Fewer Dropouts From Career Academies, Study Says

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Career academies don't necessarily raise students' test scores, but they do help at-risk youths stay in school, according to the latest findings from a long-term study conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp.

Follow Up
Read the executive summary of "Career Academies: Impacts on Students' Engagement and Performance in High School," or order it by calling the MDRC at (212) 532-3200.

Thirty-two percent of the "high risk" students in the study who did not attend a career academy dropped out of high school, compared with 21 percent of career academy students, according to the study, "Career Academies: Impacts on Students' Engagement and Performance in High School." And 40 percent of the academy students in the high-risk category earned enough credits to meet their school districts' graduation requirements by the end of 12th grade, compared with just 25 percent of nonacademy students.

For students in the study identified as having a low risk of dropping out, the career academies increased the likelihood they would graduate on time.

"Rarely do we have reliable evidence that a school reform produces such strong positive results for at-risk students," said James J. Kemple, who directed the study for the MDRC.

Career academies—a 30-year-old model now in more than 1,500 high schools nationwide—are a way of breaking down large, comprehensive schools into smaller "learning communities" that offer a combination of academic and vocational curricula.

The MDRC, a nonprofit social-policy-research organization based in New York City, began its 10-year study in 1993 with support from the U.S. Department of Education and 17 private foundations. The study is examining nine career academies around the country with a research sample of 1,700 students, 55 percent of whom are Hispanic and 30 percent of whom are African-American. Students who applied for and were selected by lottery to enroll in a career academy in 8th or 9th grade were compared with students who applied but were not selected.

The key to the academies' success seems to be their ability to give personal support to a greater number of students, Mr. Kemple said.

Both academy students and nonacademy students who reported they had received high levels of teacher support were less likely to drop out of high school, exhibit chronic absenteeism, or engage in risk-taking behavior than were students who reported lower levels of support.

Test Scores

Career academies seemed to have no effect on students' standardized-test scores, however. Academy and nonacademy students who took the reading- comprehension and math tests of the National Education Longitudinal Survey of 1988 at the end of 12th grade performed about the same, according to the study.

Mr. Kemple said those results were not unexpected because teachers in the career academies used instructional methods similar to those of their counterparts in traditional schools.

"Given that lack of difference, it isn't surprising there wasn't more of an impact on academics," he said. "Changing students' test scores is probably the hardest thing to do in school reform. This doesn't mean the students didn't learn anything of value."

Kathy Floyd, the director of one of the schools in the study, the Academy of Finance at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School in Baltimore, said the academy was trying to restructure its program to improve academic achievement.

"In Baltimore City, only 13 percent of the students coming into the 9th grade are reading at a satisfactory level," she said. "We were just putting them in English 1. We were complacent in assuming the kids who came here would make it to a 12th grade reading level."

The smaller school setting has helped students stay in school, Ms. Floyd said. In a city where the dropout rate at some high schools is 70 percent, 90 percent of the students at the 240-student academy move on to college, she said.

Cassia Lewis, 19, a graduate of the Academy of Finance at Lake Clifton-Eastern High, said the academy had helped focus her education and career goals. Now a business administration major with a concentration in economics at Maryland's Towson University, she said the mentoring experiences the academy provided were invaluable.

"I got to see what the business community was like. ... The academy setup really helped," Ms. Lewis said. "You are with the same students and teachers through the 12th grade. It is a better learning environment."

The next phase of the MDRC evaluation will follow the students for four more years as they move on to college and employment. Earlier reports looked at how the nine career academies implemented their models and offered work-related experiences.

Vol. 19, Issue 22, Page 6

Published in Print: February 9, 2000, as Fewer Dropouts From Career Academies, Study Says
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