Career Education | In Print

A Career Education Program That Gets Results

The career education program at Volusia County Schools in Florida breaks students into focused, school year-long career academies, in fields like robotics, finance, and agriscience.

Volusia County (FL) Schools' Career and Technical Education (CTE) program has a high school graduation rate of 95 percent. That beats the districtwide rate of 78 percent.

That's not all: The 4,500 students enrolled in 33 different career programs at 10 high schools have higher grade point averages in general (2.94 compared with a districtwide average of 2.71) and do better in Advanced Placement courses (3.12 in the career ed program, 2.86 districtwide). Finally, according to the school district, more than 85 percent of them have some kind of post-secondary education plans in place when they graduate (compared with 78 percent for the rest of the district).

Numbers don't explain everything, but they do demonstrate the success the Volusia district has had coupling academic and job training goals, and scholarship and project-based learning with experts from throughout the community.

Achieving this result has taken 16 years of thoughtful cultivation around a unique focus--viewing the school district as a "member" of the community. A long-term commitment to building ties between the school district and civic and business leaders has made education as much a part of Volusia County as parks or street fairs. Educators and businesspeople alike make sure the CTE students get hands-on experience in the workplace, plenty of exposure in the community, and a solid academic underpinning.

Rick Fraser, president of the Volusia Center for Business Excellence (a regional job training and recruiting agency), is one of the original business professionals who helped begin the partnership program. He is still a member of the program's business partner group called the Career Connection Cadre.

"It's often been said about our area that our biggest export is our kids," Fraser says. "They go through the public school system here, they go off to college, most likely away, and they never come back. The residents, the parents who live here, are looking to give their kids the opportunity to stay here if they want. They're not going to unless we can train them and encourage businesses to grow."

The career academy concept at the heart of the CTE program began as an economic development tool. Public education is certainly more than job training, and Volusia County didn't create a curriculum designed simply to crank out mechanics or computer programmers. The idea was to use the local business community as a platform on which to build a program that prepares students for post-secondary education in whatever form that takes, including on-the-job training.

Strong Academics
Depending on their overall career goals, Volusia's CTE program breaks students into focused, school year-long career academies, described on the district's website as "small learning communities that combine a college preparatory curriculum with a career focus." Housed within a high school setting, each academy focuses on a specific area of study--for instance, Law and Government, Engineering, Building Construction--that can lead either to post-secondary training in that field or employment after graduation.

Some sound fairly traditional--Culinary Arts, Agriscience, Finance--but others reflect the changing nature of the American economy--Plant Biotechnology, Simulation and Robotics, or Entertainment and Sports Marketing. Each must incorporate what Volusia officials call the "three keys" that qualify it as an academy:

An integrated curriculum: Each career academy must integrate at least one core academic subject like English, math, or science with a hands-on project related to its area of study for a minimum of nine out of the total 36 weeks of the program. Academies can choose to integrate a single, nine-week project or several shorter ones that students spend the same amount of time on.

When students in the engineering academy were learning about the science behind sound waves in their physics class, for example, their teacher asked them to research a musical instrument and then construct it.

"The kids made a trombone out of PVC pipes," explains Kelly Amy, a specialist with the program. "It showed how creative and unique these projects can really be, where teachers are excited to come up with out-of-the-box ideas to engage students and make their materials more relevant for students at all levels."

A pure schedule: For the integration of academics and hands-on training to be effective, students need to be able to work together in teams. The Volusia CTE program is organized around the concept of thematic instruction, in the form of so-called "pure schedules."

All scheduling starts with the student's specific interest. If she is studying culinary arts, then all of her classes must support and reinforce her pursuit of that course of study. At the same time, all the culinary arts students take the same classes in order to collaborate on projects.

"The students need to be in the correct courses in order for the integrated curriculum to deliver," Amy says. "They need to be in corresponding courses, so the same group of students that has physics also has to have that corresponding engineering class."

Common planning: Teachers get the time to work together as teams throughout the year too. This allows them to track the progress of students against academic objectives and specific projects. When students are struggling, for example, a particular topic can be retaught or maybe an outside speaker can be brought in. The team is able to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise and manage the process of teaching in non-traditional ways.

Community Commitment
One career academy, Information Technology and Robotics, housed at Spruce Creek High School, started out in 2007 as an after-school project for students interested in participating in the FIRST Robotics international competition, in which teams of students build robots that will compete against other teams. That project led to a complete curriculum focused on technology--and it couldn't have happened without the help of the local business community.

Businesses help raise the $5,000 annual entry fee (none of the project fees come out of the school budget) and local professionals mentor the students through the design process.

"The Career Connections Cadre is a large group of people who are educators, economic development folks, and our business folks. They're the umbrella of all this activity," says Fraser, "but each academy has an advisory council focused around that particular academy."

Cadre and advisory council members assist students by providing internships, serving as judges for competitions, offering scholarships, and mentoring inside and outside the classroom. They also help with fundraising for special activities. But most important to the students, they offer "real world" expertise that makes the classroom work relevant.

"FIRST Robotics is the biggest robotics competition in the world. We found our kids were learning a ton of stuff," says Dru Urquhart, director of the Academy of Information Technology and Robotics, "doing the math that was involved, the electronics, the physics--everything that's involved from taking a robot from inception to the finished product.

"We have engineers from the community that show up every afternoon. They come in and work with the kids until 5, 6, 7 o'clock at night showing them how an engineer works in the real world."

Setting the National Standard
The partnerships aren't just local either. The Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies: Next Generation Learning (NGL) works with the Information Technology and Robotics academy. In 2007, Volusia County was named a Next Generation Leadership community for embodying the principles of the partnership's mission statement: to form alliances between "K-12 schools, businesspeople, postsecondary educators, and community leaders, mobilized to reform education and stimulate local economic development."

"We learned a lot from Volusia," says Cheryl Carrier, director of the Ford Motor Company Fund's NGL initiative. "Businesses engaged in meaningful ways. They felt responsible for these students and, if they wanted their community to be prosperous and wanted their students to flourish, they needed to be involved in helping to shape education."

She said that was demonstrated in large part by some of the digital resources the academy used, including a webinar series on progress monitoring and a wiki space. The latter serves as an information clearinghouse with blank forms, career academy standards, training videos, and more, making it possible for anyone interested in learning about the programs to access resources in a single location.

"Volusia really has systems in place," Carrier says. "They have a superintendent who was really engaged and excited about this. They knew that they wanted to do it with high quality."

While any program has any number of measures of success--from graduation rates to the quality of resources used in the educational process--it ultimately comes down to the students. Do they find the programs meaningful? Are they coming back to Volusia County to stay?

Current students give the program high marks, with the 2011 CTE student survey providing both statistical and anecdotal examples. Using a scale of one to five (five being excellent), 80 percent of students rated their academy experience as a four or five.

"At first I didn't want to participate in the academy because I thought it was pointless, but now that I have been in it for three years, it has been a big part of my life!" wrote an 11th grader in the Academy of Finance at Spruce Creek High School.

Leesa Holloway, a teacher and director of the Academy of Finance, believes her 14-year-old program benefits from the businesspeople who provide her students with the bridge between theory and practice. An affiliation with the National Academy Foundation has helped the program develop over time so that students get more than accounting classes and training in business software, Holloway says. The professional staff development offered by the organization to educators ultimately benefits the students because it expands the network of people students can reach. And in the end, her kids come back with solid feedback, proving that all the goals of educators, civic leaders, and businesspeople are being met.

"We've had a number of students come back from being in college and say that the preparation that they made in high school has helped them tremendously in the college arena," Holloway says. "They feel like it has better prepared them for degrees and coursework at the college level."

Career Networking for Kids

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" might be the wrong question to ask kids. That's because up to 50 percent of the jobs today's high school students will do don't even exist yet, according to Mark Grayson, founder of Rocket21, a career networking site aimed at middle schoolers.

Still, it's almost never too early to help students figure out what they care about, even if it's hard to identify a specific job they might do.

"We're interested in helping kids engage in an area of passion or interest," Grayson says. "There's plenty of research that shows that when kids find a domain that's engaging it has all kinds of benefits and spillover effects in terms of their learning."

There are resources to help them with that, like the nonprofit Junior Achievement, a collection of local programs led by community volunteers that introduce the concepts of workforce readiness, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy to students, starting in kindergarten.

Similarly, Grayson's Rocket21 serves as a virtual career fair that allows kids to explore professions in a multimedia environment. A public beta test that Rocket21 started in the summer of 2011 has signed up more than 2,000 kids from around the world as members who can then communicate with industry experts and their peers. The search function takes a member to a page populated with a list of professionals in a particular field--for instance, if a student has an interest in culinary arts, he or she might be connected with a chef--in addition to providing blogs, photos, documents, audio, and videos. 

"Rocket21 is a social network that enables kids to explore their interests and passions, their dreams for the future, and helps them connect with world-class experts who can help make those dreams happen," Grayson says. "And it helps kids connect with other kids who have similar interests and passions."

Groups are created based on the "top three obsessions" and "10 areas of interest" selected in a member profile, but anyone can pose a question to a pro and get a response. While the number of pros involved at this point is rather low, a recent partnership with NASA indicates the list will be growing, Grayson says.

"We're trying to help kids understand that these interest areas…are really populated with a very broad range of people doing very interesting things," he explains. "They might not end up in the NBA, but they might end up as a sports attorney or communications marketing person or running a chain of concession stands."

The site only allows public communication. It complies with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, and filters and online monitoring ensure members are protected from "bullying, inappropriate content, and unsafe interaction," according to Grayson.