In Wyoming, where the Education Drives America tour stopped Sept. 14, the career academy at Rock Springs High School is a model worth shouting about, because it graduates students who are truly both college and career ready.
There are two academies at Rock Springs – energy and health care – both carefully selected in consultation with local businesses to reflect the economic needs of Sweetwater County and the surrounding region. In Wyoming, the energy sector is vibrant – coal, natural gas, wind, and even uranium. And health care is a huge need in every community. So the decision about where to start was clear. Plans are in place to add two new academies in the next couple of years.
The students take all of the required core high school courses they need for college entry. But they also take a full complement of courses in their “academy.” So, from sophomore year on, science, English, etc. are theme-focused. There are specialized courses as well – many taught together with the local community college, so students get dual credit.
Every student does internships, and the internships are intense (and represent a big commitment from community members who are shadowed) – juniors and seniors are there every single week. The experience is rich. Interns get a deep sense of the workplace and establish connections and relationships that are meaningful and lasting. Most of the kids we talked to had gotten part-time paying jobs with people they had shadowed.
The teachers had a shared sense of mission. They were science teachers using career and technical education to make their teaching relevant. As one terrific teacher said, “In fields like health care and energy that require math and science, we have to show kids they can do this. We have to make math and science accessible. And we have to provide kids with places where it’s safe to fail – or they’ll never know they can succeed.”
One student said, “I didn’t realize I was interested in health care at all until I started at the career academy. I shadowed a nurse practitioner and now I have a job anytime I’m home for breaks. I’m studying to be a nurse.”
A parent told us about her son who earned a phlebotomy certificate as part of his health academy education. He’s now pre-med and is working his way through college being a phlebotomist–by far a higher paying job than he’d otherwise get, and it’s related to his field of study.
Another parent told us that her son is severely hard of hearing and that the health academy had opened a new world for him and changed his life trajectory. He’d only thought of health care professionals as doctors or nurses. But in the Rock Springs program, he was able to experiment with different options and find jobs that he could do well. “He’s a whole new person now,” she said, “empowered, and with a direction.”
An energy academy graduate, who’s now a freshman in college, said, “I have so much confidence and a direction about what I want to do with my future. I know so much [from high school] that I have a little bit of an advantage over the other kids in my college class.”
As a teacher concluded, “If each of us teaching in K-12 isn’t educating kids for a career, what are we in this for? Academic and career teaching and learning need to be on the same level of importance, and go hand-in-hand.”
Joanne Weiss is Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Education