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Reshaping education: Guilford County Schools rolls out new academies to focus on in-demand careers


Osman Medrano and Coreyon Durant dream of becoming professional athletes, but they also have a backup plan: a future in computers and technology.

The two will begin their high school careers Monday as students at the new Academy of Computer and Information Science at Northeast High School, one of five “signature academy” career education programs that Guilford County Schools is introducing this year.

School system officials, with backing from local college and industry partners, see setting students on the path to career fields that have a huge need for qualified employees as a high priority — and one that can’t wait.

To make these career academies a reality, six months after they were first approved, the school system has been painting classrooms, purchasing computers and furniture, hiring and rearranging staff, working on curriculum, training teachers, and even holding special orientations for career academy students earlier this summer.

“We’ve got to get you educated about technology,” Kathleen Dawson, the school system’s chief information officer, told students at a three-day orientation camp for the Academy of Transportation, Distribution and Logistics at Western High School earlier this month. “That’s what gives you access to new age jobs.”

The academies are being organized around the idea of a “cohort.” That’s a group of students who travel through high school together, starting as freshmen. Academy teachers can fill out their schedules by teaching courses in their career track to non-academy students.

They recruit students in middle school; slots are filled through a lottery. More than 200 students are participating in the academies this year. More than 700 had applied.

Their hope is that many of the freshmen will remain in the programs throughout high school, completing a pathway of courses, gaining career certifications, and preparing for jobs or related post-high school education. To that end, the school officials are arranging for guest speakers and field trips with colleges and industry partners. For example, an overnight field trip is planned so students in the transportation, distribution and logistics program can see Wilmington’s port in operation.

Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras said she sees school districts across the country making a greater push to prepare students for work. That includes jobs right out of high school or after two to four years of additional education.

She said there’s better collaboration between college presidents and school superintendents as they try to align their programs to deal with this issue. Even 10 years ago, she said, that wasn’t very common.

“There are so many jobs that have not been filled because there are no skilled workers or a shortage of skilled workers,” she said, explaining that she thinks the education system hasn’t done a good job in the past of making sure schools are aligning what’s taught to match the expected jobs of the future.

“So you have college graduates having to go back home, live with mom and dad, because they don’t have the skills to acquire one of these technical jobs,” Contreras said.

The rollout of the academies this year is part of a larger, ongoing five-year plan to overhaul the school system’s career and technical education offerings. At the high schools, officials want to sacrifice some of the breadth of previous course offerings in exchange for depth in specific areas, pushing students to focus on in-demand career areas.

Contreras said she would like to roll out another five career academy programs next school year, but she also said it may not happen that soon.

School officials, she said, are trying to look at how the career academies would fit in with the school system’s master plan for facilities. It may make sense to wait and tie the roll out of more academies to renovation and/or rebuilding of high schools, Contreras said.

For the career academies opening now, school administrators expect to use money leftover from other projects to complete about $6 million in renovations to the schools by next summer. That work would allow specialized labs for advanced manufacturing and other fields to open in time for this year’s freshmen to start their sophomore year courses.

At three of the academies opening Monday, the ones at Northeast and Western and the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing at Smith High, the programs will co-exist with their host school. The career academies at the smaller Kearns Academy and Academy at Smith High will eventually become the focus as previous, more varied programming is phased out.

Kearns Academy will stop offering medical and health sciences to focus on computers and information technology. The Academy at Smith will stop offering electrical trades and pre-engineering to focus on biomedicine and specialized health sciences.

Students at the new academies will take courses in their career subject areas, as well as other typical high school subjects. Where possible, academy students may be together in other subjects, too.

At Western, for example, freshmen will take one core course this year in the academy: Introduction to Logistics or Introduction to Drones, and then will take their earth science course together, Assistant Principal Louis Galiotti said.

Northeast High guidance counselor Sutton Leonard said there was no one regular subject like math or English at their academy that all of the students could take together because they are at different levels. However, they’ve been clumped together in those subjects wherever possible. They’ll also take two academy courses together: Advanced Placement computer science principles and an information technology course.

The emphasis on “togetherness” for students in the academy cohorts is intentional, for several reasons.

Galiotti said Western hopes to see the transportation students get a special emphasis on weather in their earth science course, given its relevance to transportation, logistics and drone aviation. The school system is interested in having teachers sometimes build connections to the academy subjects into their lessons.

But even more than that, the school system and schools are interested in building teamwork, camaraderie and cohesion among the students in the cohorts, as well as have school staff members working with them.

The hope is that the teachers, guidance counselors and assistant principals can focus on the students as a group and communicate together about how best to help them be successful heading toward careers. That includes getting instruction in core subjects from their academy teachers.

They also want the students to learn to work together, as they would as colleagues at a job, and to help each other succeed.

“When it comes to a high school, it’s big and there’s going to be a lot of students and you are just really going feel like really nervous and anxious,” Dawson told the students at Western at their summer academy orientation camp. “This is going to be your core group and you are going to be there for each other. You’ve got to stick up for each other. You guys have to push each other.”

Students were drawn to the new career academies for a variety of reasons.

Western Guilford freshman Braylon Sutton, who attended Allen Middle School last year, said he first got interested in Western Guilford as a whole because he thought it sounded like a good school.

Then he learned about the school’s academy, and that he could study drones there.

He has flown them before, including one time to check for cracks on the roof of his family’s house.

“When I got into droning it was like a hobby for me,” Sutton said. “And then I saw Western had a program for teaching you how to understand drones more. That’s what made me want to understand drones more and more so that I could, maybe one day, help someone fly them or fix them, maybe even work for a company and fly drones for their company.”

At Northeast High, freshman Spirit Ollis said she wants to be a defense attorney, but she said her parents told her she has a knack for technology and problem-solving. Also, in middle school, guidance counselors told her they thought she would be a good fit for the computer career academy program.

“They were like ‘Spirit, I see potential in you,’ ” Ollis said. “They came up to me and were like ‘I think you should do it.’ And so I signed up and got approved.”

Most of the students at Northeast’s academy orientation attended Northeast Middle together, so they already knew each other. That’s true of Medrano and Durant, two friends with literal big league ambitions but also a dawning interest in computer careers.

Medrano said he likes computer and video games and has a lot of ideas about how he would like to make them better. He is thinking he would like to learn how to code, a job he said he only learned about recently through hearing about the career academies.

Durant said he felt he needed to stay in a big, traditional school to stay eligible for basketball, but he’s stoked to be in a specialized program that will let him explore his fascination.

“I love technology, to the point when I’m bored I’ll take a laptop apart just to rebuild it,” he said. “I’ll break a speaker just to see what’s inside of it just to see the components of it, stuff like that.”

It matters to him to be around people who have similar goals, pioneering a program no one here has done before.

“It feels like we started the foundation of something,” Durant said.

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Home sweet home: New Tiny House community on Hay Street in High Point celebrates groundbreaking. Page A4

Powerful, obscure law is basis for Trump 'order' on trade

BIARRITZ, France President Donald Trump is threatening to use the emergency authority granted by a powerful but obscure federal law to make good on his tweeted “order” to U.S. businesses to cut ties in China amid a spiraling trade war between the two nations.

China’s announcement Friday that it was raising tariffs on $75 billion in U.S. imports sent Trump into a rage and White House aides scrambling for a response.

Trump fired off on Twitter, declaring American companies “are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China.” He later clarified that he was threatening to make use of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act in the trade war, raising questions about the wisdom and propriety of making the 1977 act used to target rogue regimes, terrorists and drug traffickers the newest weapon in the clash between the world’s largest economies.

It would mark the latest grasp of authority by Trump, who has claimed widespread powers not sought by his predecessors despite his past criticism of their use of executive powers.

“For all of the Fake News Reporters that don’t have a clue as to what the law is relative to Presidential powers, China, etc., try looking at the Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977,” Trump tweeted late Friday. “Case closed!”

The act gives presidents wide berth in regulating international commerce during times of declared national emergencies. Trump threatened to use those powers earlier this year to place tariffs on imports from Mexico in a bid to force the U.S. neighbor to do more to address illegal crossings at their shared border.

It was not immediately clear how Trump could use the act to force American businesses to move their manufacturing out of China and to the U.S., and Trump’s threat appeared premature — as he has not declared an emergency with respect to China.

Even without the emergency threat, Trump’s retaliatory action Friday — further raising tariffs on Chinese exports to the U.S. — had already sparked widespread outrage from the business community.

“It’s impossible for businesses to plan for the future in this type of environment,” David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, said in a statement.

The Consumer Technology Association called the escalating tariffs “the worst economic mistake since the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 — a decision that catapulted our country into the Great Depression.”

And trade association CompTIA stressed the logistical strain that would follow if companies were forced to shift operations out of China, saying it would take months for most companies.

“Any forced immediate action would result in chaos,” CEO Todd Thibodeaux said in emailed comments.

The frequent tariff fluctuations are making it hard to plan and are casting uncertainty on some investments, said Peter Bragdon, executive vice president and chief administration officer of Columbia Sportswear.

“There’s no way for anyone to plan around chaos and incoherence,” he said.

Columbia manufactures in more than 20 countries, including China. This diversification helps shield the company from some fluctuations, but China is an important base for serving Chinese customers as well as those in other countries, Bragdon said. The company plans to continue doing business there.

“We follow the rule of law, not the rule of Twitter,” he said.

Presidents have often used the act to impose economic sanctions to further U.S. foreign policy and national security goals. Initially, the targets were foreign states or their governments, but over the years the act has been increasingly used to punish individuals, groups and non-state actors, such as terrorists.

Some of the sanctions have affected U.S. businesses by prohibiting Americans from doing business with those targeted. The act also was used to block new investment in Burma in 1997.

Congress has never attempted to end a national emergency invoking the law, which would require a joint resolution. Congressional lawmakers did vote earlier this year to disapprove of Trump’s declared emergency along the U.S.-Mexico border, only to see Trump veto the resolution.

China’s Commerce Ministry issued a statement Saturday condemning Trump’s threat, saying, “This kind of unilateral, bullying trade protectionism and maximum pressure go against the consensus reached by the two countries’ heads of state, violate the principles of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, and seriously damage the multilateral trading system and normal international trade order.”

Susan Walsh/The Associated Press  

Donald Trump meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a June 29 meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan.