Career Academies (copy)

In this July 23 photo, Xavier Stafford inspects his "house" for the House of Cards activity where he and his group made a stable structure that can hold at least one book using index cards during orientation camp for Smith High School's new Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Academy at Smith High School in Greensboro.

GREENSBORO — Osman Medrano and Coreyon Durant dream of becoming professional athletes, but they've also got a backup plan: a future in computers and technology.

The two 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 launching this year.

District leaders, with backing from local college and industry partners, see setting students on the path to in-demand career fields 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 district 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," district Chief Innovation Officer Kathleen Dawson 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 district is organizing the academies around the idea of a "cohort." That's a group of students that 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 entering now 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 district also is arranging for guest speakers and field trips with colleges and industry partners. For example, they are planning an overnight field trip for the transportation, distribution and logistics students to go to Wilmington to see the port there.

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.

She said there's better collaboration between college presidents and 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 she thinks the education system hasn't done a good job in the past of making sure schools are aligning what's taught to 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."

The rollout of the academies this year is part of a larger, ongoing five-year plan to overhaul the district'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 at schools across the district next school year, but also said it may not happen that soon.

The district, she said, is trying to look at how the career academies would fit in with the district'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, she said. 

For the career academies opening now, district 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 School, the programs will co-exist with their host school. The career academies at the smaller Kearns Academy and Academy at Smith 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 also take their earth science course together, said assistant principal Louis Galiotti.

Northeast 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: AP computer science principles, and an information technology course.

The emphasis on "togetherness" for students in the academy cohorts is intentional. There are several reasons behind that structure.

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 district is interested in having teachers sometimes build connections to the academy subjects into their lessons.

But even more than that, the district and schools are interested in building teamwork, camaraderie and cohesion among the students in the cohorts, as well as the school staff 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's flown them before, including one time to check for cracks on the roof of his house.

"When I got into droning it was like a hobby for me," he 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, freshman Spirit Ollis said she wants to be a defense attorney, but she said her parents told her she's got 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,'" she 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 the Northeast High School career orientation had 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 likes computer and video games and has a lot of ideas about how he would like to make them better. He's thinking he'd like to learn how to code, a job he said he only learned about recently through hearing about the career academies.

Durant 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," he said.

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Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.​

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