What if schools improved their focus on helping students to prepare for a career that suits their passion while in their final years of schooling? That’s exactly what many schools in the U.S. are doing right now.
With an increased need for technological skills for employment, some schools have trailed and implemented programs that incorporate academic and technical skills into students education. West Florida High School of Advanced Technology is one of these and established by Escambia County Schools District to help prepare local youth for the workforce or further study in their chosen field. I was lucky enough to visit two weeks ago with the International Visitor Leadership Program.
Students apply in 8th Grade and of approximately 1000 applicants in the region, 400 are selected based on attendance, performance and behaviour in their junior high schools. The school only accepts intake in 9th Grade meaning no extra students may come, even if some leave.
When they arrive, students submit preferences based on their interest to be in one of 12 themed Academies. Each Academy has a specific focus, from communications to health or power management. This allows students to begin to experience what it is like to apply your learning in the real world and creates more meaning for their education. The Academies partner with local businesses and organisations, providing tailored work experience for students and some even have special classrooms built as a trial work site.
Academies still provide the standard education curriculum of other schools but students are grouped in Academies with the view of focusing their education around a theme. Final year students I spoke to were very happy about this approach and could tell me about the benefits it was giving them in applying for colleges and jobs for 2015.
The school was made possible by a start up grant from the local Department of Education but is a Public School and runs on the same funding as other schools in the region. Businesses have provided a great deal of financial and in-kind support to help make the practical side of the education possible.
Pros: Students said they were more motivated to study than their friends due to the fact they were already preparing for what they wanted to do after school. Providing a taste of a range of occupations in a themed area allows students to have a broader view of their career path. For example, students in health based Academies will see what it is like to be a paramedic, nurse, dentist, doctor, pharmacist and other careers. Local businesses are also able to focus their attention on a specific area of the school, knowing it will be valuable.
Cons: I think this is a great opportunity and students from other schools who miss out on the selection could benefit. The school didn’t have a strong social media presence and for an ‘Advanced Technology’ school they didn’t have coding or other more modern technological subjects. It was unclear how equitable the selection process was however it was clear that once a student met the entry requirements they were batched and put in a lottery selection system run separately by the Education Department.
Room for Improvement: I asked the Principal if they had a project based learning strategy, linking students english and maths subject content to a project related to their Academy. He said teachers sometimes work together on content but there was no strategy or project based learning approach, I think this would be great to see.
Highlight: The highlight for me was the Multimedia Academy environment. We had the opportunity to tour their media classroom where students were developing their own video. The classroom was fitted with a range of video cameras and a ‘green room’. This enabled the students to film weekly ‘school news’ including interviews with the Principal and senior staff members.
I was quite impressed by the different local collaborations set up by the school leadership team. The range of businesses they have supporting the school with internships, finances, practical skill development in classes and guest speakers was amazing. This has really helped to give students a helping hand when applying for college scholarships.
Overall, West Florida High School demonstrates to me that with a little additional funding, schools can be transformed from ordinary ‘high schools’ into environments where students can be provided with incentives to learn with a practical skill based approach. While many students have gone on to become doctors and engineers, others are given the confidence to enter the workforce straight after school.
Thans to the Principal, staff and students for having the IVLP group along. Special thanks to Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council for organising the trip.