College and Career Academies: Trends in High School Education

It’s an exciting time in post-secondary education in the United States.

After resting on our collective laurels for several decades, test data from the late 1990s and early 2000s revealed the test scores of students from Europe and Asia had surpassed those of students in the U.S. They made the most gains in STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. This galvanized educators in the U.S. into action. Initiatives were launched at the national, state and local levels to rectify the situation. From the U.S. Department of Education to local school districts to first-grade classrooms in rural areas, superintendents, administrators, and teachers redoubled their efforts to restore the level of education in the U.S. to one that was equal or superior to those levels achieved by other countries in the developed world.

There have been many interesting approaches to achieving this end: from STEM-focused charter schools to arts magnet schools to leadership academies, creative educators have tried just about everything. Although the U.S. still lags behind other industrialized nations in key areas such as technology and hard sciences, country-wide test scores showed a steady improvement from 2000-2015, but have since plateaued. Recently, a new trend has emerged in post-secondary education that many educators believe will enable students in the U.S. to close the technology gap for good: the emergence of what are known as College and Career Ready High Schools.

Rural Georgia: College and Career Academies

One interesting aspect of the charter school movement over the past two decades is the existence of a subset of start-up charter schools and charter school districts that focus on preparing students for college and careers. Though this may sound redundant to some—after all, most people would agree that the purpose of high school is to prepare students for either college or careers—there’s a distinct difference in the way some schools and school districts are going about achieving these goals. An interesting phenomenon is taking place in Georgia. In the winter of 2014, the Charter Board of the State Assembly of Georgia approved start-up charters for Griffin and Polk Counties, both of which have developed comprehensive plans to reinvigorate their local school districts by creating unique and innovative College and Career Ready Academies. Both the Griffin and Polk County charters contain impressive elements.

Griffin and Polk County Charters: Unique Features

  • Each county demonstrated total system-wide buy-in from students, parents, teachers, and administrators for the creation of a charter district with a college and career focus.
  • Each county surveyed local businesses to collect a wide variety of economic facts:
    • The amount of local jobs currently available
    • The specific skills needed to fill these jobs
    • What specific qualities local businesses wanted in future employees
    • Which future jobs would become available in the next five, 10 and 15 years
    • Which skills were most needed to fill future jobs
  • Each county developed a robust grass-roots volunteer base to help in the initial phase of the charter development.
    • In addition to this volunteer base, each school system created open lines of communication with students and parents regarding the charter planning process and timeline.
  • Each county attained Memoranda of Agreement from local industries and businesses that committed to partnering with the schools in order to create internships and fast-track employment opportunities for local students.
  • Each county hired instructors from local industries and businesses to teach students the desired skills identified by the pre-charter surveys.

How are They Doing?

In 2017, a Georgia Department of Education report on the progress of College and Career Academies in Griffin and Polk Counties showed that both schools are actively engaged in fulfilling the contract agreed upon in their charters. Students actively participate in career-oriented work-study opportunities in the following areas:

  • Business Management and Marketing
  • Computer Science
  • Construction
  • Film/TV/Entertainment
  • Health Professions
  • Law Enforcement
  • Mechanic and Repair Technology
  • Engineering
  • Education
  • Financial Services
  • Welding
  • Graphic Design
  • Agriculture

The rest of the country can use Georgia’s template. It’s clear they’re on the right track. They’re matching students with careers that interest them, offering them opportunities to get practical experience in those careers, and helping them decide if they want to pursue them in earnest, or keep searching for a career that best matched their interests, strengths, and long-term goals.

The Importance of Community Support

There is often a multi-level disconnect at work in education in the U.S. Despite the best intentions and efforts of everyone involved, everyone is not always on the same page. Parents don’t always know what’s happening in the classroom. Teachers can get out of sync with their principals. Principals might become isolated from their local school districts. District officials sometimes have issues communicating with their state boards of education. And finally, the states are occasionally at odds with the U.S. Department of Education.

What makes the two charter districts in Georgia promising is the level of integration present in the charter petitions. Students and families are on board. Teachers are in the loop. Principals are enthusiastic. The school districts are leading the way. The state Charter Board signed off on and agreed to fund the plans and all the schools involved will comply with Georgia’s version of Common Core standards as well as federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced the controversial No Child Left Behind legislation in 2015.

From top to bottom there is communication, openness and agreement on what needs to be done for the students in the new charter districts, how the goals and objectives for the students will be accomplished and who will be accountable for implementing the plans and achieving the ultimate mission: the creation of a positive, productive and practical educational foundation for the students of Griffin and Polk counties.