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Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - 2:03pm

Schools Focus On Career Readiness

When Tony Thaw was elected to Georgia’s Glynn County Board of Commissioners in 2003, he set out to solve a problem he says was preventing the county from realizing its full economic potential.

“We have a deep port. We have I-95 running right through the middle. We have a beautiful airport, and we have a great development authority,” Thaw says. “What we didn’t have in Glynn County was a workforce.”

Thaw decided that the way to produce a better workforce was through the schools. But there was a problem: the south Georgia county’s two high schools graduated only about half of their students. The school board was racked by in-fighting, had just fired its superintendent, and was at risk of losing its accreditation.

So Thaw decided to take matters into his own hands. He learned about a new charter “career academy” in Newnan, southwest of Atlanta, designed to blend secondary education with technical training. Thaw started bringing local business leaders to visit the school in Newnan. And when they returned, the business owners started writing checks to help pay for an academy of their own.

“It was like, becoming disciples,” Thaw says. “It was like in Jesus’ day, when you became a disciple, everybody would just go crazy when they went to Newnan – we gotta have it, we gotta have it. And I’d say, well, you gotta go tell everybody.”

Today, Thaw’s passion project, the Golden Isles Career Academy (GICA), is in the middle of its third academic year. It’s located on a 123,000 square foot campus paid for by a combination of tax funds allocated by the county commission and Glynn County’s first successful education local option tax.

The school is one of roughly two dozen career academies that have opened in the state. They’re not traditional vocational schools – they serve both students who plan to head directly to the workforce after high school and students who will enroll in the state’s most elite colleges and universities. And elements such as their focus on blending academics with career-oriented skills will soon be found in every school in the state.

“The rigor and the relevance”

Students spend part of the day at their district high school and part of the day at GICA, where they choose from one of seventeen “career pathways.” The pathways are sequences of classes in areas that range from highly skilled areas like engineering and health sciences to more traditional vocational fields like construction. In all of the fields, the courses are designed to challenge students while teaching them real-world skills.

“We have the rigor, but we also have the relevance,” says the school’s chief executive officer Rick Townsend.

On this day, construction teacher Terry O’Quinn is overseeing a group of students building a storage shed behind the school’s facility. He explains that the assignment is designed to teach students all the skills they’d need to know to construct a building, from start to finish.

“Each one of these students has to take and draw this building, they had to figure the materials, and then they estimated the time that it would take them to complete this building,” O’Quinn says. “Then once it’s completed, we’ll go back and we’ll look and see what they left out and how accurate and how much money they actually lost in the building. When you deal with money, they seem to understand a lot more.”

And O’Quinn says that showing students the practical applications of what they’re doing in turn helps them academically.

“They come in here and they use applied math to put that cabinet together, to put the building together, and then their math grade is improving, their science grade is improving,” O’Quinn says. “So we tie the academics and the vocational into together, but what’s so great is that the student doesn’t realize he’s learning it until he backs up and says, ‘hey I built that.’”

If the career academy does what it’s supposed to do, there should be a direct benefit both to the student’s career, and to Glynn County as a whole. A student who spends two years in this program can get a position as a second-year apprentice, O’Quinn says, and that ups their pay.

The school’s charter includes a provision intended to make sure that the school’s courses dovetail with the economic climate. Every five years the school is required to conduct a needs assessment analyzing what jobs are available in the community and what kinds of skills those jobs require.

Construction seems to be one that’s on the rise again – O’Quinn says that the school is getting more and more calls from businesses looking for students to hire. But not all of the students building the shed are aiming to head directly into construction apprenticeships or other vocational fields.

For example, one of the construction students building the shed, Kirby Lynn, is not planning to rely on the skills he learns in the course. “I figured it would be something cool to learn, something to fall back on just in case, because I’m planning on going to college,” Lynn says.

Administrators at the academy say their mission is to give practical skills to all of their students – those who want to go into traditional vocational fields and those who want to head into higher education. But increasingly, says the school’s chief executive officer Townsend, students won’t be able to do one without the other.

“You look at what jobs are out there, what jobs are looking at employing in the future, the number of jobs, the type of skilled jobs they’re looking for…what kind of educational fields there are,” Townsend says. “What we’re finding out is that most fields require some kind of post-secondary education, they’re just not the same.”

Experts back up Townsend’s observations: A new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that just 37 percent of jobs in 2018 will be open to those with only a high school diploma.

That’s why GICA has partnered with the local technical college to offer dual enrollment to the high school students so they can graduate with a jump-start towards either college or the technical certification they need in their field.

And just as more and more jobs will require college, experts say the differences between preparing students for jobs and preparing them for more school are disappearing.

“There’s a lot of research out there that would indicate that college readiness and career readiness are the same thing,” says Daria Hall, who directs K-12 policy at the non-profit group Education Trust.

Hall says that there’s national movement to prepare all students for both secondary education and their careers in an economy where stable jobs that require only low-level skills are disappearing.

“In order to be competitive we have to have strong analytic skills, strong mathematics skills and reading skills and writing skills,” Hall says. “All of these kinds of things, employers are quite clear that these are absolutely essential for success in the workplace. And yet if you look at polling of employers, they’re telling us very clearly that high school graduates don’t have these things.”

The return of “tracking”?

But Hall says there’s a catch with many of the college and career readiness programs that have been popping up around the country. Instead of programs that are teaching similar high-level skills to students who are headed to four-year colleges and to those who want to get technical credentials, Hall says too often schools around the country are reverting to tracking students. That is, when schools shunt students they don’t see as college-bound – usually poor and minority students – into less challenging vocational courses.

“Making instruction relevant is critical and giving kids exposure to a career path early can be a really good thing,” Hall says. “But this cannot be an either or proposition. You can’t water down the content in the name of relevance. And you certainly can’t go back to a system that expects less academically of some kids than others. Because, frankly, we know exactly who gets shunted into those lower tracks when there’s a second option.”

“That’s not what this is,” says John Barge, the state’s superintendent of schools and the guy responsible for putting Georgia’s career pathways plan into practice.

“What this is, is if you’re planning on being a doctor, then you ought to have human anatomy and physiology when you’re in high school,” he says. “And right now, our graduation rule doesn’t require that you take that course. But a pathway in a medical field, leading to nurse or doctor, will require that you take anatomy or physiology.”

The changes are coming to Georgia’s schools because of a piece of legislation known as the BRIDGE Act, or “Building Resourceful Individuals to Develop Georgia’s Economy.” The law takes effect next school year and requires a much greater focus on career education, starting in the elementary grades and increasing in intensity through high school.

Under the new system, students will choose one of around 20 different career pathways, similar to those offered at GICA and other career academies in the state. Students will take all of their core academic courses, but also take a sequence of classes within their pathway that each lead to some professional destination.

Barge shows a rubric that delineates the different courses a student in a health sciences pathway might take. The core academic classes are the same, regardless of whether a student wants to become a nursing assistant straight out of high school or head to medical school after she earns her bachelor’s degree. Beyond the core classes, students will take different sequences tailored to which of those end goals they’re shooting for.

Barge says he’s aware of concerns that too much emphasis on career skills could lead to lowered expectations for kids who aren’t seen as college bound. But he said that high standards will exist, no matter the course pathway.

“The pathways do not change our curriculum at all; they don’t change our standards at all,” he says. “But what they do is make sure that students are having the proper foundation of courses for whatever path they follow for when they leave us. So the rigor is there.”

For example – to ensure that all of the career pathways courses are rigorous the legislation that created the career pathways programs also mandates that all of the courses be tied to the common core standards.

Education Trust’s Hall says that’s great; but ensuring that the most vocational courses still stay tough will take constant vigilance. It’s certainly possible to teach math and science in an applied way through vocational skills, Hall says, but it’s difficult.

“And I think the real concern is that people may pay lip service to that notion but the reality is you’ve got two tracks,” she says. “One set of kids where someone has decided for them that these are the college bound kids. And another track [that] are the career kids and we don’t…give them as much – even if we wrap it up in the same language of college and career readiness.”

Back at the Golden Isles Career Academy, Tony Thaw says that the school has to fight against the perception that the school is just another vocational school.

“The parents don’t understand that it’s not a place for students who just can’t go to college,” he says. “Our students, we want them to go to college. We want them to go further their education.”

And in turn, Thaw says, he hopes that students will come back and build a highly skilled workforce in Glynn County.