Secondary school principals are constantly seeking better ways to prepare students for sustained success after high school. Executed with fidelity, the career academy model can encompass the best of motivational relevance along with organizational and instructional protocols for high-yield learning. A career academy is a catalyst for teacher efficacy, promoting teams and a web of student support connected to the community’s economic health.

Small Learning Community

The career academy—an example of a small learning community—offers a recognized instructional model geared toward making learning personalized and relevant for students. The model links student learning and personal ambition with career outcomes by cultivating the capacity of both teacher expertise and student ambition. Additionally, each career academy is aligned with community businesses and agencies to provide job-based knowledge and community support for the school.

Standards of Practice

What defines a career academy and what makes it different than other small learning communities is detailed in the 10 Standards of Practice disseminated by the National Career Academy Coalition:

1. Defined mission and goals: Create these standards and make them available to administrators, teachers, students, parents, the advisory board, and others involved in the academy.

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

3. Host community and high school: Adjust the fit; career academies exist in a variety of district and high school contexts.

4. Faculty and staff: Pay attention to staff selection, leadership, credentialing, and cooperation among all involved.

5. Professional development and continuous learning: Provide adequate professional development time, leadership, and support.

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

7. Teaching and learning: Teaching must meet or exceed external standards and college entrance requirements while differing from a comprehensive high school by focusing learning around a theme.

8. Employer, postsecondary education, and community involvement: Link a high school to its host community and involve members of the employer, postsecondary education, and civic community in its operation.

9. Student assessment: Gather data that reflect whether students are showing improvement and report these accurately.

10. Sustainability: Engage in a regular cycle of improvement.

A review of the 10 Standards of Practice gives a sense of how an academy in your school might align with your school’s mission. As principals, we desire three connections in our school: career readiness, postsecondary matriculation, and community connections that generate long-term school support. The career academy model accomplishes all three.

Successful Career Academies

At the heart of the career academy is a career and technical education (CTE) course of study connected with the local core curriculum. This CTE and core class combination positions students to succeed in a local, regional, and national job market. Employers universally express that they need employees that know how to be part of a team, report to work regularly, and possess entrance-level skills in core disciplines. According to the 2018 survey of employers conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the top dispositions include “analytical/quantitative skills and a strong work ethic.” A foundational feature of a career academy is the marriage of CTE and core classes such as English, social studies, science, math, arts, and international language—each aligned with the skills and dispositions needed for employment and postsecondary matriculation.

Each model academy illustrates a system of student and teacher cohorts functioning together in a smaller learning community and linked to employment in the community. The close connection of faculty, students, and community supports individual student success along with faculty development.

Relevance of Learning

Public high schools have been offering job placement and learning opportunities since they’ve been in existence; job-related field trips, shadowing, internships, and other developmental work practices have always been part of high schools. Unfortunately, often only CTE students have been included in these opportunities. Career academies systematically extend these employability experiences to all students. And, equally important, the core classes become a necessary and relevant part of employment success. Career academies allow students to identify with career pathways and construct a personal vision for their own employment future.

Access for All Students

The individual student is at the center of a career academy learning. Because of this, the discriminating hallmark of a career academy aligned with the 10 Standards of Practice is the notion of equity—open access for all students, not just as an opportunity but as a system of involvement designed around career pathways. It’s an individualized program of study designed to meet student interests with direct access to community resources. Each student’s pathway is tailored to promote student aspirations matched with real dispositions and the preparation the student needs for both postsecondary education and employment.

Links to the Community

The local community plays prominently in the life of a career academy. A career academy seizes the opportunities most businesses and community agencies are willing to provide. Experience has taught us that community agencies and businesses like to partner with schools by providing their expertise and guidance and include mentoring for both staff and students. Community partners want to be more than just a financial supporter—they want to support the school and students through in-kind contributions of expertise and job-specific placements for students and staff. These relationships between community partners and academies build creditability and enduring support for the school.

Diverse Settings

The career academy model has been shown to work well in diverse socioeconomic and cultural settings. I have seen the model effectively applied in rural schools, such as Mountain Home High School in Arkansas, and in urban districts such as Nashville, TN, where all high schools have students enrolled in a career academy. Even in rural Mishicot, WI (population less than 1,500), the district implemented career pathways personalized with curriculum, job-related experiences, and placements for each student. Students significantly raised their achievement and graduation rates.

Career pathways embedded in a career academy are the key to postsecondary readiness for employment and learning after high school. Most employers expect some college-level, post-high school schooling. This—coupled with a firm understanding of what it takes to be successful on the job—is a catalytic stimulus capturing the student’s desire to learn.

Whether you are in a rural, metropolitan, or large city high school, career academies have transformational potential. If, upon systematic reflection of the learning in your school, you discover you want to improve student and teacher efficacy, consider exploring the career academy model.

Ryan Champeau, PhD, is a consultant and academy accreditation reviewer with the National Career Academy Coalition and a certified pathway mentor with Linked Learning of ConnectED, CA. He is also a school change coach with the Center for Secondary School Redesign.