College and Career Ready

In Nashville's career academies, students gain readiness for both worlds through authentic experiences

College and Career Ready
The Academy of Entertainment Communication at Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School in Nashville, Tenn., prepares students for the audio/visual industry.

The phrase “career academy” has different meanings across the country. For my purposes, career academy references a small learning community, or school within a school, providing college preparation through the lens of a career theme while partnering with local employers and institutions of higher education.

This model of career academy occurs in a regular, comprehensive high school setting where students take general education and career and technical education classes under the same roof while having access to extracurricular activities such as athletics or band. This is not a program, nor is it an alternative option for struggling students. This is a turnaround initiative.

In an academy, groups of students experience some of the same teachers for consecutive years and take classes with peers who share the same career interests. Teachers assigned to an academy include those from both general and technical content areas who provide interdisciplinary, project-based instruction.

In an academy, all students complete coursework required for high school graduation and college entrance that are linked with a career focus and taught in tandem with CTE courses. Local businesses serve on an advisory board and help provide authentic experiences for students. The focus is on relationships, rigor and relevance — leading to college and career readiness.

In 2006, Metro Nashville Public Schools began the transition to career academies. In 2010, we went to wall-to-wall academies in our 12 comprehensive high schools where every student is a member of a career academy. Throughout the district today, we have 41 academies preparing students for college and career.

Transitioning to the academy model called for a radical change in the way we do business. It also meant combating two common misunderstandings among parents.

But My Child Is Going to College

In the beginning, parents criticized the academy model as vocational training rather than preparation for postsecondary education and careers. Historically, vocational programs at the secondary school level have been stigmatized for tracking students into low-skill, low-wage jobs. While that may have been the case in the past, recent federal initiatives and popular news outlets, including The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post, have recognized the value CTE brings to college and career readiness. Still, we had to address the concerns of apprehensive parents.

Each program in our academies is aligned with a postsecondary education opportunity. Further, students in every academy have access to rigorous general education classes and advanced academic coursework. Most of our high schools offer more than 25 courses that lead to college credit. We created one-page plans of study to illustrate the college preparation in each academy, but the academy model lends itself to another marketing tool — business partners.

Professionals from the high-skill and high-wage industries in Nashville regularly work with students in the academies and reiterate the importance of postsecondary education. They also talk to parents at open house events or other community gatherings and share the value of the college and career preparation students get in high school. These efforts have paid off, as the community has united around the high school reform.

You're Forcing Students to Choose Their Career

No, we are not. The truth is, youth begin developing a tentative career goal between ages 14 and 18. This is a time for students to figure out what they enjoy and do not enjoy. In fact, most adults do not confirm a career choice until their early to mid-30s. Career academies allow students to experience potential career interests through authentic learning and work-based experiences such as industry-specific field trips, job shadowing and internships. These experiences are extremely valuable to college and career readiness.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 80 percent of college students change their major at least once, with the average student changing majors three times! People change their minds with time and experience, so the earlier students are able to explore career interests, the better prepared they are to make college decisions, and the less likely they are to change their college major.

Our emphasis on student choice makes the academy model attractive to students, and the Nashville workforce likes it too.

Business Is Booming

Support for the career academy model was driven by local industries with the desire to prepare their future workforce. Early on, strategic planning occurred with Nashville businesses and community members who identified the potential of the career academy model as a method to produce a highly educated and highly skilled future workforce.

We have more than 300 successful business partnerships with our academies, but these relationships have been nurtured over time. Skeptical business leaders must be brought on board, and we do this through a transparent business engagement model.

A business partnership is different from a business sponsorship. A sponsorship occurs when a business supports a school for promotional advantages by donating money. Often, schools approach local businesses for this purpose — to request money for different initiatives (developing a weight room for an athletic team, sending students on a trip or purchasing a new computer lab, for example). These are usually one-time asks that can cause burnout from businesses.

Partnerships are distinctive in that a business shares commitment in meeting the goals and working toward the vision of the school. This is the model of business engagement we have adopted. When approaching businesses, we ask for the time and talent of their employees, not for their money. The result is a long-term, sustained relationship where businesses are engaged inside the school and alongside faculty, working tirelessly to ensure student success.

Over time, some partners may identify a specific need, such as updating equipment so that students learn by using technology that is relevant in the current workforce and meet that need on their own accord. Further, these partners become tireless advocates for the work that we do and are instrumental in helping overcome challenges.

Moving Mountains

A career academy can exist in different forms. Some schools might elect a “pocket” academy while others may go “wall-to-wall” as we have here in Nashville. Regardless, introducing the model also will lead to some inevitable obstacles in two key areas — teaching and school structure.

The interdisciplinary nature of career academies requires a highly effective and collaborative team of educators from both general education and CTE content areas. These teachers must be willing to provide authentic learning experiences for students that are relevant to the career theme of the academy. We ensure each interdisciplinary team of teachers has a 90-minute common planning time each week that occurs during the school day. In addition to planning lessons around the academy theme, they also use this time to review student data and plan intervention strategies.

Providing for common planning is part of redesigning the school structure that is necessary for successful implementation. While creating the school’s master schedule, administrators must intentionally design schedules that allow students to move fluidly from one year to the next while taking classes with peers in the same academy often from the same teacher. If the classes are located within close proximity, the academy structure is strengthened.

Measuring Success

Often, we are asked how we know if our academies are succeeding. Since our start in 2006, our discipline referrals have decreased by 13 percent, average daily attendance has increased to more than 93 percent, and our graduation rate has increased by more than 20 percent. We are encouraged by these results and we know they come from the collective efforts of many people.

Of the 16,000 students in our high schools, more than 70 percent are classified as living in an economically disadvantaged household. Further, 15 percent speak English as their second language. We have found the career academy model to be effective at meeting the needs of diverse students. We all know there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to education, but in Nashville, the career academy model is helping us ensure that our graduates are both college and career ready.

Chaney Mosley is director of the Academies of Nashville with Metro Nashville Public Schools in Nashville, Tenn. E-mail: Twitter: @chaneymosley


Additional Resources

Readers can learn more about career academies in Nashville and elsewhere:

The Academies of Nashville blog, http://my​academy​ 

Annual report for Academies of Nashville, 

The Effects of Career Academies on Metropolitan Nashville Public High Schools: A Quantitative Study,” a doctoral dissertation completed at Lipscomb University, 2013,

National Career Academy Coalition,