School & District Management

Eye on Academies

By John Gehring — April 26, 2000 13 min read
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Studies of career-academy high schools show benefits for some students.

On a warm spring morning when most restless teenagers would rather be anywhere but inside a windowless classroom, 16-year-old Tatiana Scott seems content at her keyboard.

A sophomore at Fremont High School here, Scott attends one of the state’s oldest career academies. Along with academic subjects that will prepare her for college, she is enrolled in a media academy where she learns about newspaper, television, and radio journalism.

“Here you are working on your future, instead of just wondering what you’re going to do,” Scott says as she uses her computer to lay out the front page of a mock newspaper. “The academy gives you direction.”

A significant body of research in recent years suggests she is right. The direction and structure for students like Tatiana Scott have paid off in California and around the country, as a growing number of high schools rebuild themselves around a theme or themes that link academic subjects with career-oriented coursework and activities.

In many cases, such schools have been shown to help reduce dropout rates, increase students’ chances of enrolling in college, and improve job performance and work attendance, especially among students who might otherwise have quit school.

By linking schooling with a specific field or occupation, the thinking goes, students will be able to see more direct connections between education and their own futures. The idea differs from traditional vocational schools in that the schools remain essentially academic in their curricula, and are not intended to lead directly to jobs after graduation.

These “schools within a school” have their critics and limitations —notably, widespread agreement that they are not for all students and have not proven as of yet to substantially improve students’ test scores.

But as school systems look for alternatives to the large, institutional high schools that often prove incapable of engaging and retaining some students, the academies offer a model for reorganizing schools into smaller groups of educators and students focused on the same theme.

The academies have become particularly popular in urban districts, where a large number of students typically live in poverty and have a high risk of dropping out. The first academy of this kind, devoted to electrical and applied science, opened in Philadelphia in 1969, and more than 1,500 high schools nationwide have since adopted the model.

‘A Sense of Home’

At Fremont High School, located in a tough section of Oakland where feuding gangs and poverty are a familiar part of the scenery, all 2,300 students are enrolled in one of six academies that blend a college-preparatory curriculum with a particular career focus.

Other research is confirming what people who have worked with the academies have long believed.

Along with the media academy, students can focus on architecture, health and bioscience, electronics, business and government, and arts and education.

After freshman year, when “pods” of students work with a common group of teachers and follow a core curriculum, students choose an academy for their sophomore year. Students whose first language is not English are grouped in an “International House” before moving on to an academy.

In each of the academies, students work at local businesses as interns, complete hands-on projects, meet with mentors in the corporate world, and remain with the same teachers for successive years.

“The academies are the glue that holds us together here,” says Principal Emily Gaddis as she guides a group of visiting educators around her school. “Academies have been a saving grace for us.”

A few years ago, she says, before the school became a “wall to wall” academy, students roamed the hallways and gathered outside in large groups. Administrators conducted “sweeps” to corral wandering students back to class.

In 1992, Fremont High won a state grant to restructure the whole school. A diverse school whose students are mostly Latino, African-American, or Asian-American, Fremont has a climate noticeably more positive today, staff members say. The dropout rate has declined, more students are going on to college, and teachers like Preston Thomas praise the new approach.

“Academies give you a sense of home in a large school,” says Thomas, who teaches in the health and bioscience academy. “In a big school, it is easy for students to get lost. Here, I know where they are and where they are going next.”

Evidence of Success

Charles Dayton, a researcher who evaluated the first 10 career academies that began in California in the early 1980s and has been involved with such academies for the past two decades, likes what he sees. “The data, in my mind, is pretty overwhelming,” says Dayton, who began working with academies as a researcher in Palo Alto and is now the coordinator of the Career Academy Support Network, an organization based at the University of California, Berkeley. “When they are well-implemented, the evidence is that academies are working.”

Marilyn Raby, a former director of curriculum in the first California school district to begin academies, the Sequoia Union schools in Redwood City, south of San Francisco, visited Philadelphia 20 years ago and brought back the model. She became one of its leading proponents.

Now a member of the support network, Raby works as a field consultant helping Oakland, Atlanta, and other districts set up their own academies.

Today, California has 240 career academies financed by state grants and about the same number that operate without state support.

All told, they enroll about 20,000 students statewide, and Gov. Gray Davis has proposed state funding for another 50 academies.

Raby sees the growth as evidence that such academies bring something important to schools not easily quantified in test scores or rates of college acceptance. Career academies, she believes, can help give students a sense of belonging that is not found in many schools and communities. “People see how these students blossom when they have teachers who stay with them over a period of years,” she says.

Benefits for ‘High Risk’ Students

Other research is confirming what people who have worked with the academies have long believed.

Career-focused schools did help to improve dropout rates and increased the likelihood that students would graduate on time.

A long-term study of career academies by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a nonprofit research organization in New York City, has received considerable attention and offers strong evidence that the academy model has significant benefits for some students.

The ongoing, 10-year study, which began in 1993, is examining nine academies around the country. The schools enroll 1,700 students, 55 percent of whom are Hispanic and 30 percent of whom are African-American. Using a “randomization” model that attempts to factor out students’ individual motivation levels, the study compared students who applied for and were chosen by lottery to enroll in a career academy in 8th or 9th grade with students who applied but were not selected.

While the latest findings do not show improved student test scores as a result of attending an academy, the career-focused schools did improve dropout rates and increased the likelihood that students would graduate on time.

Thirty-two percent of the “high risk” students in the study who did not attend a career academy dropped out, compared with 21 percent of such students who attended an academy. Forty percent of the academy students in the high-risk category—defined from background characteristics as having a strong chance of dropping out— earned enough credits to meet their school districts’ graduation requirements by the end of the 12th grade, compared with just 25 percent of nonacademy students.

“Rarely do we have reliable evidence that a school reform produces such strong positive results for at-risk students,” says James J. Kemple, a senior research associate at MDRC and director of the academy study.

Personal Attention

The key to the academies’ success seems to be their ability to give personal support to a greater number of students than more traditional schools, Kemple says. Both academy students and nonacademy students who reported they had received high levels of teacher support were less likely to drop out, be chronically absent, or engage in risky behavior than were students who reported lower levels of support.

For several years, research has offered strong evidence that smaller schools by themselves are more effective than larger ones. Some of the benefits of the career academies may stem from this factor alone—that they offer small-school settings in a larger setting. Kemple, for one, believes that without this smaller, more intimate structure, the model’s potential would be significantly undercut. “We can say with a fair amount of certainty that this small school component is very important,” he says.

One area in which the career academies appeared to have no effect was students’ scores on standardized tests. For his study, Kemple looked at the reading-comprehension and mathematics portions of the National Education Longitudinal Survey in 1988. The study found that academy and nonacademy students who took tests at the end of 12th grade performed about the same. Kemple says those results were not unexpected because teachers in the 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 says. “Changing students’ test scores is probably the hardest thing to do in school reform.” But, he adds, “this doesn’t mean the students didn’t learn anything of value.”

The key to the academies’ success seems to be their ability to give personal support to a greater number of students than more traditional schools.

James McPartland, the director of the Talent Development High School model that has been adopted in some career academies through the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At-Risk, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says career academies have been shown to reduce dropout rates and improve the climate of large schools.

But that’s not enough: To really prove themselves effective, he believes, they must focus more on instructional quality. “If you don’t change what is going on in the classroom,” he says, “the school will be safer and there will be better structure, but it doesn’t change test scores.”

The Talent Development High School approach has as its foundation a 9th grade “success academy” that is a separate part of the school, overseen by a director and teams of teachers. The focus is on making sure the 9th graders, most of whom come to high school with poor academic skills, catch up on work they should have learned years earlier.

This “catch up” curriculum, as the researchers call it, is critical. The 9th grade is widely recognized in Baltimore and other districts as the time when most students who eventually drop out begin to slip through the cracks.

Ultimately, McPartland believes, career academies will continue to flourish because they successfully address what he calls the “anonymity and apathy” students feel in large schools.

He notes that a $45 million small-schools initiative for high schools recently passed by Congress should encourage more academies to open.

Rapid Turnaround

Patterson High School in Baltimore was one of the first two schools in Maryland to be placed on the state’s list of failing schools because of its student attendance and achievement. In 1994, three out of four students there were missing a month or more of school a year, and the school enrolled nearly five times as many 9th graders as 12th graders.

Career Academies

Career Academy Support Network Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley 2030 Addison St., Suite 510 Berkeley, CA 94720-1674; (510) 643-6503.

Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. 16 E. 34th St., 19th Floor, New York, NY 10016-4326; (212) 532-3200.

Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk,
At Johns Hopkins University:
Center for Social Organization of Schools 3003 N. Charles St., Suite 200 Baltimore, MD 21218; (410) 516-8800

At Howard University:
2900 Van Ness St., N.W., Washington, DC 20008;(202) 806-8484.

Philadelphia High School Academies Inc. 230 S. Broad St, 13th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19102; (215) 546-6300.

The following year, with a new Patterson staff working with McPartland and other experts from Johns Hopkins, the school reorganized into five “learning communities” that included a 9th grade success academy, four career-focused academies for students in grades 10-12, and a “twilight school"—an on-site alternative school that opens after regular school hours.

Among the district’s nine nonselective high schools, Patterson went from having the largest percentage of students missing 20 days or more a year in 1994 to having the lowest rate by 1997.

In 1994, the school had the second-worst ranking among those schools on a school performance index based on attendance, promotion, and academic achievement. By 1996, Patterson had moved up to the second-highest score.

The Talent Development model is now being used in Detroit, Newark, N.J., Philadelphia, and other cities. Three schools in Philadelphia have the approach in place, and planning is under way for three more, according to Bill Morrison, who worked to implement the model at Patterson High and now directs Johns Hopkins’ program in Philadelphia.

Natalie Allen, the president of Philadelphia High School Academies Inc., a nonprofit organization, says academies have helped turn around dysfunctional schools because they make education relevant for students. Teachers and administrators also benefit, she argues.

Allen predicts the academy model will continue to grow because more people are realizing schools need to become partners with businesses and other organizations to be successful. “Education is not the sole province of teachers and educators,” she says.

Not for Everyone

But while career academies have the potential to increase educational attainment, they may not be equally effective for all students.

Career academies may not be equally effective for all students.

Nan L. Maxwell, an economics professor at California State University-Hayward and the executive director of the Human Investment Research and Education Center there, examined the relative impact of such academies and of more traditional programs on work and education skills. She and a colleague studied a large West Coast district and also looked at national databases with information on former students in urban high schools.

Her analysis concludes that the academies increased students’ probability of attending college, improved grade point averages, and provided students with a greater variety of skills than did vocational and general tracks. But Maxwell found that particular demographic groups fared better than others. The academies had a “significant probability” of increasing education over the general and vocational tracks for girls, African-Americans, and native English-speakers, she writes in a 1997 report, but did not show such effects for boys, Latinos, and non-native speakers.

She and her co-author, while noting that their analysis does not permit explanations of those differences, suggest they may reflect the different learning styles of the various groups.

Overall, Maxwell’s research shows that while academies seem to have a positive effect on students, particularly those seen as “at risk,” the model does have limitations. “The academies are impressive with what they do, but they are not a panacea,” Maxwell said in an interview.

Research has raised other potential drawbacks that can guide districts thinking of adopting the model. David Stern, who has studied and worked with career academies and is the author, with Dayton and Raby, of a book on the subject, cautions that the academies are not easy to start or maintain. The added cost, the additional work it asks of teachers, and the changes it requires in a school’s master schedule all pose challenges.

“There are real barriers,” says Stern, a professor of education at UC-Berkeley. “You just can’t snap your fingers and say you’re going to have career academies.”

Even with those caveats, Stern says the effort in most instances pays off: “It is now fairly indisputable that they have been found to work.”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as Eye on Academies


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