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With College and Career Academies rolling out soon in Akron, parents have questions

In Akron Public Schools, nearly 1 in 4 students attend high school for four years and emerge without a diploma, unable to meet the marks to graduate.

That number is scary for Christina Brunson of Akron, and it’s a fate she wants to avoid for her two children in middle school. But as the new College and Career Academies model rolls out next fall with promises of higher graduation rates, attendance and overall student achievement, Brunson hasn’t given up on the district just yet.

“I’m just happy to see Akron Public Schools doing something different,” Brunson said. “I was going to take [my kids] back to private school … but we’ll see how this year goes.”

With a four-year graduation rate of 74 percent, 10 percent of students meeting college readiness benchmarks on the ACT and a mere 3 percent of graduates emerging with industry-recognized credentials, the district is hoping to tackle low student achievement rates among other issues with its new College and Career Academies (CCA) model.

College and career academies tailor education to students’ interests, offering them an extensive list of career field pathways on which to focus their education. Next school year, all eight high schools in the district will become freshman academies, where students will explore career opportunities and learn about their choices of pathways.

Then, in the 2019-2020 school year, all high schools will become CCAs and every student will choose a pathway to pursue.

Each school will contain two to three academies, and each academy will have three to five pathways. In total, students will have 57 pathways to choose from, ranging from animal studies and criminal justice to business and tech fields.

College and Career Academies have three aspects that make them unusual: small learning communities, education through a career lens and business and community engagement.

There will be about 75 to 100 students in each pathway who will move through high school with a core group of teachers and advisers. The pathways are accessible to students of all abilities, including those with English as a second language and with individualized education programs.

Elizabeth Winter, the CCA coordinator of partner engagement, said the small learning communities give students a sense of belonging, create relevance in learning and cultivate better student-teacher relationships — all factors that contribute to academic achievement and better graduation rates.

Education through a career lens also adds relevance to student learning. Students will take one to two classes per year that are completely related to the pathway they choose, but all of their core classes, which follow state standards, will also incorporate the pathway whenever possible.

For example, students taking a math class in the health-care operations pathway might learn formulas by checking body mass indexes, calculating medicine doses and monitoring EKGs.

Students will have limited chances to change their pathways so they don’t fall behind their peers, though the number of chances they will receive is not yet finalized.

But even students who don’t end up pursuing careers or college major related to their pathway after high school will benefit from the new model, said Rachel Tecca, the Akron CCA director.

“There’s as much power in figuring out what you don’t like as figuring out what you do like,” Tecca said.

Students will be learning “soft skills” in every pathway that can be applied anywhere, Tecca added, whether those are habits of the mind, like grit and self-confidence, or social and real-world skills.

And opportunities to earn industry credentials and dual enrollment for college credit also will be embedded in every academy, giving students multiple options for life after high school, whether it’s moving into an entry-level position, enlisting in the military or enrolling in college.

“What we’re after is transferable skills,” Winter said.

Business involvement

Businesses are after these skills, too.

That’s part of the reason why so many are willing to participate in the new educational model.

Winter said of all the companies she’s approached, not a single one has said it won’t participate in one way or another.

Business involvement runs the gamut and includes corporations from the local to national level. Some, like Akron Children’s Hospital and Kent State University, are supporting entire academies both financially and by facilitating hands-on learning experiences.

Other companies contribute in smaller ways. Metro RTA, for example, will be giving every student in high school a free 24/7 access bus pass so kids can get to the academy of their choose and internships without having to worry about transportation.

About 50 local companies also stepped up over the summer to form a CCA Akron Steering Committee, through which they provided input and helped create the three-year master plan for the academies.

National academies

The Akron academies grew out of a partnership with Ford Next Generation Learning, which has facilitated the creation of academies in more than 30 districts across the country, the most notable being in Nashville.

Akron district officials have modeled their academy model after Metro Nashville Public Schools, which they visited while developing the CCAs. After 12 years of implementing the model, Nashville’s graduation rate has increased by nearly 20 percentage points, and attendance has seen a near 5 percent rise as well.

Ameerah Palacios, the program director of the Academies of Nashville, said the academy model has made learning better for all students, from those with English as a second language and with individualized education programs to those who are economically disadvantaged and in advanced placement.

“Students get the best of both worlds and get access to early college credit and certifications that save families time and money post-high school,” Palacios added.

Other high schools in the area, including some in Canton, Cuyahoga Falls and Cleveland, have dabbled in and implemented the academy model. But few have committed to CCAs as fully as APS.

More questions

That major switch in academics has left parents and students with some questions.

The district held several public information sessions about CCAs so parents could ask questions and express their concerns. The first few sessions had dozens of people, Winter said, but by the last session April 18, only a handful of people attended with questions left.

Some left the meeting feeling more comfortable with the idea of College and Career Academies, but still uncertain about their effectiveness.

“It makes me nervous that it’s the first year, but it seems like they’re doing their homework,” said Elizabeth Clayton, whose 13-year-old daughter at Jennings will be attending a CCA next year. “I can see a lot of things that are going to be tricky about it.”

Other parents, like Brunson and Eva Hartwell, also had concerns about the academies but left the meeting feeling positive overall. Hartwell has a son who currently attends Innes.

“I wish I had the opportunity to have done this in school,” Hartwell said. “I’m excited about it.”

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