Since their inception, career academies have been an important educational model, with varying involvement by principals. But with technology transforming itself every couple of years, and career options shifting and expanding, principals are looking at career academies as an even more significant element of instruction. School leaders are not only increasing their own involvement in these programs, but asking for more involvement from parents and the community as well. To find out more about the current state of career academies, we convened a roundtable of thought leaders and influencers, including Lazaro Lopez, associate superintendent at High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, IL; Joel Malin, assistant professor of educational leadership at Miami University in Oxford, OH; and Jill Pittman, executive principal of John Overton High School in Nashville, TN. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion in January 2018.

Levin-Epstein: How would you define a career academy?

Lopez: A career academy provides students within the K–12 framework a structured pathway that preps them for their postsecondary life by getting students on a path for a future that begins prior to graduation from high school. In essence, a career academy provides an early opportunity to focus on a specific career cluster area that is representative of a student’s potential future career choice.

Malin: When I think of career academies, I think of small learning communities. I think of a group of students who are taking career-focused courses for at least a couple of years taught by a cross-disciplinary team of teachers. Also, robust career academies typically feature numerous high-quality partnerships with other entities—local employers, higher education institutions, and so forth—to provide out-of-school and in-school learning opportunities so that students can become better prepared for the career area that they’re interested in. Academies are transformational, and educators need to secure the involvement of a host of partners.

Here’s a more formal definition: Career academies are small learning communities within high schools that: 1) are comprised of students who take career-focused courses for at least two years, taught by a team of teachers across disciplines; 2) provide a college preparatory curriculum organized around a career focus, with an explicit goal to help students connect academic learning to real-world applications; and 3) develop partnerships with other entities (e.g., local employers, higher education institutions) to provide enhanced opportunities for students to benefit from mentoring and work-based learning opportunities.

Pittman: I view it as a complement to a comprehensive high school curriculum that affords students experiences that could define their future. It’s an opportunity for students to see what they can be in the world of work.

Levin-Epstein: Has the role of the principal in regard to career academies changed in the last five to 10 years?

Pittman: The role has been augmented in terms of being an ambassador for your school, not just to the parent community, but to your chamber of commerce and to your local business community. It really involves marketing the value of your students to the workforce in your city and in your state.

Malin: This question really has fascinated me and drawn me into the research—trying to understand the leadership tasks and the complexities associated with implementing career academies and/or other ambitious college- and career-readiness reforms. Don Hackmann [a professor of educational leadership at the University of Illinois] and I have been focused on these topics in our research, and we do think it is a different animal in certain regards, relative to the principal’s roles and activities. For instance, career academy implementation requires much more cross-sector interaction and collaboration, as Dr. Pittman alluded to, and the principal is key to establishing and strengthening these collaborations.

Pittman: Additionally, just in terms of organizational management, it adds a new layer of complexity. We spin a lot of plates; it’s one more plate to spin. But I would say that the value-added outcome of doing all of those things in a synchronous way pays dividends to the community and to the students in the school.

Lopez: I certainly echo both of those comments. I would say it absolutely changes the dynamics of the principalship in K–12, and especially in high school. In the past, leadership was focused on creating a solid experience that ended with high school graduation. Our mission now extends beyond that to ensure students are ready to succeed after they leave our doors. And that does change the focus of the principal. It transforms the principal to serve as the liaison to a student’s potential future through engagement with the business community—not for the sole purpose of marketing the value of your school, but engaging with them in a real way … by delivering authentic learning experiences. The future-focused principal provides these opportunities in an environment that is safe and supported, facilitating the career discovery process while in school. By providing ample opportunities to explore careers with easy routes to make changes and to experiment with different career paths, we can ultimately save students time and money.

Outreach to the Business Community 

Levin-Epstein: Can you provide an example of a principal acting as a liaison to the business community?

Lopez: During my principalship at Wheeling High School [IL], that community’s industrial base was focused on manufacturing and engineering. The school did not necessarily provide opportunities to support a long-term workforce that engaged with the needs of its community. So, in a partnership specifically between the high school and the economic development office, we created a manufacturing facility and engineering program that engaged and encompassed close to 50 industry partners. These businesses provide authentic workplace experiences that ensure students are earning credentials prior to graduating from high school that set them on the path for future employment in their own backyard. That was the direct result of the relationship between the school principal and that community. What became so powerful about this partnership was, even during the heights of the Great Recession, the community was able to maintain occupancy rates in their manufacturing facilities because they could boast that the local high school was providing a long-term potential workforce for those businesses.

Pittman: This role has pushed me to more deeply understand the business sectors with which our academies are aligned. So, for example, in information technology, I have become a student myself of the trends in the workforce. What are the gaps? What do those look like, specifically around Nashville? One of the things that we homed in on was the kind of male-centric culture and the lack of women—and diverse women, specifically—in information technology. We forged a partnership with the largest hospital corporation in America, HCA, to put our heads together to come up with a mentorship for freshman girls. We’ve had that going now for four years, consistently growing the number of women from that corporation who are partnering with the school. The impact is that we have realized 25 percent more girls who enroll in an IT programming pathway than before.

Malin: Ultimately a principal can’t know everything about everything, but what they can do is they can have a strong vision and a commitment to the reform process. What they can do—and should do, I would argue, in this type of a reform—is to identify leaders both within and beyond the school, people that have expertise in the relevant areas. For example, if they’re implementing a particular career pathway, trying to find the people who know the most about that pathway, know the most about what would make the curriculum relevant, what would help students to progress the most rapidly and effectively, and elevate those individuals. And also trying to be strategic about the way that they’re restructuring, creating opportunities for interdisciplinary teaming so that people can be regularly having conversations, making sure that their curriculum aligns. So, it isn’t necessarily about the principal needing to know everything, but they need to be a champion of the initiative as well as a facilitator, helping to create opportunities so that the work can happen.

Skills Needed by Principals

Levin-Epstein: What are some of the skills and qualities principals need to be successful in this area? 

Pittman: I think it calls for a heightened ability to think long-term, particularly when it comes to designing a master schedule and staffing for those course offerings. You find yourself thinking not just about making a schedule one spring to the next spring, but rather considering two or three years in the future so that you can make sure students complete their program of study in order to satisfy district and state requirements. It causes us to think more strategically and more long-term, because the programs that we’re implementing are multiyear commitments.

Lopez: It is essential to be able to recruit credentialed, nontraditional teachers who can bring relevance from the field into the classroom. When you are laying out a pathway, often you’re doing it over a sequence of several years; you’re not necessarily doing it all at once. You need to be able to plan for and recruit the right staff to be able to deliver those capstone experiences. In addition, you have to focus on facilities planning. Some of our greatest successes in our career pathways have been when we’ve been able to modify a facility to reflect that specific pathway. It helps attract attention and interest of students to consider it. Hiring the right staff and creating an inspiring environment for learning are important. Finally, the principal needs to be able to skillfully represent their school as an engine for economic development in their community. I don’t believe principals have always represented themselves through that lens. We have always looked at ourselves as educators, but the reality is that our high schools can serve as economic engines for a community, for a region. Being able to present that type of messaging around the value of your public school is invaluable to engaging the broader community in career academies.

Malin: Much of what Don Hackmann and I have identified in our research is very much in line with what you just heard from Dr. Lopez and Dr. Pittman. We noticed principals who are visible champions and effective instructional leaders in their respective schools, they really work to ensure that a college- and career-readiness culture permeates the organization. They are strategic in terms of their hiring. 

Another thing I would point out—this is a longstanding issue that definitely comes into play with career academies—is the need to focus on how to eliminate barriers between career and technical education (CTE) and academic programming. They need to be really working with that, ensuring the curriculum maintains a career focus. What that can do is actually elevate the CTE teachers above the status that they may have felt before that. That can be a pretty major shift. I think this relates to what we had just heard as well—keeping their fingers on the pulse of their community, knowing what the economic opportunities are and trying to be strategic in decision-making, making decisions collaboratively with others in terms of pathways that could and should be offered, and how they can implement those in the best ways.

Principals also need to be attentive to needs that may arise within the academies, locating resources and facilitating community connections as needed. Principals also must ensure each career academy is sufficiently resourced and that all academies in a school function collaboratively rather than competitively.

Lopez: It also requires them to expand their network beyond what it might traditionally be. Beyond their local community, engaging with the state department of commerce, economic development groups, workforce boards—all of those that we may not have traditionally been engaged with—are partners that can support the work at that school if it’s delivered through a message of economic development.

Pittman: Additionally, principals need ready access to partners in higher education. We are working to embed in our students an understanding that a lifetime of success extends beyond the senior year. School teams have to sell the broad range of higher education opportunities and their worth for our graduates. It is not uncommon now for young alumni to return to us for guidance on staying the course in some kind of post-high-school study.

Levin-Epstein: How would you characterize the relationship with colleges and universities today? 

Pittman: I like to think of it as showing students that there are multiple points of access outside of high school for continuity with academy-based work. It means being able to paint a clear picture for students that a technical school, a community college, and a four-year university can all lead to meaningful outcomes. In my state, Tennessee, part of our new accountability structure is data reporting on the percentage of students who earn early college credit while in high school. Creating these early post­secondary opportunities can easily align to academy experiences through expanded dual-enrollment classes, dual-credit testing, and advanced academic study.

Lopez: I certainly would agree with Jill that we need to ensure that students have a future way beyond the point of high school graduation, because we know that the jobs of the future that are going to be available to them require postsecondary credentials, whether that’s a certificate or a degree program. When career pathways are designed, they take higher-education partners into account at the front end and ensure that there is a direct path all the way through to a two-year, four-year, or graduate degree. 

During the designing phase, principals need to work with and meet with partners who are already working within that field and effectively delivering individuals into that marketplace. Reach out to them early on so that your students have access to potential credentials and dual-credit opportunities. My hope is that students are graduating high school into aspirational careers and not into jobs. Their goals should drive the motivation to continue with school and elevate their skill set and employability.

Malin: I think that’s one of the big, broad goals. I think this is something that career academies can help with, and that’s to smooth students’ transitions into postsecondary education. It’s a big area of focus in state policy and federal policy now—how can we do better in terms of getting more students successfully to and through postsecondary? The assumption is that accomplishing this goal is good for the students, good for communities, and good for our society as a whole.

Lopez: Engaging with postsecondary partners is not always easy. Tennessee appears to provide statewide support that may not be available everywhere else. In our district, we’ve been fortunate to partner with seven postsecondary institutions, and each has its own challenges, both public and private. Principals will need support from both the district office and statewide agencies.

Levin-Epstein: Do you have any data on the number of students signing up for career academies? 

Malin: Career academies are quite popular and on the rise, trending upward in terms of the number of high schools that are offering them. They originated in the late 1960s in Philadelphia, and one estimate is that about 1 million students are/were enrolled in academies. There are some different models out there: wall-to-wall academies, where every single student in the high school would be in a career academy; and then others, a subset of the students.

Lopez: I can share with you that in our district, every student is expected to identify a career cluster of interest, and our goal is that every student graduates with both coursework and a workplace experience in that cluster of interest. We’re graduating almost 3,000 students a year-and 95 percent of the seniors are graduating having identified a career cluster of interest. I can probably find out how many of those have taken the full sequence or if they’ve taken part of a sequence of courses that led them to that decision.

Levin-Epstein: What advice do you have for principals to make their career academies more successful?

Lopez: My best advice to principals starting this work is to begin with one area of focus in the area of strength of the school. Engage a broad spectrum of your community that would find interest in supporting the growth of that specific pathway, both business partners as well as parents, especially parents who might be in that field, in order to engage them in direct conversation of what your vision is for how that can contribute to the economic development of your school community.

Pittman: Don’t underestimate the power of an academy identity for students in terms of belonging—and that powerful, positive brand identity matters to high school students. They want to be part of not just the school, but something within the school that they chose. Many students don’t choose their public school, but when they have the power of choice of an academy within that school, that’s a powerful identifier for them.

Malin: One thing I will add that I don’t think has been addressed yet concerns the importance of regular collection and analysis of disaggregated data to monitor student access, participation, and progress within the career academies. Trying to look, for example, at who’s accessing which academy, looking by gender, by ethnicity, is very important given historical patterns with respect to career access and college access. It’s important to build that right into the system-that you’re regularly analyzing data and then making decisions and adjustments based on that.