On the Career Track

By Lynn Olson — February 23, 1994 18 min read

For Greg Panossian, the Finance Academy at John Muir High School in Pasadena, Calif., was a “way out of trouble.’'

“When I was a freshman, I didn’t care a lot about school,’' the hazel-eyed 17-year-old explains. “I thought I’d graduate, get out of here, get a job. There was no purpose, except for sports. I wasn’t much interested.’'

Today, the high school senior plans to be the first in his family to go to college, where he wants to major in accounting or business administration. He earns A’s and B’s and describes himself as “really involved in school.’'

Greg believes the turnaround stems from the individual attention and career focus that the academy provides. “The main difference is that you’re going somewhere with the academy,’' he says. “You have future goals. The teachers understand the students individually because they see them every day. It helps a lot. The school means something to you.’'

Career academies are “schools within schools’’ that mesh vocational and academic instruction around a single career theme. Teachers and students stay together for several years, so they know each other well. Business partners typically provide mentors, on-the-job training, and summer and after-school work experiences in industry. They also help shape the curriculum through advisory committees. In Pasadena, students complete 100 hours of community service as well.

The first such academy opened in Philadelphia in 1969, and the model has since spread throughout the country. Today, career academies are widely viewed as one of the more promising approaches for wedding education and employment. They also highlight the kinds of school-based changes needed more generally for school-to-work programs to succeed.

“I think what makes the academies exciting is that they are at the crossroads between the school-restructuring and the school-to-work movements,’' explains Robert J. Ivry, the senior vice president for the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, which is conducting a study of career academies. “There’s a big movement to break down impersonal, comprehensive high schools into something that’s more supportive, and academies are one variation of that. They’re also relevant to the school-to-work movement, with their attempt to contextualize the learning experience and to give kids a chance to apply what they learn in the classroom.’'

Ivry estimates that more than 200 career academies exist nationwide. The New York-based National Academy Foundation, for instance, provides the curricula and program designs for more than 100 academies across the country. Many academies are in California, which, since 1984, has provided a limited amount of money to help districts start and operate them. Today, the state helps finance 45 “partnership academies’’ in nearly 20 career fields.

The Pasadena Unified School District, where Greg attends school, is an urban system in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, just east of Los Angeles. Since 1990, it has looked to career academies as a way to restructure its high schools and better serve students. Pasadena’s seven academies enroll about 700 teenagers, or 15 percent of the high school population. The programs--in finance, health care, geospace, high technology, graphic arts, visual arts and design, and computers--are dispersed among the district’s four comprehensive high schools.

An Integrated Approach

You can locate the Graphic Arts Academy at Pasadena High School by the small, printed sign over its door. Once inside, you enter a large, open space equipped with computers, cameras, printing presses, cutting machines, and a darkroom. The Printing Industries Association of Southern California, the academy’s business partner, donated all of the equipment.

Today, the students are working on their book project--an assignment that illustrates how academies bridge the divide between academic and vocational disciplines. In English class, the students read The House on Mango Street, a series of vignettes about a young girl’s life. Then, the students each wrote 12 chapters for a book about their own lives. In their graphic-arts class, they learned about layouts, desktop publishing, binding, and printing. As part of their project, they even calculated the cost of producing 10,000 copies of their books and wrote a business letter explaining the details.

Academies also try to infuse the career theme into their daily lessons. In the Geospace Academy, students read science fiction in English class and devise equations to chart a plane’s descent. In the Health Careers Academy, they use ratios to fill drug prescriptions and geometric angles to assess the range of motion in an elbow.

Nonetheless, Kirk Odegard, an English teacher in the Graphic Arts Academy, says: “Integration has been our trickiest issue. On the one hand, we’re deeply committed to it happening, but we’re also deeply concerned that it be authentic and genuine. ... Integration for its own sake isn’t some sort of magical thing that makes everything right.’'

“We’re not at a point yet,’' he adds, “where every day is integrated, and every day we’re marching side by side.’'

What makes such integration possible at all, teachers suggest, is time. Teachers within the academies share a common planning period. In Pasadena, they also have an extra preparation period to tutor students. Longer class periods and block schedules provide the flexibility needed to adjust teaching styles and organize field trips.

Although the academies emphasize career themes and interdisciplinary work, all of their students must meet the state’s high school graduation requirements, as reflected in the state’s curriculum frameworks. Academy courses also meet the admissions requirements for the California State University and the University of California systems.

The Real World

Actual exposure to the workplace complements the infusion of work-related themes into the classroom.

Jason Potter, a senior in the Finance Academy, describes his experience there as a “life class.’' “They teach you how to go out in the world, how to get a job, how to keep one,’' he explains. “I don’t think in the high school you actually know what’s going on out there. But when you’re in this program, they put you out in the world so that you can see for yourself.’'

After working as a paid intern last summer, Jason now has a part-time job as a bank teller at the age of 17. Roy Adams, his mentor at Community Bank, takes Jason out to dinner, challenges him to video games, and talks to him about his future. “There’re a lot of questions I ask him,’' says Jason, “especially about college and what would I have to do to succeed.’'

Not all matches are as compatible. In fact, some students complain that they rarely see or hear from their mentors. Finding enough mentors is also difficult, particularly in California’s hard-pressed economy. Last year, only 60 percent of the students who were supposed to have mentors received one. “It’s been extremely difficult to get the mentors for seven academies,’' sighs Alma Dillard, the academies coordinator for the school district. “People are so afraid of being part of ‘rightsizing,’ ‘downsizing,’ and so on, that they hesitate to commit.’'

Summer internships provide additional on-the-job training. But those aren’t easy to find either. Last year, only 30 percent of the teenagers landed paid internships after their junior years. Although the school guarantees youths an interview, it does not promise them a job.

In addition, summer internships can’t provide the kind of sustained and structured learning that characterizes more intensive work-based approaches, such as youth apprenticeships. Two of Pasadena’s academies--the Graphic Arts Academy and the Health Careers Academy--have grants to help pilot full-scale youth apprenticeships.

In the health academy, juniors have an unpaid internship at Kaiser Permanente of Southern California during the school year, a paid internship over the summer, and on-the-job training at St. Luke’s Medical Center or Huntington Memorial Hospital during their senior years. Academy teachers visit the worksites once a week. Of this year’s graduating seniors, all will be certified in at least one entry-level occupation, and many in two or more.

“These students are somebody,’' Marla Keeth, the health-occupations instructor, says. “They’re not just out of high school flipping hamburgers. They really have an occupation behind them.’'

An Extended Family

On this day, Albert Shaw, a junior in the health academy, is purging old materials from training folders in one of Kaiser’s supply rooms. Albert goes to Kaiser twice a week, for several hours at a stretch. Like most students, he says the career focus is part of what attracted him to the academy. But he also likes the smaller class sizes and personal learning environment.

“The teachers get to know everyone better,’' he explains. “They know you by your first name. When I was at Pasadena High School, the teachers didn’t have time to really spend with you.’'

Students and teachers often refer to the academies as an extended family. The average California academy has only 108 students. Those in Pasadena range from 90 to 115 participants. Teenagers enter as sophomores and remain through their senior years. Class sizes average 25 students, compared with 36 in Pasadena’s comprehensive high schools. Each teacher also serves as an adviser for a small group of teenagers from the time they enter the program until graduation.

Clinton Rogers, a senior in the Geospace Academy, says, “The best part of the academy is the brotherhood and bonding we form after being with the same group of people for three years.’'

Before they can apply to an academy, students and their parents must attend an orientation session. If the student is accepted, the parents sign a contract pledging their active support and their child’s commitment to the program for at least a year. Parents and students alike sit on the academies’ advisory boards. Frequent award dinners, parent-teacher conferences, and ceremonies reinforce the sense of belonging.

“It’s real good because the students bond with each other,’' says Theresa Snedden, a parent representative who has two sons in the Graphics Arts Academy. “I have one son at Blair [High School] who’s not in any academy. Classes are bigger, and there’s not individual help.’'

Mark Hall, the lead teacher at the Graphic Arts Academy, says it’s the specialized focus, combined with the smaller setting and innovative pedagogy, that is the key to the academies’ success. “Whenever we start to look more like the traditional classroom,’' he observes, “attendance goes down, morale goes down, and test scores go down.’'

A Degree of Tension

But the smaller class sizes and school-within-a-school format can lead to resentment and isolation. At John Muir High School, several teachers outside the academies know little about the programs. And they complain about the difference in teaching loads.

“There’s been some concern because the class size is so much smaller,’' says Jimmie Mason, a Muir English teacher. “I think it’s impacted other classes. I have 150 kids [per day], so it just tells you the discrepancy.’'

Vita Ciseneros, another English teacher, voices a different concern. “I believe in liberal-arts education, not in training for a specific function. I find it limiting. I know that the philosophy of the academy is that for the kids they serve, they may not have other options. But I find that kind of a reactionary stance.’'

Last year, teachers in the Muir academies offered to include five non-academy students in their sophomore English classes to ease the tension. But both students and teachers say jealousy remains. “We’re viewed as elitist,’' says Trudell Skinner, a mathematics teacher in the Finance Academy. “They think that somehow we’ve gotten the best students, and we get out of half the meetings, and we don’t work as hard, and we have all the money to buy the supplies and equipment that we need,’' she chuckles. Such charges, she says, couldn’t be further from the truth.

A Middle Ground

By law, the California Partnership Academies were designed to serve primarily at-risk teenagers. Students must fit at least three of four categories: a past record of irregular attendance, underachievement, low motivation, and poverty. In 1993, when lawmakers reauthorized the program, they broadened its scope so that 30 percent of an academy’s students no longer have to meet such criteria.

The Pasadena school district wants its academies to reflect the general student population, from the potential dropout to the gifted. Partly for that reason, five of its seven academies did not apply for funding under the state program. Nevertheless, district officials estimate that about 80 percent of academy participants are low-income, limited in their English proficiency, or part of a special-education program. This largely reflects the district’s predominantly poor and minority student body.

Each academy is open to youngsters throughout the school system. Students apply in 9th grade. The academies use transcripts and interviews to screen applicants for their past performance and interest. During the summer after freshman year, students may have to take additional academic courses to prepare for the academy. In addition, the district has launched several pre-academies in the middle schools to reach children earlier in their careers. But lack of funding has limited their effectiveness.

In 1992, a report by the state department of education, “Second to None,’' suggested that all students could be better served if schools were organized into clusters around career or interdisciplinary “majors’’ in grades 11 and 12.

But in practice, tensions continue to exist about whether the academies can benefit all youngsters equally. Florence Davis, the vice principal in charge of curriculum at Blair High School, says, “I would say 99 percent of the teachers at this school feel very strongly that the academy concept--the idea of preparing kids for a skill--is the direction that all high schools eventually will go.’'

But, she adds, many minority parents view the academy as a “vocational high school’’ that isn’t going to prepare their children for college. “I’ve had to convince many parents, in my office, to place their kids in it just for a year.’'

Evidence suggests that academies may be raising, rather than lowering, the educational aspirations of many students. In Pasadena, students in the academies can take courses at Pasadena City College while still in high school, through a cooperative agreement. Some academies even require the courses as a condition for graduation. The district also has developed ties with several four-year colleges in the area to allow students to transfer easily to baccalaureate programs in their fields.

In the 1991-92 school year, about 80 percent of academy graduates statewide were planning on some form of college, although most planned to pursue less than a four-year degree. Yet, many academy students had entered the program behind their peers in attendance, credits, and grades.

Students in the Pasadena academies must also earn a certificate of mastery that shows what they can do by the end of the 11th grade. The certificate, which the business community suggested, takes the form of a portfolio, with benchmarks that all students must meet before they are eligible for a paid internship. What’s more, Pasadena plans to create a specialized high school transcript for academy graduates to show employers their technical skills.

Within the programs, teachers often try to individualize instruction with written contracts. In a single chemistry class, some students may be completing additional work for honors’ credit, while others are taking basic, or descriptive, chemistry.

Even so, Bobbie Moon, a math teacher in the Health Careers Academy, says, “The ones that we can’t serve are at the ends of the spectrum.’' Extremely bright students take so many advanced courses outside the academy that it poses a scheduling problem. “At the lower end,’' Moon adds, “we can’t risk our relation with the industry by giving them a loose cannon. We lost several departments at the hospital because we put the wrong kid in there.’'

Odegard, the teacher in the Graphic Arts Academy, says: “We sort of hit the middle. I think the kids we best serve are the kids who don’t see themselves as being on a real college track. Some of our better students have indicated that they haven’t felt challenged, and some of our other students feel like they’re overwhelmed.’'

A World of Opportunities

Similar tensions exist around the long-term career goals of academy students. Robert Pola, the manager of the human-resources division for Kaiser Permanente of Southern California, says, “Our optimum would be young people who were motivated or enthused enough to get a good strong foundation in high school and continue in postsecondary education, with an end in mind of allied health.’'

In contrast, members of the printing industry would like to see 50 percent of the graduates of the Graphic Arts Academy go directly into entry-level jobs. “Let’s face it, what we’re after is not someone with a University of California degree,’' says John C. Thomas, the president of the Griffin Printing and Publishing Company and the chairman of the advisory board. “We want someone who’s got the basics of reading and writing and learning about our industry, and the basics of how to dress and how to talk to people,’' he adds. “Then, we can train them from there.’'

But educators caution that it’s unrealistic to expect every adolescent to choose a career by graduation. “The industry has got to realize, as much as we interview and screen and talk to the kids, you cannot expect 16- or 17-year-olds to know they want to go into the printing field,’' says Dillard, the academies coordinator. “The academy is for exposing them ... opening doors for them.’'

Many students have altered their career goals several times since entering the academies. In part, they credit the programs’ broad exposure to a range of potential jobs. Gindi Lynch, a senior in the Geospace Academy, says after working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory over the summer: “I decided I wasn’t going to get a degree in aerospace engineering. I’m thinking about getting a degree in physics and in aviation. I just realized there were so many more things that I never knew about. Being here, you learn about opportunities that you never knew existed.’'

For now, most business partners seem content to view the academies as a long-term investment. In state-funded academies, business partners and school districts are each expected to match the state’s $67,500 contribution. Matching support from businesses averaged $109,000 statewide in 1991-92.

In California, according to Career Academies: Partnerships for Reconstructing American High Schools, the total additional revenue from all sources to operate career academies typically amounts to $750 to $1,000 per student per year. Nationwide, Ivry of the M.D.R.C. says, “there may be some increasing cost, but it’s really marginal.’'

The Unrealized Potential

What makes academies attractive is that they seem to work. A study of the first 10 replication sites in California matched academy students with a comparison group. It found that academy students had better attendance, failed fewer courses, earned more credits, got better grades, and were more likely to graduate than their peers. The estimated net benefit to taxpayers, from dropout prevention alone, totaled $1.75 million.

“I see career academies as having tremendous potential, by and large unrealized at this point,’' says Charles Dayton, one of the authors of Career Academies and a consultant to the California programs. “We have 1.5 million high school students in California, about 5,000 in state-supported academies. That’s less than 1 percent.’'

Financial constraints have prevented the state from starting any new academies for three years. Given the state’s budget deficit and the recent earthquake, significant additional funding looks doubtful.

Proponents of career academies list startup costs, the money required for professional development and staff time, and the need to recruit large numbers of small businesses as the primary impediments to expansion.

But at least one high school is forging ahead. Based on its success with the health and high-tech academies, Blair High School plans to cluster all of its 9th graders into one of five career paths starting this fall. Everyone at the school site--from the academic teachers to the guidance counselors--will be assigned to a career cluster, which will have many of the features of an academy. School officials also hope to launch additional academies in the future.

“It was because of the success of the academies here at Blair that we began to look at those students who were graduating,’' Vice Principal Davis says. “And we found--even though we had students at risk, who were pregnant, who were learning-disabled--they were all hanging in there. They all stayed, they all graduated, and, at graduation, they could tell you where they would be next year, which was something that was not occurring for the majority of our students.’'

But perhaps the highest praise comes from Adrian Vangeli, an 11th grader in the Graphic Arts Academy, who lovingly guides visitors around the equipment. “I love it,’' he says of the program. “I just like hands-on projects. I like running the presses. When I’m mad, I come here.’'

The “Learning To Earn’’ series is being underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as On the Career Track