When Reinventing Isn’t Just a Catchphrase

new inventions for the school

So, what happens when county school superintendents, the mayor of the county seat, major institutions and companies big and small throw out the playbook for how secondary and post-secondary education was always run and join up on the same team?  It might just lead to reinventing an entire region and re-envisioning its future.

The Yadkin Valley Regional Career Academy in Davidson County – only in its second year of operation, but 10 years in the making – grew out of a conversation about the future of the county, sparked by the North Carolina New Schools initiative.  New Schools adherents commit to ensuring that every student graduates high school “ready for college, careers and life.”  Students in Davidson, and neighboring counties, though, were going in the opposite direction.

new knowledge will be gained by the Secondary School

Over the last decade Davidson County, which is part of the Piedmont Triad, lost 5,500 manufacturing jobs, primarily in textiles and furniture.  These were family-supporting jobs that didn’t require post-secondary education or training, which meant college-going was not a tradition.  Indeed, high school completion wasn’t necessarily a priority.  When those jobs moved off, and new jobs arrived, the workers weren’t prepared to take them on.

The “first response” effort was on re-engaging displaced workers through postsecondary education or certification.  But what about upcoming generations?  A culture of higher education striving and attainment doesn’t happen overnight.  It has to be built.

In collective impact fashion, Triad education, workforce, civic and business leaders came together to explore what kind of high school experience not only could overcome the education deficits many area students had, but also inspire students and their families to set their sights on learning beyond 12th grade, and prepare them to succeed on that path.  They believed that finding a new way to move their young people onto higher education was how they could reinvigorate their region and economy and sustain it into the future.

A group like this had never been tried in the county or region before.  There had been partnerships between workforce developers and community colleges, partnerships between schools and colleges and some collaboration between business and colleges.  But no one had attempted to harness public schools, businesses, workforce development, major non-profit institutions and the community college system to pull all together toward a shared goal.

As a first step, the school superintendents organized a road trip with business and elected officials for the self-styled Education Advisory Committee to observe new high school models in communities around the country and they studied models used abroad.  This time spent learning together had an added benefit of building a sense of cohesion that has served the group since.

Earlier in this space, we talked about the idea that solutions with the most potential to actually work embrace “the best stuff” from each of the players (See “Making Change Stick, September 18, 2013).  The Education Advisory Committee tapped into the best stuff principle.  Business people shaped curricula.  School systems shook up the rules about which students could attend and how to pay for it.  The community colleges found ways for students to earn credits while at the Academy.  High school teaching, scheduling and testing norms were upended.

For instance, students spend the first several weeks learning about themselves – assessing their personal strengths and weaknesses, identifying their interests and passions and figuring out what is their place in the school culture.  Business and institutional partners are responsible for devising and managing meaningful internships, job shadowing and workplace expeditions.  Teachers are called instructional coaches as a purposeful way to underscore that the adults and students are working together, as a team.  Grades are earned by accumulating career skills and traditional subject content throughout the school year and then demonstrating mastery at the end. And the subjects are as integrated as possible – science knowledge aligned with business principles, English and world history combined.

The Career Academy is heading into its second spring semester.  It now has a freshman and sophomore class, with recruitment and retention up for this year’s freshman class over the inaugural class.  It targets young people who will be first-generation college goers, drawing from 70% of the three school systems’ eighth grade population.  The learning and skill building is focused on the county growth sectors of advanced manufacturing, logistics, and health sciences and medical informatics.  State assessments at the end of last year showed a passing rate of 98% for Career Academy students.

The school district continues to provide the infrastructure for this experiment in engaging and learning and building a vibrant regional future.  But the Education Advisory Committee also continues to meet, to collaborate and to dream.

So, what happens when county school superintendents, the mayor of the county seat, major institutions and companies big and small…

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