As school districts seek to improve student performance, they turn to career academies

Brookeana Williams practices soldering wire in August 2015. Tyner Academy teacher Bryan Robinson started a mechatronics program that offers students the opportunity to graduate with a certification that will aid them in finding jobs with tech companies.

For decades, the idea of American education has brought up the image of students sitting in rows of desks in a classroom, learning English and social studies and mathematics, often in a lecture-style format. Vocational education, or hands-on technical training, often was seen as the ugly stepsister - the path for students who weren't smart enough for a liberal arts education preparing them for college.

As school districts across the Southeast seek to improve student achievement and states roll out plans to comply with the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, many of them have quietly - and not so quietly - moved toward enhancing career and technical education.

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photo In this Sept. 11, 2015, staff file photo, Frederick Stone helps Jada Beckett build a circuit on the digital analog trainer.

Career and technical education is not an equal to vocational education, though it surpasses it, experts say, providing students with hands-on, real-world, project-based learning and collaborative opportunities with industry professionals. And one of the ways career and technical education is being delivered in local schools more and more is through career academies nestled in traditional high schools.

Earlier this month, Hamilton County Schools launched the new Future Ready Institutes, which include 17 small learning communities embedded in 11 traditional high schools. The institutes are focused around an industry theme, such as health care, technology, engineering or advanced manufacturing, and teachers plan the curriculum alongside industry partners.

The model builds off similar models in the Clarksville-Montgomery County school system and Metro Nashville Public Schools. Across the state, several other districts have moved in the academy direction. In Georgia, Catoosa County's College and Career Academy announced last fall it will join about 40 others in the state.

"There are every year more that seem to come online and look toward that smaller learning community model. ... We do see more of that each year," said Casey Haugner, assistant commissioner for college, career and technical education for the Tennessee Department of Education. "As far as the state perspective on this, we want to make sure that a school district and a local school are doing what's best for their students and the community."

Kate Blosveren Kreamer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE, which studies career and technical education programs at the statewide policy and implementation level across the nation, called career academies "essentially a Tennessee model," and because of how long some districts have had such academies, there is already data backing up outcomes.

"They are one of the few CTE models that actually does have data behind it and really positive outcomes ... I think there is a lot of inherent benefit in going that route," Kreamer said. "When you have a smaller learning community, you can focus more on students. You essentially are creating a vision for that school, or the whole school or within the academies' structure. ... That is something that can be very powerful."

Metro Nashville's shining example

More than a decade ago, four founding partners including the Metro Nashville public school system and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce launched career academies that have grown to nearly 20,000 students in 39 different academies across 11 schools, covering a wide range of industries from fiance and engineering to hospitality management or mechatronics.

Ameerah Palacios, one of the program managers for Nashville's academies, said the school system constantly leverages business leaders' interests and future job options when considering changes to the academies or introducing new pathways.

When the academies were first introduced, barely more than half of Nashville's students were completing high school, and the district needed "a complete transformation," Palacios said.

"We were literally in danger of state takeover; we knew we had to do something that was bold and transformative," she said. "Over time, now our graduation rate is closer to 80-81 percent ... that is a testimony to improving."

Nashville's model has contributed to the data that Kreamer said shows career and technical education have proven positive outcomes.

"It's practical, it's engaging, and we know that it works," she said. "It keeps students in school, they are more likely to graduate, they are more likely to go on to postsecondary [education]."

But one of the most important aspects of true industry alignment within career academies is relationships with the business community.

Nashville's system has more than 300 local partners who engage with students through job shadowing, visits to the classroom, aiding teachers with curriculum development and opportunities for students to engage on the job, in the real world. Hamilton County officials' dream is that each institute has one streamlined business partner.

"It's ultimately what we want to see. It's the best practice for these type of learning communities, especially when they are industry focused," Haugher said. "The better relationship with these industries and field, the better ... being able to utilize that [relationship] in the classroom, that's what we want to see. We want to see that industry is partnering to provide real, authentic tasks in those schools."

Expectations at the state level

Focused, small learning academies were really made possible in the state by the Tennessee Department of Education's efforts to revise the outdated vocational education method, according to an Advance CTE report. The department consolidated career and technical education courses into 16 state-approved career clusters and advisory councils were created for each one, with input from industry experts. Within these clusters are the state's approved industry certifications - Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently approved 16 new certifications available to students.

photo In this Sept. 11, 2015, staff file photo, Jada Beckett, from left, and Takayla Sanford build circuits on the digital analog trainer, while teacher, Bryan Robinson, instructs Brookeana Willams and Noemy Marberry about soldering.

Through career and technical education programs, students are usually given access to dual enrollment courses or courses that will help them earn certifications such as a certified nursing assistant credential or a machine learning certification, or that could count toward a degree at a postsecondary institution.

"When done right, it's about preparing students for the future of work," Kreamer said. "One of the greatest levers that states have is the programs they choose to approve. They can easily say what their expectations are ... that you aren't just preparing students for careers, but [for] careers that are in demand."

This is the approach that Georgia school officials have taken and what encourages competitive applications for the state's $10 million in annual grant funding for career academies.

Georgia's push was spearheaded nine years ago by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, and school districts work closely with local industries and the Technical College System of Georgia when seeking to create new academies.

What's next for Hamilton County

Stakeholders for Hamilton County's Future Ready Institutes have expressed the desire to work directly with local industries. In 2016, Hamilton County and Volkswagen launched the Mechatronics Akademie, an on-site school where high school students learn the type of skills Volkswagen needs.

In response to the Mechatronics Akademie's success and the ongoing struggle local businesses have in recruiting qualified employees from local schools - 2015 data showed that 65 percent of graduates failed to earn any education past high school, leaving them unqualified for most jobs coming to the area - Hamilton County and Chattanooga State Community College followed up with the launch of the Polytechnic Academy, and now the Future Ready Institutes.

"We don't educate our students in isolation, we need to educate students with an eye focused on where will they be when they graduate," said Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools. "This is really centered around two things: what interests students and what jobs are going to be, what the workforce will look like."

Prominent local businesses, such as Erlanger and Unum, have already signed on and are investing significant funds in the initiative. Chattanooga 2.0, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, Chattanooga State and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga are also invested - financially and morally - in the work.

"The most important opportunity I see is that business and industries can have authentic partnerships that truly bolster their talent pipelines," said Jared Bigham, executive director of Chattanooga 2.0.

Bigham also hopes Hamilton County students will see the success experienced by those who graduate from other successful models.

"We are able to support high school kids while they're in school, where it's easier to help them with wraparound supports, versus when they graduate and we don't have as much of a connection to [them]," he said.

Dayna Paine, the district's director of curriculum and instruction, said that is what Clarksville-Montgomery schools has seen since its first cohort of students graduated last year from its academies launched in 2013.

"The biggest success is really we have students who are graduating with a better understanding of the world they are walking into ... they are being exposed to things they never would have had without that exposure with the academy experience."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.