Monday night's "Academy Jamboree" drew reactions ranging from excitement to apprehension and criticism from some of the several hundred parents and their eighth-graders who came to learn about the new educational system that will start with public school freshmen next fall.
"I like the idea," said Jennifer Patterson, an eighth-grader at Lewis and Clark Middle School. "It's really cool how students get to pick the academies based on their interest."
Dawn Patterson, her mother, said: "I think it's kind of exciting being in the first group to get to do it."
Other opinions differed: "I'm scared because I don't like being the guinea pig class," said Laura Payton, whose daughter Kayelee is in her final year at Lewis and Clark. She likened the academies concept to starting "a little college in high school."
Kayelee said she's interested in enrolling in the human services academy, because she's considering a career in cosmetology. Her mom said she's also had an interest in being a teacher.
"I think it's kind of quick for us to do this, because we're still really young," Kayelee said, adding that the concept would be good "when we get a little older."
Jefferson City Public Schools (JCPS) will start the academy model next fall with the freshman class at Simonsen Ninth Grade Center. It keeps core subjects, but lets students pick an area of concentration. The seven academies are: agriculture; food and natural resources; human services, industrial engineering and technology; health services; fine arts and communication; business, management and technology; and global studies.
Tom Treiman, whose son Bram will enter Simonsen from Lewis and Clark, said he was impressed with the effort the district put into the event and the enthusiasm of the teachers. "That said, they haven't planned out the process for four years," he said. "It's very hard for an eighth-grader to make a decision when they can't really answer the question of what courses will be in an academy in 10th grade" and beyond.
Myron Graber, director of secondary education for JCPS, has said that academies will help students explore their interests and better understand their learning styles. They'll also get suggestions about possible career interests, he has said. Academy critics say that high school students should have more of a liberal arts education and aren't yet ready to narrow the focus of their studies.
Academy supporters have said that a partnership with local businesses is crucial - business involvement in the instruction makes the learning more enriching and engaging. At Monday's jamboree, the seven academies were represented by booths staffed by high school teachers, counselors and professionals in various fields related to their respective academies.
"I like it because it will help us to have a future and be prepared," said Lewis and Clark eighth-grader Adam Allsbury. His mom, Phyllis, said: "It's kind of scary because I don't know how they will divide Simonsen in seven sections."
Scott Patterson said the district has told families that students can rank their choices for academies, but that the district will also have to keep roughly equally-sized academies while also balancing demographics such as race, gender and socioeconomic status. So not all children will get one of their top picks, he fears.
Still, he and his wife were mostly optimistic.
"I think tonight's a great event - being able to meet pros in the fields. We appreciate this opportunity," Dawn Patterson said.
Kris Hilgedick of the News Tribune contributed to this story.