The Akron Public School district is making history this year: it’s transforming the way students are educated.
This fall, the district rolled out a College & Career Academies educational model in every high school. Officials say the success of an academies pilot launched at North High School in 2017 gave the district the green light to move forward "wall to wall."
Before learning about the academies model in 2011, Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James said he already knew high school needed to do a better job of preparing kids for the real world.
"I think historically as a district we've always said 'they've graduated we're done,'" he said. "But no -- that's just the beginning."
Through his own research, James learned that in Nashville, students' graduation and attendance numbers were climbing while detentions were dropping because of something called the "Academies of Nashville."
To take a closer look at the model, he took a group to Nashville.
"Their schools look exactly like us, their teachers look exactly like us, their students look exactly like our students," said Kenmore-Garfield High School Principal Kathryn Rodocker, who was in the group. "It definitely was one of the most impactful experiences I've had as an educator, to go down and see they're pulling it off and they're pulling it off well."
James knew to bring academies to Akron, he needed everyone on board - educators, students and their caregivers, local businesses and the community.
"Timing is everything and you know if you don't have all that support it isn't going to work, so I played the waiting game until the stars lined up," he said.
Learning by experiencing
Launched this year across the district, Akron's College & Career Academies are moving classrooms away from traditional test-taking and toward hands-on experiences and skill building.
"Our education process hasn't changed in 125 years," said Academies Director Rachel Tecca. "But the world our kids are graduating into looks completely different. So that educational experience has to look different for our kids, so they are ready to enter the world upon graduation."
The academies consist of pathways aligned with various career opportunities. But it isn't traditional vocational education.
"We're not trying to steer kids into careers," James said. "What we're doing is giving them exposure and experiences so they can take an interest area."
Choosing by interest area
Kenmore-Garfield High School Sophomore Amya Evans is pursuing a nursing pathway.
"Some people took culinary, some people did medical, so I kept going on the medical field," she said.
At North High School, Senior Destiny Perryman chose biomed from a number of pathways that include entrepreneurship, early childhood education and IT.
"Even though I don’t want to pursue biomed specifically, learning about the human body and everything could help me to become a physical therapist in the future," she said. "You're learning something that you’re interested in."
Perryman was hired for a paid internship last summer at Akron Children's Hospital, one of the district's named partners. Being a "named partner" means contributing thousands of hours of time and talent to the students in the academy that bears its name.
Akron Children’s College & Career Academy liaison Thomas Jefferson said the hospital system is all in.
"The highlight is how the hospital has opened its doors to the students and teachers and staff at North High School and been able to have that ownership, to say 'this is our school,' 'these are our students' and having that support from the top down," he said.
Strengthening the talent pipleine
The academies model is driven by Ford Next Generation Learning, a program of the nonprofit Ford Motor Co. Fund. Next Generation Learning focuses on education. More than 40 school districts in the United States and in Europe now have academies, with more coming on board.
Ford Next Generation Learning Executive Director Cheryl Carrier says business participation is central to the success of the academies.
"When students are engaged in real, authentic learning - especially if they're connected with employers - they begin to answer those questions, 'why am learning this' and 'why is it important to my future,'" she said.
Academies are structured to help strengthen the community's workforce. ConxusNEO, whose focus is on regional workforce development, played an integral role in developing Akron's academies. The nonprofit provided workforce data to help shape pathways that meet the needs of the local economy.
"What is really important to our community is that not only do we retain local businesses, but how might they grow?" said ConxusNEO Vice President Michelle Collins. "Because now they have access to a skilled talent workforce."
Akron shaped its academies based on Nashville's successful approach, but "Akronized" them, said North High Academy Coach Janice Weaver.
"We've taken it and ran with it, and we're going to greater heights than anyone anticipated," she said. "We might be one of the newest communities to come on board but we are definitely a trailblazer as well."
One of the ways Akron stands out from other school districts using Ford's academy model is the strong relationship between Akron schools and local businesses, said Ford Next General Learning Akron Coach Scott Palmer. He says the relationship is extraordinary.
"Organizations are now collaborators because it's the right thing to do for the students, it's the right thing to do for the city and the community, which ultimately then makes the prosperity such that it becomes the right thing to do for their company and their business," Palmer said. "They have done that here unlike any place I have seen in the number of communities I have coached."