Ky. academies already prepare students for careers

Student Mayra Lugo worked on an acrylic painting at the Academies of Bryan Station following a November reception designating Lexington as a Ford Next Generation Community.
Student Mayra Lugo worked on an acrylic painting at the Academies of Bryan Station following a November reception designating Lexington as a Ford Next Generation Community.

For some time, Herald-Leader contributor Tom Martin has called for a better-educated workforce to secure Kentucky’s economic future. Recently a column by Council on Postsecondary Education President Bob King, decrying Kentucky’s elimination from competition for Amazon’s next major expansion, made a similar plea.

Among King’s points were the need “to get more of our youth and working-age adults more highly educated” and prepare them to be the “creative thinkers, strong leaders and collaborative team members” today’s industries need.

I could not agree more, but what if we started this educative process in high schools? Let’s imagine what such schools would look like.

Imagine each student entering high school by choosing a learning pathway based on his or her own interests. Imagine those pathways delivering rigorous academic instruction to prepare students for college, but doing it through the lenses of chosen career fields. And imagine if the learning pathway combined rigorous academics with career technical education.

Wouldn’t school be more relevant? Wouldn’t students be more likely to attend? Wouldn’t they be more likely to see the connections between school and life?

Imagine industry professionals from career fields inviting students into the workplace for meaningful learning experiences. Imagine those professionals working with teachers to plan instruction using real-world examples. And imagine students being assessed on mastery of academic content standards as they applied them to solve problems from the career field.

Wouldn’t students be more likely to emerge with useful skills? Wouldn’t they graduate with a better idea of what they might want to study (or not study) after high school?

Good news: These schools are not just a figment of the imagination. Over 1,500 such pathways exist in schools serving nearly 1 million students across 36 states, including Kentucky. Three high schools in Lexington follow this model, called the Academies of Lexington, along with 11 in Louisville, and similar formats across the commonwealth.

Even better news: Studies conducted over the past decade across the country reveal that, compared to peers in traditional high schools, students in these pathways have better attendance rates, higher test scores on some state assessments, take more courses for university admission, higher graduation rates and enter postsecondary education at higher rates.

These benefits are even more pronounced for traditionally underserved students and for English learners. Those concerned about “employability skills” will be pleased to know that students from these pathways display greater personal responsibility, better communication skills, better collaboration skills and greater persistence than their peers in traditional high schools.

Those interested in economic growth will be pleased to know that pathway graduates earn higher incomes and are more likely to hold jobs that provide benefits than those from traditional high schools.

Cities from Long Beach to Houston to Nashville to Detroit have adopted this school format, and Lexington should nurture its academies as part of overall plans for sustained economic growth. Learn more about the Academies of Lexington at academiesoflex.com,

Jared Stallones is a professor of education at the University of Kentucky.