Jasmine Johnson, Jayla Lounds and ZaRiyah Clay huddled together at a table in their classroom at Tyner Academy. They were working on an individualized education plan, or an IEP — something most teachers have had to fill out at some point in their careers — for a hypothetical student diagnosed with autism.
The three debated if the student needed special accommodations to complete the assignment, such as more time or headphones to block out distracting noise, while Frank Brogan, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education for the U.S. Department of Education, looked on.
The three young women are juniors at Tyner Academy. They aren't college students preparing to be educators, but students who are a part of the school's UTC Institute of Teaching and Learning, one of more than 20 industry-themed career academies embedded in traditional high schools across the district.
Brogan and another federal education department official visited Chattanooga on Tuesday specifically to see these institutes and the programs at Ivy Academy, one of Hamilton County's public charter schools, and how district officials are trying to prepare students for life after high school.
"Tennessee can be very proud," Brogan said. "Tennessee has taken the move to career and technical education, lifelong learning and career pathways all the way down to elementary schools and has taken it on completely."
Brogan said he was impressed by how early students in these institutes are being exposed to real careers and learning skills or completing projects that translate into real-world experience.
Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education Frank Brogan’s stops in Tennessee this week:
— Croft Design Center Middle School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
— The Farm School in Summertown, Tennessee
— Whitwell Elementary School, Marion County Schools
— Tyner Academy, Hamilton County Schools
— Ivy Academy, Hamilton County Schools
— Beaumont Magnet Academy, Knox County Schools
Tyner's institutes, which also include the EPB Institute of Technology and Networking and the Institute of Health Sciences, provide smaller learning communities for the students enrolled. They connect with community business partners, EPB and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which provide job shadowing, mentoring and even some internship or work-based learning opportunities for students.
Tyner even has many students who are not zoned for the high school but chose to attend one of the institutes. Since transportation is not provided for those students, they have to overcome often complex hurdles to get to school every day.
Antoniese Hudgins, a freshman, is zoned for Central High School, but she knew she wanted to do something in the medical field one day, so she applied to come to Tyner instead.
"I always had a passion for being in the medical field and helping people, but I didn't know what I could do," she said. "This institute has helped me learn what I want to do and that is be a sonogram technician."
Kaylea Moore echoed Hudgins. She has always wanted to be a teacher and decided to attend Tyner instead of her home school, Brainerd High, so she could take advantage of the opportunities that were available through the teaching institute.
Over at Ivy Academy in Soddy-Daisy, students spend at least 50% of their day outside. Along with traditional classes, high school students also have the opportunity to specialize in three specific areas: veterinary science, environmental audio/video production and environmental natural resource management through the school's Tennessee State Parks' Environmental Institute.
On Tuesday, some students on the veterinary science track visited the Chattanooga Zoo to learn about animal enrichment activities ahead of a project they will be completing with the school's very own goats later this year.
Other students spent the afternoon using drones to practice filming local trails and outdoor areas.
Brogan said the U.S. Department of Education is looking for schools that are "doing it right." His stops in Chattanooga were among eight total school visits he has scheduled this week, and he told staff at Ivy Academy that there is a common denominator among schools that are successfully engaging their students.
" The classrooms are flexible, the kids are up and moving around and doing different things and working together," he said. "This learning experience is different because the students are different because the world is different. If we want to innovate our schools, we have to stop stereotyping what we think a school is supposed to look like."
Brogan said what education has looked like across the country hasn't changed in decades — but it also hasn't always been working for decades.
"In the 21st century, we have to stop asking students to come in and organize around us, we have to organize around them," he said.