Eleven years ago, the small town of Mountain Home, Ark., wagered that transforming its traditional American high school into something new would yield dividends to the wider community.
The transformation involved creating three new "wall-to-wall career academies."
Today, the people involved in the transformation - and it appears nearly everyone is, from the community's skinny teenagers to its CEOs - are still excited about the odds for success, and the wins, they are seeing on the tote board.
The high school's methodology has been touted on CNBC. Its students have earned first prize in a global competition for building a deadly accurate, basketball-shooting robot. And, students score above national averages on standardized achievement tests, as well as on Advanced Placement tests and the ACT.
With 850 students in grades 10 through 12, the school has three academies: ACME stands for "Architecture-Construction-Manufacturing-Engineering," CAP stands for "Communication Arts and Business," and HHS stands for "Health and Human Services."
Although Mountain Home teachers don't consider academies a magic bullet for curing student apathy, they do see them as a way to reveal the relevance of what students are learning by applying those lessons to the world of work.
"I think what I see is it helps our kids have a place to belong; it gives them ownership of their school," said Kathy Wham, leader of the CAB Academy.
Academies on a shoestring?
Mountain Home is not a wealthier school district than Jefferson City, Mo.
The median income for a family in Mountain Home is $34,895, compared with $52,627 for the Capital City, although the same number of people - about 11 percent - live below the poverty line in both communities.
The building itself is not a monument to impressive architecture. Like thousands of other high schools in America, several different eras of expansion - starting in the 1960s - are visible.
The community did not expend a great deal of money to implement the academies. Instead of building science labs in three separate parts of the school, they asked the science faculty what they absolutely had to have to teach their classes. As it turns out, a source of water is vital to teaching subjects like biology. And so instead of building new laboratories in the CAB Academy, they located the science classrooms near the bathrooms.
Mountain Home also is still committed to meeting the state's testing requirements.
For example, students who score "proficient" or "advanced" on the state's standardized exams enjoy the luxury of arriving at school at 9 a.m. on Wednesdays. Students who are still working toward those goals arrive at 8 a.m. for remedial work.
Doing so affords teachers in two of the academies a weekly common planning time - used to plan curriculum and activities - while the third cohort helps students catch up.
"It's very, very important for teachers to see each other," Assistant Principal George Sitkowski said.
Measures of success
Administrators in Mountain Home believe the career academies have allowed them to move the needle on accountability measures such as the dropout rate and ACT scores. For instance, the 2011 dropout rate was 2.6 percent in Mountain Home, compared with 5 percent in Jefferson City. Mountain Home's composite ACT score - 22.3 - is one point higher than Jefferson City's.
According to the National Coalition for Career Academies, research data indicates high school students who graduate from career academies make on average 11 percent more per year than their non-career academy counterparts. Young men, a group that has faced a serious decline in earnings in recent years, make 17 percent more annually than young men who did not graduate from career academies.
The idea for academies surfaced when business leaders brought concerns to school administrators that Mountain Home was not retaining its young people. Faculty also were frustrated about a lack of discipline and rigor in the curriculum.
"We're in a rural setting, our industries are limited," Principal Dana Brown said. "They came to ask how we, as educators, were trying to keep our workforce here."
A team of stakeholders - people on the school board, school administrators, faculty - traveled to South Grand Prairie, Texas, to learn how that district did it.
"Once you drink the Kool-Aid, you're hooked, because you see how it's relevant in action," Brown said.
The team ended up writing a grant and working closely with the Arkansas Department of Education. There, waivers normally used by charter schools gave Mountain Home the flexibility it needed to create common teacher planning times and flexibility scheduling, which made the academies idea workable.
Parental, community support
Bridgitte Shipman, Mountain Home's career academy coordinator, attributed that success to partnerships forged with the community.
"The reason small learning communities, or career academies, have been sustained in a rural area is because of our community support," she said.
She noted other school districts have created academies, but they were not successful, primarily because they were implemented without an adequate amount of local research. Shipman said it's important to evaluate what jobs are available locally and where students' interests lie.
One of Mountain Home's largest employers is Baxter International Inc., a health care company that manufactures products - such as the plastic bags and tubing one sees in hospitals - used to treat kidney disease and other chronic and acute medical conditions. With annual sales of $13.9 million, the company has plants worldwide.
Last Wednesday, a few dozen high school students toured the Baxter plant to learn more about the high-tech manufacturer's methods. (Engineers at the plant sponsor the school's world-champion robotics team, the Bomb Squad.)
The massive plant is filled with robots. Senior Caleb Reed was impressed. "I like technical stuff," he said, adding he likes the idea that the plant is willing to train its workers.
Shipman said it's important for planners to base their academies on the needs, and the offerings, of area business partners.
In Mountain Home, 100 adult mentors have stepped up to donate their time. But other major employers - like Baxter, Wells Fargo and the local hospital - are also at the table.
Shipman said the goal not only is to prepare students for the workforce, but to keep them in the community by anticipating the needs of local business leaders.
"We have more parental and community support than 95 percent of the schools in the state, in my opinion," Assistant Principal George Sitkowski said.
It all begins in ninth grade
As in Jefferson City, Mountain Home High School lacks the space to house all four grades. "Our ninth grade is at the junior high. We wish we had space," Sitkowski said.
To address the needs of the ninth grade, the district has created a "keystone class" taught by freshman transition leader Jodi Tejcek. The curriculum asks students to take personality inventories to determine what careers might suit them best. The students also study the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens, based on the teaching of author Sean Covey. They also listen to guest speakers and go on three field trips.
The ninth-graders are also asked to research the projected job growth of various industries in 2020 - four years after they graduate high school.
"Right now, technology is No. 1, and the health profession is No. 2," Tejcek said.
"I say to my students all the time: "I'm not asking you to choose a career.' Because when ninth-graders walk through my door, they usually want to be an athlete, a rock star, a doctor or a lawyer ... and make lots of money," said Jodi Tejcek, the freshman transition leader charged with helping students select an academy. "That's great. But I am trying to get them to think about: What do they like? What interests them? Do they like technology? Do they like helping people? Can they handle blood? It's very empowering when they realize: If I take these classes and I work hard, I can get a scholarship," she said.
Students may start their experience with Tejcek's keystone class as freshman, but they end their high school career with a capstone class as seniors. There, they explore opportunities for their post-secondary adventures.
It's a question of learning styles
Over and over again, both faculty and students talk about the wisdom and benefits of matching educators' teaching styles with students' learning styles. Although their career interests are the key reason why students are encouraged to attend the academy of their choice, learning styles are a close second.
Chatty students who love to perform and work in groups are often guided to become "cabbies," or members of the CAB academy. Students who prefer to work with their hands feel most comfortable in the ACME Academy. And students who thrive in a traditional school setting - think note-taking, lectures and tests - tend to do well in the Health and Human Services Academy. The latter academy tends to be the largest by 20 or 30 students.
"I love that learning styles are matched with teaching styles," senior Caleb Hoffman said.
Tejcek noted a person's fundamental personality isn't going to change much throughout life, but his or her career is likely to change seven or eight times.
"Who you are really isn't going to change that much between your ninth-grade year and your 12th-grade year. That's going to change seven or eight times. That's a big bulk of beginning academies.
How does it work?
Here are a few facts explaining the moving parts of the Mountain Home academy:
• If students are interested in a class in another academy, students are allowed to take it. And students from all the academies mix with one another in the school's many electives, such as choir and band.
For example, Hoffman is a "cabbie," but he wanted to take an ACME class that teaches "Environmental and Spatial Technology."
"We can cross over academies," explained a classmate, senior Macey Kemp.
• If an academy proves to be an imperfect fit, and a student wants to change, each spring administrators allot a window of time for transfers for the next fall. But once an academy is selected and a contract is signed, students rarely elect to move. Out of the more than 800 teens who attend the high school, fewer than 10 students elect to transfer yearly.
• Mountain Home hasn't seen a problem with all the "smart" kids congregating in one place, although more male students with rural roots have gravitated to the ACME Academy, which includes aspects of traditional votech education.
"You can't really define smart," said Megan Cantrell, a 17-year-old senior in the Health and Human Services Academy. "A guy might dress like a cowboy, but if he learns a trade, he might make a really good living," she said.
In this accompanying audio clip, News Tribune reporter Kris Hilgedick interviews Mountain Home, Ark., educators who work at a three-academy high school.
What's on Jefferson City School District's ballot
On April 2, Jefferson City School District voters will be asked if they want to issue general obligation bonds, which would increase local taxes an additional 30 cents, funding district leaders hope to use for the construction of a new high school - designed with seven career academies in mind - to replace the existing one on Union Street.
At the same election, voters also will be asked to raise the district's operating tax levy by 25 cents.
If both issues pass, property tax owners would pay an additional 55 cents. The current tax rate for the Jefferson City School District is $3.6770 per $100 of assessed valuation.
• Bond issue: The 30-cent increase would generate a revenue stream that would allow the district to issue $70 million in bonds, money that would be used to build the new high school east of Missouri 179 and a new elementary school on the city's east end. The new elementary school would replace existing East Elementary School, and the old building would be used to house the Jefferson City Academic Center, which currently has a waiting list.
Architects' early conceptual designs of the new high school anticipate the construction of separate buildings to house the seven "career academies" - each devoted to a different professional career path.
However, even if voters don't approve funding for the new building in April, the Jefferson City Board of Education has determined the district will move forward with the academies concept. The new academies are not expected to be open until the fall of 2014, or possibly later.
• Levy increase: The 25-cent increase in the operating tax levy would generate an additional $2.5 million for the district, money school board leaders want to use to improve transportation for high school students; purchase additional security equipment; offer more professional development opportunities for faculty; and buy additional technology.