Do Metro's public school 'academies' live up to promise?

Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 10:05pm

Summer break is weeks away, and things are winding down at Metro schools. But it’s the end of an era at Hillsboro High School, where emotions ranging from frustration and bewilderment to sheer anger ran high this spring. 

These sentiments — culminating with dozens packing a recent school board meeting, hundreds demonstrating in the school’s front yard, and thousands organizing efforts on a Facebook page — all stemmed from the controversial transfer of one teacher: Mary Catherine Bradshaw, a 27-year veteran at the Green Hills school, the founder — and heart and soul — of that school’s International Baccalaureate program. 

The dust is settling now over Bradshaw’s ouster, though exasperation remains. The revered, award-winning teacher, hailed as an outside-the-box instructor by alumni and current students alike, will move to Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School this fall. Hillsboro’s IB program will to continue with a new leader. 

While followers may never know the real reasons behind the much-publicized personnel shake-up, many believe the move is at least partially the result of a rift between Bradshaw and school administrators over The Academies of Nashville, the model of instructional redesign inside the district’s 12 comprehensive high schools whereby students select career- and theme-based areas of study such as hospitality, community health, information and technology, and science and engineering to help guide coursework. Grade levels are divided into what educators call “smaller learning communities” based on those areas. Every student in a Nashville public high school takes part. 

The academies come with a catchy slogan: “Rigor. Relevance. Relationships. Readiness,” an alliterative phrase that supporters cite ad nauseam. The approach is supposed to be academically challenging, while making mundane lessons relevant by applying them to real-life situations. In the process, the smaller learning communities break up the district’s massive high schools and foster more personal teacher-student and student-peer relationships. It’s all about making students ready — for college and the workplace, school officials say. 

But what became painfully clear during the Hillsboro controversy is that criticism and confusion over the academies concept is prevalent, rivaling the level of disapproval over Bradshaw’s departure itself. 

At an April school board meeting, several parents chastised the academies as “vocational training” — an accusation that seems largely inaccurate. Still, the Bradshaw debate triggered a genuine, healthy discussion on the merits of academies, with some wondering whether the redesign caters to those struggling to graduate while ignoring the straight-A students. 

“Academies have been scientifically proven to have some benefit, but only to a very small population, and that’s to those kids who would drop out,” said Tania Carter, a Hillsboro parent. “That’s great to have programs to retain and challenge those kids. I want every kid to graduate. My concern is that in this effort to cram career academies down our throat, they’re forgetting about the 83 percent of graduating kids at Hillsboro who already were going to go on to a four-year college.” 

That type of thinking also reverberated among elected officials outside the school district. No lawmaker inserted himself in the Bradshaw controversy more than state Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, who said the academies “disrupted” the school’s successful IB program. 

“While I am no expert, my understanding is that academies, if used judiciously and done well, can serve a purpose,” Stewart said. “But what we need to always avoid is just superimposing a new plan in a way that damages the programs that parents have come to count on and expect. We’re not going to have a great school system until we have a school system that parents can count on.” 

School officials are downplaying the concerns as a major misunderstanding of their goals with the academies. But at the very least, the public indignation over career academies points to a lackluster performance by Metro schools and their corporate partners in the way the academies have been presented. That’s a fact officials recognize, and they plan to improve communication about academies with students and parents. 

“It’s up to us to do a better job of really trying to explain the concept to parents,” Director of Schools Jesse Register said. “I regret that there’s a perception that the academies are not college prep and are not academically rigorous, because they are.” 

For Metro schools, to heal a bruised public perception requires parental and student buy-in. A major part of officials’ ongoing plans to turn around the failing district rests on retaining students who could just as easily enroll at one of Nashville’s numerous private schools — a population Metro schools has lost steadily over the years. The Bradshaw saga presented the wrong kind of storyline for stakeholders in the academies: parents of the district’s best and brightest publicly questioning what is ultimately the heart of the city’s reform efforts. 

 

With more than 6,000 dotting the country, academies in schools are hardly unusual. It’s a concept most educators say originated in Philadelphia in 1969, in an effort to assist students who didn’t appear bound for college. The goal there was to break away from the traditional vocational education model, based on specific job skills and training, to expose students to the workplace while still offering academic challenges. The movement shifted to California, and over time other school districts across the country followed suit. 

In Nashville, academies date back to 2006, when a group of eight high school principals, recognizing the district’s inability to meet federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks, set forth to try something different. After researching practices in other cities and sitting down with groups like Alignment Nashville, a community schools organization, academies emerged as the favored model. Implementation began with the installment of Freshmen Academies five years ago, and through a five-year federal Small Learning Communities grant, the program took shape at all grade levels. 

This was well before the arrival of Register, who was hired as schools director more than two years ago. But the former Chattanooga superintendent has advanced the academy concept during his tenure, most notably by tapping Jay Steele, a former school administrator from St. Augustine, Fla., to become Metro’s associate superintendent for high schools. 

Steele, who reels off what he considers the benefits of academies with such ease it’s as if he’s reading them, said he was convinced of the value of the academies model at St. Johns County School District in Florida, where he led what came to be celebrated as a national model. He said the term “career academy” doesn’t aptly describe the Metro model because academies here are thematic — for instance, IB is a “theme” — and career-oriented. 

“The unfortunate thing over the last month is the message on what true academies are has been lost during the discussion,” Steele said. “That’s been the most upsetting thing to me, to see the direction some of the discussion has taken against academies. The hysteria out there that we’re trying to dumb down the schools or turn them into technical or vocational schools — that is so far from the truth.” 

Metro students entering high school for the first time begin their small-learning-community path by joining a Freshman Academy, which Steele describes as a “nurturing environment” in which teams of teachers are placed with separate groups of students. The freshmen academies offer interventions for struggling learners, enrichment opportunities for others and seminars on study skills, note-taking and post-secondary education. 

“If they can be successful that ninth-grade year, the chances of them dropping out dramatically decrease, and the chances of their success dramatically increase,” Steele said. 

In preparation for their sophomore year, students in each high school choose an offered theme and are divided into smaller academies that range in size from 150 to 450 students. One student at Cane Ridge High School could pick the Academy of Arts and Communication. Another could select the Academy of Architecture and Construction. Teachers of core classes like math, science, language arts and social studies are supposed to integrate those themes into lesson plans. Part of that means project-based learning: For example, an alternative fuels program at Whites Creek High School allows kids to actually create biofuel. Through that project, they’re learning lessons in chemistry and math — in context, supporters say. 

This sort of teaching has found a receptive audience among some students. Tyreke Ansah, a senior at Glencliff High School who is bound for the University of Tennessee next fall, said he worked on a project to make blue jeans more environmentally friendly. 

“It’s better than just us all going to a class where you sit down and open a book,” Ansah said. “This is something different, where you’re put into an atmosphere where you’re challenged to think and to grow.” 

 

The academies have alsobrought new partners to public schools. The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce has had unprecedented access to and involvement with the academies. Working alongside the nonprofit PENCIL Foundation, the chamber has helped partner companies and nonprofits with specific academies. In all, the chamber has assisted in bringing along more than 130 community partners, including recognizable names like CMT, Ford Motor Company and HCA. (SouthComm, parent company of The City Paper, is a partner — at Hillsboro, in fact.) Members of these organizations help with teacher externships, student internships and projects within corresponding academies. 

The school district also turned to the chamber for labor market statistics to determine what the job market might look like 10 years from now, and has created academies accordingly. That, Steele said, led Metro to close some of its “dead-end” programs, including several cosmetology academies. He said the district also looks at the current needs in the community and degrees offered in universities, all in the name of creating a “college and career preparation system.” 

“We wanted to create a seamless pathway from ninth-grade all the way through to a meaningful career in this region, because we want to keep our kids here, our best and brightest here in our universities, in our colleges, coming back and giving to the community,” Steele said. 

Marc Hill, chief education officer at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber’s role is to engage business leadership to support academies, adding that the model works best with full community involvement. He called the chamber a “natural fit” for the academies, adding that the chamber has determined that Middle Tennessee faces a shortage of skilled workers in the future. 

“Yes, you can recruit people to come relocate in Tennessee and Nashville to fill that need,” Hill said. “But you have unrealized potential when you’re not graduating kids from high school, and you’re not preparing them for college and a career.” 

Though many in Nashville are loath to voice criticisms of the academies program because of the reach of the chamber and its many partners, the subject of academies’ effectiveness has drawn a vast amount of research nationwide. 

A February report called “Pathways to Prosperity” released by the Harvard University School of Education notes a “skills gap” in which many young people lack abilities
to attain a middle-class wage, a trend that academies can help overturn. 

But there is uncertainty about whether academies are valuable as tools for academic achievement. 

The Harvard report references one of the most respected studies on career academies, performed by the education research nonprofit MDRC, which followed urban-area students longitudinally over a 12-year period, from eighth grade until eight years after their graduation. The study, which began in the 1990s, compared 60 students who took part in academies with a control group of 60 students who did not. 

“One question we tried to analyze was, what are the impacts on academic outcomes? Achievement test scores, high school graduation, going to college, staying in college, earning a degree,” James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, told The City Paper. “We found that the program didn’t have any effect on those outcomes — positive or negative.”

But Kemple’s research found what he calls “remarkable” and “significant” effects on post-secondary employment and earnings, labor results that did not compromise classroom achievement. Student in academies on average earned 11 percent more annually than their non-academy peers, he said. That added up to about $30,000 in eight years. 

“Not only that, but we found that the largest effects were among young men,” Kemple said. “And this sample of schools, because they were predominantly in urban areas and low-performing schools, were predominantly young men of color, African-Americans and Hispanics, which most research has found have a very difficult time of making a successful transition into the labor market.” 

In short, Kemple believes academies are pathways to college, but probably not any more than other programs. The real value of academies is in the labor market, he said, with students who range between the 25th and 75th percentile of academic performance benefiting most. 

“It’s the ones in the middle, the students who are identified as ‘the forgotten half,’ ” Kemple said. “The group that doesn’t get a lot of attention usually. ... They’re the vast middle.”  

15 Comments on this post:

By: BigPapa on 5/9/11 at 7:22

This is what I've said High Schools need more of, something that bridges the gap between school and the work place. Not the old "vo-tech" model where they just dumped the bad students, but something that could teach young people marketable skills.
More and more I think HS should look more like Nashville tech and less like the traditional class room.

By: howelln on 5/9/11 at 8:09

I think is fairly ridiculous to ask a 9th grader to make a career choice. They do not have enough experience. Most will choose based on what their friends are doing.

By: stepheniedodson on 5/9/11 at 8:37

The gap is to large to fill with career academy! And you are correct if you think a 14 year old knows what they want to be when they grow up. Metro misses the boat again! Mary Catherine Bradshaw and the IB program could fill that gap by giving all students the knowledge to open their eyes to a true world renown education. My child goes to Hillsboro High School with prostitutes and prodigies! Try to fill that gap. MCB did that and the fact that Metro takes a trained IB coordinator and places that IB award winning teacher in a school with out IB is a crying shame on Metro Public Schools!

By: BigPapa on 5/9/11 at 8:41

They're still getting the basics, but they're being shown that school and work are related. That's all.. they're not being trained to only do one thing.

By: Houston on 5/9/11 at 9:14

“It’s better than just us all going to a class where you sit down and open a book,” Ansah said. “This is something different, where you’re put into an atmosphere where you’re challenged to think and to grow.”

Problem is, when Ansah gets to college and he's asked to sit down and open a book, he'll be completely unprepared. This approach does NOT make sense as college prep, but it makes a lot of sense as vocational ed.

By: pkbj on 5/9/11 at 11:28

Mr. Garrison, I think your article is very descriptive of the issues our school system are now facing -- Chamber directing most of the academy push in public schools despite the fact the leading business CEOs don’t put their kids in public schools; our academies are thematic and career oriented according to Mr. Steele; and parents know that research states that academies have little impact on college bound kids. But one statement is incorrect. "Every public high school student" does not take part in academies. Hume-Fogg and MLK are public high schools and will not be changed to academies. We all know “why” and I certainly don’t advocate for this change. This issue is not about academies themselves as clearly some students are benefiting. It is about forcing a specific school to change direction just because the goal is to have all 12 comprehensive high schools redesigned into career-themed academies regardless of what the educational needs are in each district. It is about coming into schools and never asking, listening to or considering what teachers, parents and the community are wanting. It is about giving businesses and companies more say so than involved parents and teachers. It is about putting in programs with little thought to adequately trained faculty. At Hillsboro, the "flagship" elective course in one of the new academies has had 3 instructors, 3 English teacher and 3+ different subs between teachers. How long would you keep your kid in this program if you were planning on them going to college? If you have a choice, like the majority of families in the Hillsboro district, you would be going to an academic magnet, private school or finding a house in Williamson County! It is about Metro Schools saying they support an advanced academic program in all the local newspapers and doing too many things behind the scenes that say they don't support it at all. The IB program at Hillsboro has been growing and addressing the educational needs of a diverse student group since 2004...it was on its way to being available to any student who wanted a successful advanced academic liberal arts high school program which works for wealthy and low-income struggling students as well as advanced students. It should be the top pick for CEOs and employees of international companies moving into Nashville because of its reputation worldwide. It IS still there but current teachers are having to adjust to the lost of the key coordinator and teacher of both a senior IB history and IB English class (no new replacement is being hired) and most parents and teachers are hoping that it will continue to grow. But it will not as long as the administration is calling involved persons "hysterical" (as your article states) instead of sitting down with parents and teachers to discuss the real issues and problems facing this valuable option for all children in this district.

By: JohnGalt on 5/9/11 at 11:58

Leave things as they are but reinstate shop and home-ec. Problem solved.

By: nonstopmom125 on 5/9/11 at 12:19

What this article fails to mention is that not all of the Acadamies are offered at each of the high schools. This forces a student to have to select from the three or four offered at their school. Also, the options for students with disabilities has now become limited. These students can become productive citizens also.

By: Trumpetman on 5/9/11 at 12:24

I am a metro employee and problems with career academies are as follows:
1. I personally feel it is too early for a 9th grader to make a choice of what career academy they wil be a part of. Once they make their choice they can not change it. Even college students can change their major and minors as many times as they want because as a young person you may not know exactally what you want to do in life so soon.
2. The concept of career academies is a good idea, however, it is not a good idea that every school does not offer the same academies. Therefore, if your zoned school does not offer what you are interested in you have to choose from what career choice your school offers. Some schools offer as many as 5 academies and others offer a few as 2. I feel that each school should offer the same exact academies with numberous choices to choose from. 3. Why in the world are they getting rid of cosmetology??? I was told that Mr. Jay Steele felt that the profession did not make enough money so thats why it was taken out of high school. Cane Ridge has a brand new state of the arts cosmetology lab that was only used 2 years, what a waist, and the numberous of students who were in that class which was part of an academy.

By: David_S on 5/9/11 at 1:13

It's tough to really judge what the effects of academies are on metro public schools, because the school system is somewhat of a joke. Every year they graduate students who can barely read, others that can barely do simple math. A high school diploma from a metro school means relatively little (with a few exceptions).

If metro wants to get serious about education, they (the administrators) need to start by showing some backbone and refusing to pass students who didn't truly earn a passing grade. And politicians like Rep. Mike Stewart need to take a close look at IEP and IDEA itself, and how it's being applied to students currently.

By: Nitzche on 5/9/11 at 4:17

"KEEP HOPE ALIVE"

By: ncpreader on 5/10/11 at 6:14

The education system stinks and has continued to stink ever since forced desegregation. Everyone knows this. Why people are still beating their heads against a wall trying to fix something that wont' be fixed is still very sad. That is why our country has so many independent schools created by the "affluent". There are a handful of these public schools locally that are deemed safe enough to send upper middle class kids to learn. Only a handful. Deseg knocked out most of the extra public money from the public schools that would have kept them looking nice for their well behaved all-American kids. We now have to have cops patrolling the halls of public schools to keep the gangbangers at bay? That is not a good selling point to the upper middle class and affluent. Our kids will go where it is safe and the facilities are top notch. Oh, and we will pay for the nose for it. Since we are having to pay through the nose, do you think we want to spend an extra dime for public schools? No. Every extra penny of our money is going toward tuition to a school that was created back when we knew this was going to happen to our great public school system. Public schools were ruined by Brown vs. the board of education and we knew it would happen. Strike until they go back to true neighborhood safe schools.

By: Ex Civil on 5/10/11 at 7:38

I see the concept of academies, context based education, for those young adults not interested in college as the most valuable contribution that can be made to the students and society in general. The big and growing gap in our county is the lack of people with the skills and knowledge necessary to maintain the infrastructure that supports our society. It is time we stopped relying on the construction of new homes as the basis for our economy.
It has been some years since I taught instrumentation and controls at a technical junior college, the concept of academies in high schools appears to solve the number one problem I had in getting across the basic concepts and tools used in diagnoses and repair of those systems, arithmetic. The administration of the school I taught held academic PHD’s and were trying to turn the technical junior college in to an academic junior college. I wanted the students for my classes screened for basic arithmetic skills, not “Math,” just arithmetic. As an academically educated applied science graduate [engineer] I know and understand the calculus and differential equation that describe the movement of fluids through piping, vales and measuring devices, but I also know that only basic arithmetic (addition, subtraction, division and fractions) will suffice for analytical and diagnostic arithmetic a technician or repair person will need.

By: Ex Civil on 5/10/11 at 7:38

I see the concept of academies, context based education, for those young adults not interested in college as the most valuable contribution that can be made to the students and society in general. The big and growing gap in our county is the lack of people with the skills and knowledge necessary to maintain the infrastructure that supports our society. It is time we stopped relying on the construction of new homes as the basis for our economy.
It has been some years since I taught instrumentation and controls at a technical junior college, the concept of academies in high schools appears to solve the number one problem I had in getting across the basic concepts and tools used in diagnoses and repair of those systems, arithmetic. The administration of the school I taught held academic PHD’s and were trying to turn the technical junior college in to an academic junior college. I wanted the students for my classes screened for basic arithmetic skills, not “Math,” just arithmetic. As an academically educated applied science graduate [engineer] I know and understand the calculus and differential equation that describe the movement of fluids through piping, vales and measuring devices, but I also know that only basic arithmetic (addition, subtraction, division and fractions) will suffice for analytical and diagnostic arithmetic a technician or repair person will need.

By: Ex Civil on 5/10/11 at 7:38

I see the concept of academies, context based education, for those young adults not interested in college as the most valuable contribution that can be made to the students and society in general. The big and growing gap in our county is the lack of people with the skills and knowledge necessary to maintain the infrastructure that supports our society. It is time we stopped relying on the construction of new homes as the basis for our economy.
It has been some years since I taught instrumentation and controls at a technical junior college, the concept of academies in high schools appears to solve the number one problem I had in getting across the basic concepts and tools used in diagnoses and repair of those systems, arithmetic. The administration of the school I taught held academic PHD’s and were trying to turn the technical junior college in to an academic junior college. I wanted the students for my classes screened for basic arithmetic skills, not “Math,” just arithmetic. As an academically educated applied science graduate [engineer] I know and understand the calculus and differential equation that describe the movement of fluids through piping, vales and measuring devices, but I also know that only basic arithmetic (addition, subtraction, division and fractions) will suffice for analytical and diagnostic arithmetic a technician or repair person will need.