Column: The promise of career academies

Tired of Long Island-educated youths heading elsewhere to find jobs, the Long Island Works Coalition in Melville is fighting back.

According to the coalition’s director of educational services, Lisa Strahs-Lorenc, the answer lies in career academies — Ford Motor Company-sponsored programs within local high schools that link students’ specific interests with educational programs designed to prepare them for jobs in health care, engineering, information technology, global business or green technology.

All are fields in which jobs exist on Long Island, Ms. Strahs-Lorenc said Friday in an interview at the Suffolk County Community College Culinary Institute. She was there to coordinate a business competition program for students from across Suffolk County.

The problem is selling the concept — already in place in four school districts in Suffolk County and five in Nassau County — to educators across Long Island.

At a time when many educators are struggling with efforts to better engage students in their studies and make them more competitive in today’s global marketplace, you might think the program would be a slam-dunk. But it’s not. The programs call for teachers to work in teams, and Ms. Strahs-Lorenc encounters resistance in some school districts from administrators and teachers who raise questions about scheduling and coordination.

Career academies — schools within schools — require an interdisciplinary approach to education. That means a student interested in the health care field, for example, still has to complete courses in math, English, science, social studies and other subjects.

A Regional Industry Council — a partnership of business, higher education and community representatives — provides support to the career academies. Its members monitor the relevance of the school-based curriculum; offer internships and job shadow programs for students and professional development opportunities for teachers; and provide grants to support the programs.

What’s in it for these companies? An expanded pool of highly qualified future employees, Ms. Strahs-Lorenc said.

Three years into the program, it’s too early to judge the academies’ success in preparing students for their careers, but there are anecdotal signs that the programs are engaging students.
Ms. Strahs-Lorenc points to YouTube videos produced for a recent competition among career academy students. Their theme was “Best Foot Forward,” the life cycle of sneakers. In everything from clever raps to images of sneakers marching, sans feet, down school corridors on their way to recycling bins, the message was how important recycling is. It not only helps preserve the environment, but saves money and protects health.

Despite all the promise career academies hold, it’s not easy trying to pull together 126 individual school districts and get them all on the same page, Ms. Strahs-Lorenc said. And despite funding from Ford Motor Company and some help from local businesses, money is tight for the Long Island Works Coalition, a division of Goodwill Industries, where funding cutbacks are the norm these days.

Career academies offer a pathway to valuable educational experiences for students and an end to Long Island’s brain drain. Let’s think harder and pull together to find ways to make them flourish here.