Career Academies Baffle, Even as They Boost Coachella Valley Grad Rates

Career Academies Baffle, Even as They Boost Coachella Valley Grad Rates

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Image: Teacher Simon Moore speaks with a student at Coachella Valley High School's Health Careers Academy.

Ed. Note: In 2011, California’s legislature passed AB 790, a statewide initiative aimed at addressing the growing number of high school graduates unprepared or under-prepared for either college or a career. Studies document that up to 70 percent of high school seniors fall into one of these two categories. The initiative targeted 20 school districts and some 600,000 high school students across California. Schools implementing the Linked Learning Pilot Program – one of a number of school reform efforts in the state – integrate academic rigor with a demanding technical curriculum geared toward a professional field. In its first two years, the program has met with promising success. This is the third and final installment of a series of reports by New America Media’s ethnic media partners on how Linked Learning and similar programs are being applied in some of the state’s most underserved communities.

THERMAL, Calif. – This June, Stephany Madrigal will not only be graduating high school, but will be doing so as a certified medical assistant, qualified to enter the workforce and earn about $25,000 annually.

But she won’t be doing that.

Instead, she will attend California State University at San Marcos where she plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing. She hopes to work part-time as a medical assistant. She credits her academic success to Coachella Valley High School’s (CVHS) Health Careers Academy (HCA), a classroom-career training hybrid program often misunderstood even on its own campus.

“Other teachers and counselors that don’t have the buy-in or don’t have the understanding of what happens in the academies are some of our biggest problems, if you will, as we try to be more successful,” says Simon Moore, lead teacher for the HCA.

Academy students participate in a curriculum that includes job shadowing, internships, college visits, and regular progress checks with teachers – a luxury at a school with only nine counselors for its 2,300 students. While not part of the statewide Linked Learning Pilot Program, established in 2011, HCA's template is demonstrative of the success such programs are having in fostering both career and college readiness.

CVHS also offers academies in Hospitality, Tourism & Recreation, a Public Safety Academy, and a Digital Design & Production Academy. According to John Noonan, who oversees the academy programs, they graduate 99 percent of their students, far exceeding the 70 percent graduation rate of the school as a whole. There are about 900 students in the school’s academies.

Even so, Moore says the biggest misconception is that the academies are strictly vocational and do not prepare students for college.

Madrigal says this is not the case. Even though she was a straight-A student, she was not on the college track until she joined HCA. “It was one of my academy teachers that told me about the SATs,” she says. “My counselor never told me.”

In addition to close relationships with teachers, academy students develop close bonds with one another due to their mutual career interests. “Everyone in the health academy says this is like a big family.  It sounds cliché, but it’s actually what happens,” says Madrigal. “We are with each other every day, we get to know each other and our teachers; we have all their support.”

She adds that students help one another fulfill the academy’s community service requirement, 30 hours each school year, and that together they apply for scholarships and attend SAT workshops.

“All my friends are going to college,” says Madrigal.

It’s About Jobs

Along with other high schools in the region, Coachella Valley High School’s career academies are part of a broader collaborative economic development program.

“In order for our region to have a healthy, thriving economy, we must have great jobs,” says Kim McNulty, director of Next Generation Learning at the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership (CVEP). “In order to attract and grow companies who offer high-wage, high-growth jobs, you've got to have a smart, well-educated, well-trained workforce.”

In Coachella, high dropout rates and low college attendance have been the norm with just over 25 percent of residents having a four-year college degree.

While each of the area’s three school districts oversees their individual academy programs, CVEP supports their work with a regional strategic plan, community outreach efforts, and by bringing together the career academy teams with partners in the business community.

The academies take learning outside the classroom; job shadowing and hands-on exposure are powerful learning tools for students interested in exploring a specific field. Non-Academy teachers, however, are not as enthusiastic.

“We have teachers that complain about students being out of class one day a week for job shadowing … [but] they don’t get it. They think [students] are missing information – and they are – but you have to understand what they are gaining as well,” says Moore. “I hear students say their goal is to go to college. That’s not the goal. The goal is to get a job after finishing college in a career you want to work in.”

Before coming to the Health Careers Academy, Moore had a lengthy career in emergency medical services.

The academies are able to achieve their graduation rate even with an academically diverse student makeup. According to Moore, high academic achievers are programmed by educators to believe the academies will not help them reach their goals.

“A lot of teachers have this misconception because they don’t understand this [career] exposure,” says Moore. “[Academy students] are literally working with doctors, literally working with nurses, in laboratories, in all these different positions.”

But more and more of the school’s top students are enrolling in the academies. Two of last year’s top 10 graduates, including the salutatorian, were HCA students. “Every year we have had someone in the top 10. This year we have the potential to have three, which would be a record,” says Moore.

He estimates that half of his graduates go on to higher education, while the other half go directly into the workforce. California mandates that a minimum of 55 percent of students enrolled in career academies are “at-risk.”

Julia Salazar was one of these students.

Replicating the Family

“As a freshman, I didn’t do any work,” says Salazar. “My dad didn’t care if I went to college or not. [The Academy] helped me focus. I learned it’s important to get a college education.”

Salazar will graduate in June and plans to enroll at the local community college and become a Licensed Vocational Nurse.

“We have all types of students,” says Kent Braithwaite, a teacher in the HCA. “We have students who might not be graduating from high school and are now going to have professional careers as certified nursing assistants, all the way to future surgeons.”

According to Coachella Valley High School, only four percent of academy students have parents who have graduated from college. About 48 percent of students have parents who did not graduate from high school.

“I believe [these numbers] are an important factor as to why the academies’ small learning communities are important,” says Noonan, the school’s academy director.

“The academy program is absolutely perfectly suited for this type of community because the academy structure replicates the family,” says Braithwaite, who has been teaching here for 34 years. “In our community, in the Coachella Valley Unified School District, we are dealing with many shattered families who are challenged economically. The priorities are keeping a roof over the head and food on the table.”

Academy teachers are used to going to bat for their students and defending a program they believe prepares their students for the real world.

“To the naysayers, I say I challenge you to match the students who are only book smart with some of our health academy students that are 3.0 and above and have all these other skills, these interpersonal skills, interacting skills,” says Moore. “Our kids blow them out of the water 90 percent of the time.”

Brenda Rincon is a writer and the editor of Coachella Unincorporated, a youth-led community media project founded by New America Media to serve the rural communities of the Eastern Coachella Valley, an agricultural region in Riverside County, California. This story was made possible through a grant from the California Education Policy Fund.

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