Career Academies: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships

Guest post by Darrin M. Peppard

Steve, a veteran math teacher, asked, “Why do we do our learning walks in classrooms that don’t match with our own content area?” With a confused look, I responded, “Because you don’t really teach content, Steve, you teach kids, and kids need transferable skills more than they need content.”

Education today is seeing a shift in how work must be done. This shift is being driven by outside influences such as political mandates, escalating technology, and changes in the global business platform. Focus has shifted from teaching content (chemistry, U.S. history, etc.) to teaching skills. While the content is still important, it’s the skills students need to be successful in their very near future (their real lives beyond high school)—such as logical reasoning, comparing and contrasting, and problem-solving—that are truly critical to learning outcomes.

img_00141Reflecting recently on the career academies at Rock Springs High School, I was brought back to the “three R’s” of the career academies. RSHS academies are based on the foundation of rigor, relevance, and relationships. Two career academies in their eighth year at RSHS, Health Occupations Career Academy (HOCA) and Energy Resource Academy (ERA), have demonstrated an incredible ability to challenge and truly prepare students for life after high school. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education Drives America Tour visited RSHS academies and labeled them an “Island of Excellence.” The third career academy—Fire, Law & Leadership Academy (FLLA)—is well on its way to demonstrating the same successful outcomes.

 

Reaching for Rigor in All Classrooms

While some still struggle to wrap themselves around the concept of “career and college ready,” career academy programs have long been excelling in this area. A career academy can take many forms, ranging from a simple sequence of courses to much more complicated designs with internships or job shadowing included in the experience. The model used by Rock Springs High School is much more the latter, with students spending up to four hours per week in the community job shadowing and working with business partners to develop meaningful senior projects. Required college courses, AP offerings, and three-year career and technical education sequences have career academy students achieving higher ACT scores, higher average GPAs, and much more defined career and college paths at graduation than their non-academy peers. Most importantly, the intentional teaching of soft skills and 21st-century skills puts academy students at a clear advantage.

Relevance

Why do students select career academies over traditional “comprehensive” high school programs? First and foremost, students identify with the career pathway on which they see themselves.  Students hear stories fromimg_0820-jpg1 current academy students or graduates of the academies about the atmosphere, the on-site visits and guest lecturers, and the opportunity to spend time alongside business professionals. Likewise, the embedded project-based learning and academic standards addressed through the filter of natural resources, health care, or law and fire are quite the hook for students and their parents. Teachers find the process equally exciting, as they get the
chance to learn about a variety of professions in their community and have easy connections for their students in the classroom. In addition to those connections, teachers in career academies interlace workplace skills required for success into their daily expectation of students, including presentations and public speaking, teamwork, and self-advocacy for work completion.

Relationships

Yale University Professor of Child Psychiatry Dr. James Comer once said, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Rita Pierson’s TED Talk, “Every Kid Needs a Champion” is a powerful presentation on why relationships allow for meaningful learning.

While rigor and relevance are vital to the success of career academy programs, a teacher’s ability to form meaningful relationships with his or her students is paramount to exceptional results. Academy teachers go above and beyond to ensure student success. Academy teachers must be willing to do the work differently, build lasting relationships with students, and collaborate well with their team. Each teacher working alongside academy students must be a champion of kids.

How does your school address the teaching of 21st-century skills? Do you have true career- and college-readiness programs? How well have you incorporated your business partnerships into student learning?

Darrin Peppard is a 22-year veteran of education and currently the principal at Rock Springs High School in Rock Springs, WY. His experiences and successes include the implementation of career academies at RSHS and leading the school to become a Jostens Renaissance model school. Darrin was named Jostens Renaissance Educator of the Year in 2015 and Wyoming Principal of the Year in 2016. Follow him on Twitter @DarrinPeppard. 

2 Comments

  • Michael Thomas says:

    Good post, Darrin. I have long been a fan of career academies and wish more students would take part in these exciting education programs. What does your school do to get students into these programs? Any advice on how to get more students involved?

    • Darrin says:

      Hello Michael – we do have career exploration beginning in the 8th grade with our career fair (which we use for career cluster data) followed by exposure to all three academies during the 9th grade year. There is also a recruiting process during 9th grade that allows students to discover what our academies are all about and to make the decision on if and which academy they choose to apply. Honestly at this point in our process, the academies recruit themselves with many, many parents calling me early in 9th grade wanting to know how to get their child into one of the academies.

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