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West Florida Tech: is this the make and model for success in high school?

  • Feb 22, 2015
  • William Rabb
Man wearing a hardhat standing in a factory Man wearing a hardhat standing in a factory

If traditional high schools are like practical, safe family sedans and vo-tech schools are like work trucks, then West Florida High School in Pensacola is a combination of the two – and then some. Think of it as a four-door pickup with plenty of room for the family in the cab, but with an extended cargo bed, a toolbox, a ladder rack and a winch for getting the job done. The waiting list for this model is growing every year. “It just makes a lot of sense to do it that way. It gives students so much of a choice if they want to go into a career or continue on to college,” said Tommy Tait, a Pensacola bank president who is credited with cranking the starter on the West Florida career academy concept more than 18 years ago. The school, on Longleaf Drive in northwest Pensacola, goes by the official name of West Florida High School of Advanced Technology. It is Escambia County’s only consistent “A”-rated school, with test scores and graduation rates that far outpace all other high schools in the county. While the districtwide, four-year graduation rate reached 66 percent last year, West Florida clocked in at 94 percent – one of the highest rates in the country. “I have to say it really mentally prepares you for the workforce – if you’re going off to college or straight to work,” said Alex Allen, who graduated from West Florida in 2006 and went to work at Gulf Power Co.’s Crist Plant generating facility. He plans to finish his bachelor’s degree in engineering in the next few years. The accolades for West Florida raise two questions: What’s the secret to its success; and why aren’t more – or all – local high schools employing this method? The answers to both questions are multifaceted and bounded by national trends, local needs, and state and local funding for public education.

Concept seems simple

The idea behind a career academy is forehead-slapping in its clarity. Students combine hands-on technical training with rigorous academics. One side fuels the other. Instead of simply memorizing algebraic theorems without seeing the practical applications, students use the math as part of their technical projects. “What they’re doing is completely algebra, but they think it’s just part of the electrical work, then they go back and ace their math test,” said Jennifer Landrum Grove, Gulf Power’s community development manager who helped launch the Gulf Power Academy at West Florida in 2001. The academy concept applies to a wide range of career fields: A construction student, for example, would get practical training in building with concrete in the lab. In chemistry class, she studies the chemical makeup of concrete and what makes some batches stronger than others. In English class, she may write a newsletter for her fellow construction students. By her senior year, she’s built a model house and worked a semester in the industry. At graduation, she’s prepared to go on to college, or directly into the workforce, already trained in the skills she needs. She’s also earned an industry certification, which means that even if she decides to enter college, her summer job in her chosen industry will pay significantly more. A 2008 study by a research organization started by the Ford Foundation noted that nationwide, career academy graduates earn up to 17 percent more than non-academy workers in the same field. That can add up to more than $30,000 over eight years.

Building a new model

Career academies began about 40 years ago, when business leaders around the country started noticing a shortage of skilled labor and workers who could meet the needs of an increasingly technical, automated and globally influenced workplace, according to the National Career Academy Coalition. The concept was slow to spread across the nation, but was spurred by the seminal 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” which galvanized a national movement for education reform. In the late 1990s, Tait and a group of Pensacola-area business and industry leaders met with then-Escambia School Superintendent Jim May and Lesa Morgan, who was the director of the George Stone Technical Center, a vocational training school on Longleaf Drive. For years, vocational students from all Escambia high schools had done “share time” at George Stone – commuting to the center just for a few classes a week, Morgan said. The career academy model would have them at a technical center every day, all year long. For more than a year, Morgan and district officials researched the concept, traveling to notable schools all around the country. For another year, school officials recruited local business and industry leaders to get onboard with the plan by providing financial support or pledging internships for students. By using part of the George Stone campus instead of building a new school, the district saved millions of dollars, Morgan said. By 2001, West Florida was ready to launch, and Morgan was named principal. Since then, the district has created more than 55 smaller career academies at the other six high schools, where some, but not all, students specialize in their chosen field. West Florida is the only “wall-to-wall” career academy, where every student is enrolled in one of 12 career fields, for all four years. At the Gulf Power Academy at West Florida, for example, students interested in the field of electrical generation and power management must complete what’s known as a capstone project. Allen, who grew up in Cantonment, not far from Crist Plant, had been in love with electricity since he was a child. For his capstone, he built a model house, wired it for electricity to meet building regulations, then wrote a paper on the national electrical code. In his senior year, he trained at Gulf Power for his first semester, then worked there in a paid position in his final semester. He was then hired full-time after graduation. The utility has hired 50 other graduates from West Florida in the last 14 years, Grove said. A big part of West Florida’s success comes from the fact that students have at least one teacher who teaches them for all four years of high school, allowing that teacher to mentor the teenagers through their most formative period. “If you think back to your high school days, you might have had a teacher for one year, then never see them again,” said Eric Smith, principal at West Florida since 2010. “One of the things we know about successful schools is that they have relationships with their students, and one of the advantages to the career academy is they have one or two instructors that follow those kids all four years,” said Cathy Boehme, who taught science at West Florida from the beginning.

Draw of a magnet school

Another reason why West Florida, a magnet school, has earned an A rating for eight straight years is the caliber of students who attend. Students must apply in the winter of their eighth-grade year, and must meet certain criteria. The school does not look at standardized test scores, but applicants must maintain a “C” average, a good attendance record, and must have no serious discipline problems. Even then, the school receives 800 to 1,000 applicants each year, and has room for only about 350 incoming freshmen. A lottery determines which of the qualified applicants are accepted, Morgan said. “All of that means we have parents who are very involved, which makes a difference,” Morgan said. Not every student comes from a middle-class, involved-parent home, administrators are quick to point out. One student in the mid-2000s showed great promise at school, but was frequently tardy. The school was ready to expel him when, at his appeal, he explained he had no home, and was sleeping in a car. He couldn’t charge his cell phone at night, and had no alarm to wake him up, said Lori Anderson, workforce education specialist with the district, who worked closely with the student. Administrators gave the young man another chance, helped him find some meal tickets for lunches at school, a place to stay – and an alarm clock. He went on to full-time employment at Gulf Power, where he works today. “I don’t know where he would be today if he hadn’t have been here at West Florida,” Anderson said. “I ran into him last summer, and he was still so grateful for the chance he was given.” The career-academy approach also means that kids at age 13 are making the biggest decision of their lives, deciding what type of career they want to pursue. Initially, West Florida allowed freshmen to rotate through various fields before making a choice. But district budget cuts eliminated some classes and teachers, forcing students to pick one path by eighth grade. “It was kind of a scheduling hassle to get them through the rotation, but I think the kids made better choices when they were more familiar with all the career fields,” said Boehme, who last fall moved to Tallahassee to work with the Florida Education Association on policy development. Others argue that even if students later decide not to pursue the career track, the academy approach has helped them find their way to a more desirable career, and has provided practical experience along the way. “It’s a good thing, because we’ve had that happen where some realize, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be a nurse because I’m going to pass out when I see blood,’” Morgan said. West Florida junior Lynn Arthur agreed. The Cox Telecommunications Academy at the school was her third choice, behind nursing and criminal justice. But now, she couldn’t be happier with the choice, which she said has taught her not only technical video-wiring skills, but also critical problem-solving and teamwork skills as well. When setting up networked video projectors in classrooms, “We ran into a lot of problems that we had to figure out,” Arthur said. She now plans to go on to college, perhaps with a major in finance or business.

Doing a walk-around

A visit to the Cox Academy classroom at West Florida showed the problem-solving nature of the class. Instructor Tom Connors, who directed the training at Cox Communications for years before becoming a teacher, showed students how to “do a workaround” – solving a common real-world problem – when setting up an audio-video system and the manufacturer hasn’t provided enough speaker wire. The students learned to convert Internet or computer cable into speaker wires, which required stripping insulation off tiny strips of copper, a delicate maneuver. “I let them do it the hard way first, then show them the easy way,” Connors said, pulling out a special wire-stripping tool. After one student mastered the technique, Connors let that student show others. Connors’ students become so proficient at the audio-video work, they’ve been used to set up systems in dozens of classrooms all across the district, saving the school system thousands of dollars in installation fees. “It’s a win-win for everyone,” he said. “The kids get the experience they need, instead of just taking a test. Right now in the schools, we have ‘death by testing.’ But testing is not a true measure of learning. “Application of the knowledge is a true test of learning and shows if they’re ready for the world of work.”

Applying it elsewhere

The reason why the district has not turned other schools into wall-to-wall career academies has to do with two factors, educators say. While industry and business interests love the idea of more highly trained graduates, ready for the workforce, some parents still see vocational or technical school as lesser, something for kids who aren’t college-bound. Second, setting up a campuswide academy can be expensive, requiring the latest technology, computers, tools and other equipment, plus sprawling lab and shop areas. All of that may be changing in the next few years. Pine Forest High School, right next to West Florida, is in the midst of a major redesign and will become a wall-to-wall career academy by fall 2016, without any more expense from the district, said Principal Frank Murphy. New career tracks will include a teaching academy, which will virtually guarantee local teaching jobs to graduates who go on to college, as well as a health-related field that will be a “game changer,” allowing all area hospitals and clinics to hire skilled medical workers. Pine Forest, which has had a number of career and technical specialty areas for years, will follow a slightly different approach to applicants, he said. Instead of a lottery to decide who can attend, Pine Forest will remain a traditional, zoned high school, although students from all over the county can apply to individual academies. West Florida, too, is growing. The district is remodeling Woodham Middle School, about four miles to the east on Burgess Road, into the new West Florida campus, allowing West Florida more classroom and lab space. Despite the pressure of deciding on a career at an early age, most students who apply to West Florida seem to like the hybrid career-and-academics method, pupils and educators say. “For one thing, it helps you grow up,” West Florida graduate Allen said. “Because you’re coming straight out of high school, and a lot of kids are still in that party stage. This gets you in a career environment where you have to grow up, and it helps out a lot.”

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