Are you interested in considering a career academy concept for your school? Are you already doing many of the things career academies do, but looking for more coherency? Or, do you already have a successful career academy in your school and want to create additional career pathways? Follow the 10 standards outlined here to create, refine, expand, and achieve a path to deep student growth—a system of schooling that serves as a model for high-yield learning.

These standards, defined by National Career Academy Coalition (NCAC), serve as benchmarks for authentic and systematic change in your school.

The 10 Standards

The NCAC’s national standards of practice are recognized as ambitious guideposts to improve student-learning efficacy in high school and are embraced by the National Academy Foundation (NAF), ConnectEd of California, and others. Here is a brief snapshot of each of the 10 standards, as described by the NCAC on its website. For a full description, visit

1. Defined mission and goals: Career academies have written definitions of their mission, goals, and benchmarks. These are developed by and available to the administrators, teachers, students, parents, advisory board, and others involved in the academy.

2. Academy design: An academy has a well-defined design within the high school, reflecting its status as a small learning community.

3. Host community and high school: Career academies exist in a variety of district and high school contexts, which are important determinants of an academy’s success.

4. Faculty and staff: It is critical to select appropriate staff and leadership, receive proper credentialing, and establish cooperation for academies to be successful.

5. Professional development and continuous learning: Since an academy places teachers and other adults into roles not normally included in their previous training, providing adequate professional development time, leadership, and support is critical.

6. Governance and leadership: The academy has a governing structure that incorporates the explicit roles of all stakeholders and the leaders of the advisory board.

7. Teaching and learning: Teaching and learning within an academy meets or exceeds external standards and college entrance requirements while focusing learning on a career theme.

8. Employer, postsecondary education, and community involvement: A career academy links a high school to its host community and involves members of the employer, postsecondary education, and civic communities in certain aspects of its operation.

9. Student assessment: Improvements in student performance are central to an academy’s mission. It is important to gather data, which reflects whether students are showing improvement, and to report this accurately and fairly to maintain the academy’s integrity.

10. Sustainability: No new academy functions perfectly. Even well-established and highly functioning academies benefit from self-examination and refinement. Ensuring and improving the quality of a career academy requires engaging in a regular cycle of improvement.

The NCAC reports an estimated 7,000 career academies are currently in operation in the United States, enrolling almost 1 million students. High school career academies have a wide impact, producing positive academic outcomes, economic outcomes, workforce development, and community engagement, according to studies by Johns Hopkins University and the University of California–Berkeley. Career academies link students with peers, educators, and community partners in a visible structure and culture of efficacy rooted in active learning guided by equity and authenticated with real-life experiences. In essence, the career academy is the link between a student and his or her learning.

Designing Student Engagement

Some schools elect to design one or more career academies in their school, encouraging and proactively creating access for all students. While singular career academies have proven to be a successful model, other schools design “wall-to-wall” academies including all students in the school in diverse academies. The size of your school and community resources will influence this, but pathways are versatile and can be implemented in smaller schools effectively as well.

Mishicot High School in Wisconsin has fewer than 200 students, but the entire school was reformulated in the image of an academy with students pursuing individual and diverse career pathways. Each student is guided by a “personal career plan” that addresses the components of the standards such as internships, exhibitions, and career-integrated curriculum in the core areas. The 10 standards are guideposts for organization and teaching that provide a path to high-yield learning.

Academies can be urban or rural high schools, but in all cases, they are carved out of former “comprehensive” high schools. Because they are developed from these comprehensive high schools, they still include all the traditional measures of school culture and student achievement. Across the board, student engagement and achievement improve significantly.

These model academies (see callout) represent diverse community cultures and eclectic career pathways, and address mixed student learning needs. They are all promising illustrations of embracing the unique qualities of their community and tapping into professional talent reservoirs in their respective settings.

In these model academies, the 10 standards are strongly evident; each academy is linked to the career-themed pathways embedded in it. (A pathway includes elements such as academic courses braided with the career and technical education sequence, work-based learning, and student supports.) All students participate in actual work—setting field trips, internships, and work placements. Additionally, each faculty member participates in an externship working with career-focused professionals in a career pathway theme. Instructionally, an interdisciplinary teacher team using project-engaged learning strategies facilitates learning that integrates core curriculum with the career theme. The final demonstration of learning is a work-​setting application.

Because career academies prepare students to be college and career ready, the curricula provide a rigorous academic challenge aligned with the academy focus. In most cases, the student graduates high school with a plethora of college credits, giving him or her a jump on postsecondary success. Students earn industry-aligned certifications associated with career pathways. While it is important to note that these highly functioning model academies prepare students for the reality of employment in a specific industry, these same academies prepare aspiring students to enter college. High-quality career academies are designed to be malleable enough to accommodate changing adolescent development.

The 10 standards are not a recipe; rather, they are guideposts that maximize the capacity of learning in our high schools while tapping into the passions of our students, our educators, and our communities.

Ryan Champeau, PhD, is a former high school principal and the 2009 Wisconsin Principal of the Year. He currently is a career academy reviewer for the National Career Academy Coalition and a “school coach” with ConnectEd of California and the Center for Secondary School Redesign, Inc. 

NCAC provides a directory of schools that achieved a “model” level of academy function. Find a link to the NCAC’s list of model career academies at These model academies are living examples of how the 10 standards are put into daily practice in a high school.