South Gwinnett High teachers, from left, Terry Mouton, Phil Lawal and Andie McDaniel discuss preliminary decisions about the new “Academy at South Gwinnett,” which will begin in August. The school is one of five in Gwinnett that are implementing the academy model to better prepare students for college and careers after high school. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)
Beginning in August, students at five Gwinnett high schools will be exposed to career paths that will allow them to job shadow a professional, pursue internships and, above all, answer the age-old question, “How is this going to help me in the real world?”
The goal of these programs at Central Gwinnett, Lanier, Meadowcreek, Shiloh and South Gwinnett is to provide the students with work-based experience in some cases, college credit or professional certification and a plan for postsecondary education and a career.
The model is designed using three inter-connected “strands:” Teaching and learning, the transformation of the secondary school experience and the transformation of business and civic engagement.
It’s become a trend across the country in places like Nashville, Tenn., Pensacola, Fla. and Austin, Texas. Gwinnett teachers, administrators and senior district staff have visited schools in those cities to learn about the implementation process and answer questions.
“If you can make the educational process relevant to a student, they’re more apt to learn it,” said Terry Mouton, an academy lead teacher at South. “They may be more interested in those opportunities that come outside. They’ll be ready to be productive citizens of society. That’s what the goal is, to have productive members of our society after high school.”
President Barack Obama has visited the academy model in Nashville and referenced the concept in this year’s State of the Union address.
“We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career,” Obama said.
Inside the schools, the academies vary by location. At South Gwinnett, for example, the tracks are Public Service Law and Leadership, Health and Human Services, Media, Arts and Communications, Business Administration and Entrepreneurship and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Meadowcreek was awarded a $3.3 million three-year federal School Improvement Grant to implement “Meadowcreek U.” earned after school and district leaders explained how they would “transform education.”
Meadowcreek U. is made up of smaller schools within the building where students determine a major that is tagged to a college or university. The school has a partnership for international business with Georgia State University, for example, and Georgia Tech for science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
Once in an academy, students choose a pathway, which at Shiloh, for example, includes Video Production, Sports and Entertainment Marketing, Air Force JROTC, Teaching, or Gaming Development.
To develop the programs, district leaders used data from the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Department of Labor predictions of jobs that will have greatest need by 2020.
“At the forefront of what we do is graduating kids, and we forget too often that that’s our job,” said Jody Reeves, the district’s director of career and technical education. “Not just graduating them, but graduate them on time, and ready for college, career and citizenship.”
The district is trying to fight recent unemployment statistics that Associate Superintendent Jonathan Patterson recently reported to the Gwinnett County Board of Education that said high school dropouts had an unemployment rate of 12 percent, while high school graduates were at 8.1 percent.
Those who finished some college or had an associate’s degree were at seven percent, and a bachelor’s degree or higher had an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent.
The district’s also targeting graduation rates. In a letter to the community, Central Gwinnett Principal Maryanne Grimes said this model is one key to that improvement.
“We believe that moving to a schoolwide College and Career Academy model will allow us to accelerate our academic work, better prepare our students for college and careers, and improve the graduation rate,” she wrote.
The most recent graduation rates of the schools implementing the academy model are 73.1 percent for Central, 74.3 percent at Lanier, 54 percent at Meadowcreek, 72.2 percent at Shiloh and 78.9 percent at South.
Initial rollout of the program began at the start of this school year, and there was plenty of interest. At Central, 45 teachers requested to be on a steering committee.
Students at South Gwinnett are also looking forward to it.
“They are very excited,” Principal Eric Thigpen said. “Our current seniors are disappointed because they won’t get a chance to experience this. Our alumni wished they had an opportunity. Entrepreneurship is still very popular. We’ve seen good interest.”
Meadowcreek Principal Tommy Welch said he received the same reaction, and even teachers have asked what took so long to get to this model. Students have been surprised administrators are listening to them.
“This is something teachers anticipated or wanted to happen for some time,” Welch said. “Creating a vertical alignment for students to be successful. They’re beginning to tap into their passion. If I have a U.S. history teacher with a passion for the business aspect, I can bring that out and it’s OK. We can look at the lens of history through a business. They understand that this is cutting edge, this is what students need, it’s more relevant.”
The academy model also incorporates a partnership with the business community, and allows for teacher externships where teachers job shadow a professional during the summer and then relay information learned during that experience to students.
At Meadowcreek, members of the business community weighed in on the curriculum, and administrators asked them if a student educated in this format is someone they would employ or accept to a college or university.
“We are doing something that is not done often,” Welch said, “but when it’s done, student achievement increases, graduation rates increase, the whole sense of community pride and school pride really takes off.”