In Akron's College & Career Academies model, the school district is focused on offering hands-on experiences, rather than test-taking, while partnerships with the business community play a vital role.
Just as vital are the choices given to students. They decide which career area they want to investigate.
Amya Evans, 15, is a sophomore at Akron’s Kenmore-Garfield High School. She decided in 8th grade that she wanted to pursue a career in the medical field. "I like helping people," she said.
To help kids understand what’s available, every October the district hosts an 8th grade College & Career Academy Showcase. The showcase allows the high schools to exhibit all the career possibilities available.
"It is like a mini recruiting competition. [The high schools] make sure that their booth is interactive and so [students] get a clear understanding of what that job will eventually look like, what the classes will look like," said Kenmore-Garfield principal Kathryn Rodocker.
The district’s collaboration with area businesses offers kids a wide realm of careers to explore.
"It’s about engagement," said Cheryl Carrier, executive director of Ford Next Generation Learning. "You have to engage students on authentic learning and when you do they come to the table."
The academies model is supported by Ford Next Generation Learning, a project of the nonprofit Ford Motor Co. Fund. Ford Next Generation Learning has rolled out academies across the U.S. and in Europe.
Building a local workforce
The academies are designed not only to help guide students toward careers they're interested in, but also to build a talent pipeline to fill jobs at local businesses.
"This is really about developing our own," said Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James. "These kids are right down the street instead of trying to recruit them from places it's difficult to recruit people from."
More than 250 local business partners have signed on in Akron so far.
"They’re seeing the graying of their workforce and they have to find ways to recruit replacements," James said. "We and our partners at the post-secondary level can be a very important factor in helping them."
Learning through a 'career lens'
Every high school has a Freshman Academy where the 9th graders all meet on the same floor throughout the year and look more closely at pathway options. Amya Evans says the kids take the decision seriously.
"It took a little bit for everybody to figure out what everybody wanted to do but the once we found something interesting we kept going on the same page," she said.
Other facets of academies differentiate them from traditional school, such as instruction through a dedicated team of teachers.
"Every week they come together discussing the same students," Rodocker said. "To have all those people sitting around to talk about one child, we haven’t been able to pull off before, especially in high school."
In 10th grade, students enter their chosen pathway where all the core courses are infused with themes of their academies.
Scott Palmer is Akron's Ford Next Gen Learning coach. He calls the career-themed approach "teaching through the lens."
"So teaching through the lens of a career," he said. "Not because it's on the test but because this goes to something that can be applied, something I can use in my future."
Gaining through field experiences
Academy classes are structured differently than traditional high school, too.
"Sometimes sitting in a math class for 90 minutes is not the best, but it helps you get more one-on-one with the teacher, especially when you don’t understand something," said Destiny Perryman, a senior at North High School
Her pathway is Allied Health at Akron Children’s Hospital Academy of Health & Human Services. Seniors all participate in capstone projects, such as an internship, a mentorship or part-time work. Perryman was hired for a paid internship at Akron Children’s.
"We learned things like how to draw blood," she said. "And since we have our phlebotomy credential we can actually apply to work at a hospital and be phlebotomists."
Working within the academies also exposes students to basic workplace skills, often referred to as "soft skills."
"Being to work on time, the work ethic, the being able to present, making eye contact, shaking hands," said Rodocker, principal at Kenmore-Garfield.
Thomas Jefferson is the academy liaison for Akron Children's. He's seen the academy experience also help students understand what they don't want. There was a student who participate in a Children’s internship thinking he wanted to be a surgeon -- until he learned more about the industry.
"A lot of students they know about doctors, surgeon, nurses," Jefferson said. "Had no clue about biomedical engineering before. Now that is something that he wants to pursue for a future career."
Kenmore-Garfield High School’s Academy Coach Clayton Cundiff says it all boils down to experiences.
"I think that’s the game changer, them being out in the community, being out in these industries, because you never know when the light bulb goes off," he said. "Because the more they can see, the more they can do, and the more they can make smart decisions for themselves."
The district will graduate its first full class of seniors from the college and career academies in three years.
Learn more about the College & Career Academies in the first part of this two-part story.