville and that was enough.

After a pilot program at North High School last year, Akron launched it at most of its high schools at the start of this school year.

How the academies will play out in Akron is still unclear. Students this year will create 10-year life plans and choose pathways, but the schools won’t need to arrange business visits until next year, and job shadows or internships after that.

But some things are in place already. Kent State University is partnering with Firestone to take students to campus regularly and show them career paths the schools offer. The University of Akron just agreed to work with three high schools. And a few dozen business partners have already lined up to help, including the Bridgestone tire company and Akron Children’s Hospital.

Students aren’t sure about academies yet

Students are cautious about the plan.

For many at Firestone, which includes the city’s arts school, picking an academy was easy. Others, like freshmen Nick Cody and Joseph Hohlefelder, said they like the chance at exploring whether fields like architecture or engineering would fit.

Sophomore Alison Lohr said she may want to go into medicine, but she is glad she came through freshman year last year and doesn’t have to decide.

“I would have to make a decision as a freshman,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity, but it might stress me out to have to decide so early.”

But Akron isn’t seeing the pushback Nashville had over putting college-bound kids into career paths. Parents say they support the mix of college prep and careers, or are waiting to see how it works before deciding.

Cleveland academies more limited

Cleveland also hasn’t had the same pushback as Nashville, since the academies were added to schools already focused on career training - Max Hayes, Martin Luther King, Jane Addams, and Washington Park high schools. The district has also added the Garrett Morgan STEM school to its academy roster.

Though academic gains are a major goal, they’re not really showing up in state test scores yet. And integrating career information into other classes - a key part of academies - has been spotty. Some teachers and students can point to clear examples of that crossover, but others look puzzled when asked and say it only happens in a few classes.

Gordon conceded that his schools are not fully fitting the model. That’s partly because some academies are too small to have their own English or social studies classes, or because mixing material would seem too forced.

But the schools have already offered many sophomores the chance to work basic jobs in their field.

“It opened my eyes,” said sophomore Maxenna Atkinson, who worked in the Cleveland Clinic’s cancer unit this summer, making beds, sweeping floors and talking with patients. “It helped my future. It made me realize I really want to go into the medical field.”

And students at Martin Luther King say the Academies 101 class, even on its own, made them focus on what things cost and how to achieve what they want. That message just isn’t reaching all students yet, said sophomore Jade Jenkins, who hopes to work as a phlebotomist.

“Some kids don’t take the hints that people try to give them, so they take the street lifestyle and don’t give other things a chance,” she said. “I want to be different. I want to succeed in life and do things my mother and father never could.”

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