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.”