Treasury Department Gives Aid to Career Program

By Joetta L. Sack — May 12, 1999 5 min read

The 10th graders who trickle into Faye Dixon’s classroom at Eastern High School here look sleepy on this sunny spring morning. Still, they’re eager to talk about their field trip to the Howard University law school a day earlier.

Going to a real-life law school, particularly one at a historically black university, was an exciting and inspiring experience, say several students in this entirely African-American class. But the lectures in the contracts classes were boring, one student admits.

“You’re not going to be entertained,” Ms. Dixon reminds the class. “But I want to expose you to more and more and more real academic settings so you’ll be prepared.”

The Treasury Department is involved in the career academy where Faye Dixon teaches.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

She’s referring to preparation for law school or a career in a related field--a goal that these District of Columbia students might not have considered just a few months ago. But through a new partnership with the Department of the Treasury, the students are getting focused on academics and their career options and interests.

The Treasury Department has opened two new career academies here this school year, expanding a 17-year-old public-private project that started in Washington’s public schools to help low-income students prepare for white-collar careers. The program has since spread to a few other school systems.

The Law and Legal Services Academy located within Eastern High specializes in a curriculum designed to prepare and nurture students interested in legal careers; the Academy of Finance at Woodrow Wilson High School stresses monetary issues.

Biggest High School

Eastern High School--the city’s largest, with 1,800 students--sits in an economically diverse neighborhood in the shadow of Capitol Hill. Like other public schools in Washington, its once-stellar reputation has been tarnished in recent years by the 72,000-student district’s nagging financial and administrative problems.

The students pass through metal detectors as they enter the stately brick building and make their way through a dim corridor to Room 221, a sunny room, brightly decorated with posters of civil rights leaders. There, the students’ vocabulary words include such terms as “offer,” “implied contract,” and “contract of adhesion.”

This semester, 78 students are enrolled in the legal academy, which requires that prospective students submit recommendations and essays and post at least a 2.5 grade point average in order to be admitted. Coordinators also look at scores from the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition and interview both the student applicant and a parent to ensure that they are willing to commit to a more rigorous curriculum. Once enrolled, students must maintain a 2.5 GPA.

“The idea of a career academy isn’t new, but it is new for the federal sector to get involved,” said James Coleman, the executive director of the Treasury Department’s Partnership in Education, who helped create the programs at Eastern and Wilson. In addition to the Treasury project, the departments of Health and Human Services, Defense, and Transportation have set up career academies in Washington’s schools in recent years.

The Treasury Department wanted to start an academy, Mr. Coleman added, partly because Secretary Robert E. Rubin “really believes in economic viability and urban renewal.”

And, while the department provides no direct funding for the school, it does offer in-kind resources, such as curriculum counseling, equipment, and specially detailed employees and volunteers.

Treasury employees, in fact, helped Eastern draw up a curriculum for the program that includes all core classes but gives each one a legal theme as well. For instance, students might write about civil rights legislation for their English class. The legal theme is a natural for the Treasury, given that it employs thousands of lawyers.

Overall, the academies focus on the basic reading, writing, and communication skills that students will need in college and the workforce. Treasury Department employees work side by side with teachers to come up with assignments, and they often help teach classes as well.

In the summer, students may intern with the Treasury Department or another federal agency, a law firm, or a federal judge. The department has also set up special internships for the teachers, so they can get a better feel for the fields their students plan to enter. And Treasury employees regularly offer “job shadowing” and tutoring to academy students.

While the thought of the federal government being directly involved in a school’s curriculum could make some education groups queasy, getting local business involved in schools has been successful in many places.

“Business involvement in schools has only led to the betterment of the atmosphere of the school,” said Mary Kayne Heinze, a spokeswoman for the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based organization that promotes school choice.

Seeking a Challenge

Many of the students, Ms. Dixon said, needed a more rigorous curriculum than the regular classes offered.

“The students were really bright, but needed to be challenged,” she said.

The coordinators chose to set the admissions bar at a 2.5 GPA to keep the program from becoming “too elitist,” Ms. Dixon added. “There were many students who were not working to their potential, and we wanted to give them a chance to get in.”

But despite the relatively low GPA that students must maintain, several students were booted out of the program last semester for low grades. “Students were used to being able to slide, so they were surprised when we stuck to our guns,” Ms. Dixon said.

Some other students, though, have argued that the bar should be higher. “Instead of a 2.5, it should be moved to a 3.0,” said Shemica Davis, 15, who hopes to become an entertainment lawyer. “It’s easy to get a 2.5.”

Her fellow sophomores Jimmette Barnes, James Boller, and Syleishia Pearson, all 15, agree that the program has given them opportunities they might not have had otherwise. This summer, Ms. Pearson will attend a prelaw course for high school students at Princeton University, and Ms. Davis will take classes at Stanford University, where she hopes to attend college. Mr. Boller recently participated in a mock-trial tournament in Texas.

Ms. Dixon stresses that the curriculum is not meant to lock anyone into a career in law. Rather, it heightens an interest and gives students a chance to excel--something Mr. Boller said he appreciates.

“I’m glad she’s doing this, because it’s keeping us on the right track,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Treasury Department Gives Aid to Career Program