Posted: Nov 29, 2012 9:13 AM by Julia Manning
Updated: Dec 10, 2012 12:09 AM
JEFFERSON CITY - Jefferson City Public Schools is revamping its curriculum and turning toward a career academy model for its high school. The new model includes seven academies made up of around 300 to 500 students each studying similar material that interests them. Students will stay with their "academy" all four years of high school.
On Oct. 1 Superintendent Brian Mitchell announced the purchase of 120 acres of land for the construction of a new high school. The land, located centrally in the districts boundaries off of Highway 179 and Mission Drive, cost the district about $3 million and is estimated to be a $70 to $80 million project. In a news conference Monday the district announced Lincoln University and Linn State Technical College agreed to pay the district a combined $10.1 million for the current high school and Nichols Career Center property.
The board of education expects to put a bond and levy vote on the April 2013 ballot to fund the project. If the community supports the project, the Academies at Jefferson City High School would be the largest school in the state with more than 2,600 students. However, administrators have been working on the career academy education plan for more than three years and feel it could help make those large numbers feel smaller.
"When we interviewed seniors we were finding that 50 to 60 percent didn't feel a connection to their school," said David Luther, Assistant Superintendent for School Community Relations. "If they don't feel connected they don't do as well, we see larger dropout rates etc., so we started looking at what we could do to make a relatively large high school and break it down to make it smaller. The more we read we saw the academy concept and we liked it."
The district has been considering various options for expansion as student population continues to spike. Overcrowding at the Simonsen Ninth Grade Center has been a growing concern. Simonsen currently houses 645 students, well beyond its 525 capacity. With current kindergarten enrollment reaching 700 to 800 students, the problem is due to increase.
"The ninth grade center is going to be a real problem for us," Luther said. "That building is over 100 years old and it's already beyond capacity, so we must address that as a community."
The Academy model, currently in practice at more than 7,000 districts nationally, would create seven "schools within a school" with approximately 300 to 500 students each. The campus will also include soccer, football, softball, baseball, tennis, track and field and band practice facilities. The school would be the first full wall-to-wall academy high school in the state. JCPS developed the academies based on the career paths developed by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's work with the Missouri Career Education, Missouri Career Source, and other organizations. Students will have the choice from the following academies with the example career paths —
Selecting your path of choice after your eighth grade year seems soon to some, but Luther said the process will be anything but abrupt.
"The students will spend fifth through eighth grades talking about the different academies, talking about career choices, doing interest surveys with their counselors," Luther said. "We'll have parent nights, and educate everyone about what's ahead."
Luther stressed the breadth of the academies and flexibility students will have within them. For example, if a student is in the health services academy but wants to take a foreign language class, they can work with their counselor to take a "Singleton" class in the global studies academy. Students will be asked to stay in their choice academy for at least one year, but will have the opportunity to transfer academies — an option Luther said research has shown about 5 percent will do.
Many who oppose, or are hesitant to the model feel it pigeon holes students. Luther said this won't be an issue in Jefferson City.
"Even though it's a career themed academy it's still a fairly broad education, " Luther said. "If a student starts in technology and they conclude after four years they decide to go to college for something different they should be prepared to do it."
Community members and parents have varying opinions on the academies, but PTA/PTO city-wide president Brenda Hatfield said overall, throughout several meetings on topic, there is a shared belief the district needs change.
"I'm very excited about the opportunity it gives ours kids," Hatfield said."It's really about preparing the students of today for tomorrow as opposed to how we typically educate students which is with the model that I was educated with, and my parents were educated with. Yet, the world that my kids are facing is significantly different. I'm very excited we're moving toward educating kids for the future."
21st Century Learning
Luther said the district is committed to the academy model, with or without the new building.
"If we have a new facility the academies are in a position to be more successful," Luther said. "But if for some reason the community didn't support the new facility, we feel we can use the existing facility but it will take a lot of work. Quite frankly, it will create some real challenges for us. It will be tricky but it can be done."
JCPS is already implementing components of the 21st century learning method in its curriculum, including an emphasis on project-based learning throughout schools at all levels in the district. Integrated courses such as a biology literature course, are also being offered at the high school and are projected to be implemented at the middle school in 2014. Luther said the philosophy behind the technique is to add a relevance component for students so they will be pushed to use all of their skills to solve a problem. Teachers have noticed positive results in the learning the shift.
"I love it," said Jacob Adams, high school industrial technology teacher. "My kids totally took off with it and came up with some amazing stuff for their projects."
Adams is one of 32 staff and community members serving on the Secondary Planning Committee. The committee is charged with developing a plan to implement and execute the academy model for the district. He feels as a teacher the shift has, and will continue to provide new opportunities.
"There's been great professional development opportunities so far," Adams said. "(At the Academies) just being on a team with people I've never met before will be a huge benefit. There's going to be a lot of opportunities for students and teachers to get involved with student organizations we might not have had the chance to do in the past."
In the academy model, students will remain with the same group of teachers and peers in their classes for all four years of their high school experience. This opportunity to build close relationships is one other academy schools around the country have found successful, and many teachers like Adams are excited for.
"I will be able to meet parents multiple, multiple times," Adams said. "With different people I've talked to in other places that have been doing this for years, they know everything about their kids, they know them on such a higher level than just their names."
Some students don't necessarily see this as a positive.
"I like the diversity we have with a large class," freshman Haley Watson said. "It's given me the opportunity to make friends with different groups of people with different interests than me who I would have not otherwise met."
A core principle of the career academy model is to instill both career, and college readiness in students. According to a report by the College and Career Academy Support Network at the University of California, Berkley, career academies aim to provide the kind of academic preparation that will give as many students as possible the option of attending college.
"It's going to totally change career readiness, " Adams said. "Instead of spending two years and $30,000 deciding you don't want to be a scientist you can come into school with potentially a large number of credits and come in and say I know what I want to do, I'm focused, and I have a career path I enjoy."
Luther said the academy model will also help in the district's efforts to continue to improve graduation rates. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's District Report shows the district has improved from a 79.7 percent graduation rate in 2008 to 84.9 percent in 2011, compared to 2011 state average of 87 percent.
"This was a big factor for us," Luther said. "Our dropout rate has declined over the years and we're happy about that, but it's more than just making sure your kids are graduating. It's really making sure they're graduating and they have something next, they're career and college ready. If we're not preparing kids for that we're not doing what we're supposed to be doing."
Community Involvement and Response
Another large component to the academy model is the partnerships with local employers, colleges and community members it will create. In August, more than 40 business leaders from Jefferson City met with school officials to start planning the partnerships. Beginning their freshman year, students will have the opportunity to begin business mentorships and throughout their high school years will be able to complete paid internships, on-the-job training and job shadowing with local businesses.
While the board of education supports the construction of a new building to accommodate the academy style learning, some community members think otherwise. 1978 Jefferson City graduate Dan Ortmeyer is the leader of the Citizens for Two Public High Schools coalition, who feels building an additional high school is a better option to provide more opportunities for students.
"We feel the academy model is an issue that should be left up to the educators," Ortmeyer said. "But it would be the largest high school in the state... How big is too big? Is the question we want to discuss. If bigger is better, why wouldn't Columbia and other schools be doing it? We feel there will be more opportunities for kids in two separate schools."
Luther said the district doesn't necessarily oppose the concept of having two high schools.
"As an administration we don't feel two high schools is a bad idea," Luther said. "It doesn't fit as well into the academy concept and frankly it's more expensive."
Ortmeyer's group plans to address the board of education with its concerns at its Dec. 10 meeting, where Ortmeyer said they are hoping for a good discussion.
Many community members are divided on their opinions of the career academy model. According to a September survey of 400 randomly selected households in the district, conducted by Patron Insight, when asked how they supported the idea to build a new, single high school facility and stadium and move ninth-grade students into the building, 47 percent said they would either "strongly favor" or "favor" the concept. A total of 29 percent said they would "oppose" or "strongly oppose" it, while 19 percent said they were undecided/didn't know.
Mitchell is expected to present a more formal and detailed proposal of the project to the board of education at a December meeting. The board is expected to include the bond and levy vote to finance the project on the April 2013 ballot. The district believes an approximately $.55 increase in property taxes will be needed to build the new high school. If supported, the new building is expected to be open for students in the fall of 2016. Regardless of a new building, the implementation of the academy model will follow a similar timeline.