What Constitutes an Effective Career Academy?

The career academy model has existed for almost a half-century, with the first operating in Philadelphia in 1969. Replication in New York City in the 1980s grew into the National Academy Foundation, which now supports more than 500 academies in 38 states, including California, home to a network of more than 300 state-funded California Partnership Academies. A directory of California Partnership Academies, a partial directory of career academies nationwide, and other resources related to academies are available at the College & Career Academy Support Network website (http://casn.berkeley.edu).

According to the federal Schools and Staffing Survey, 6,320 public schools with students in grades 9-12 indicated in 2011-12 they operated at least one career academy — yet most of these do not likely include the combination of features that constitute an effective career academy.

An evidence-based definition of career academies comes from a landmark evaluation conducted by MDRC from 1994 to 2008 (www.mdrc.org/sites/default/files/full_50.pdf). This was an unusually rigorous study because students were randomly assigned to academies or to a control group. A summary of this and other evaluations of career academies is available at http://casn.berkeley.edu/resources.php?r=158&c=1.

Similar, but somewhat different definitions of career academies are used by the National Academy Foundation in monitoring quality of its academies, by the California state law that governs California Partnership Academies and by the National Career Academy Coalition in its national standards of practice (www.ncacinc.com/nsop.)

The MDRC definition consists of three main features:

  • Small learning community,
  • College and career curriculum, and
  • Employer partnerships and work-based learning.

Small Learning Community

Career academies are small groupings of students within larger high schools, typically 150-200 students in grades 9-12 or 10-12. A small, standalone school also may be organized as a career academy.

Students are scheduled to take some classes together as a cohort, and ideally those classes enroll only academy students. Usually the academy classes offered each year include one career-technical class along with one to three classes in academic subjects.

Cohort scheduling allows teachers to develop cross-disciplinary projects, lessons and assignments that integrate academic and technical content, making academic subjects more interesting for students and creating coherence in the curriculum. Students who take several classes together also can develop a positive group identity and give one another academic and social support.

A small team of teachers shares responsibility for the academy students over a period of three or four years. Ideally, teachers are scheduled to have common prep time, to coordinate their curriculum and exchange information about students. Academy teachers come to know their students well and therefore are more able to provide individual support.

Two California Partnership Academies known for the strength of their teacher teams are the Media Communications Academy at Center High School in Antelope and the Academy of Business at Clairemont High School in San Diego. Another school that exemplifies this practice is Mountain Home High School in Mountain Home, Ark.

Integrated Curriculum

Career academies are one of the early examples of a model that explicitly aims to prepare each student for both college and careers. This is now the stated goal of the Common Core State Standards, which emphasize application of knowledge and synthesis of information. The integrated curriculum of career academies is conducive to these outcomes.

Academies are designed to keep students’ options open by providing the coursework required for postsecondary education, along with awareness of some long-term career possibilities and some technical knowledge and skill that can help with immediate employment after high school, including skilled part-time jobs for students who are working their way through college. Several studies have found that career academy graduates are, in fact, more successful both in postsecondary education and in the labor market.

The academy curriculum is organized around a career-related theme. Common themes are health professions, engineering, arts and media, business and finance, among others. These themes do not restrict students’ future options. For example, a student may graduate from a high school health academy but then go to college and major in English or engineering, while working part-time as an emergency medical technician.

Two examples of academies that effectively integrate curriculum are Carl Wunsche High School in Spring, Texas, and the Space, Technology and Robotic Systems Academy, a California Partnership Academy at Lompoc High School.

Work-Based Learning

Employers play an important part in career academies, as curriculum advisors, mentors for students, and sponsors for work-based learning. Academies offer a sequence of work-based learning experience, from classroom presentations by employers that promote career awareness, to career exploration through workplace visits and job shadowing, and on to actual career preparation in school-based enterprises and outside internships. Each academy provides work-based learning related to the academy’s particular theme, reinforcing for students the value of what they are studying in school.

Examples of this feature include the Green Energy and Technology Academy, a California Partnership Academy supported by Pacific Gas and Electric Company at Edison High School in Fresno; and numerous academies in St. John’s County, Florida.

David Stern, a professor of education emeritus, is director of the College & Career Academy Support Network at University of California, Berkeley. E-mail: dsstern@berkeley.edu.