Anchorage high school students will soon be required to select a career track that will be a part of their daily schedule as part of a major shift in the district’s curriculum. It will include job trainings, internships and certifications that the school district hopes will help prepare students for their post-graduation careers.
School district officials are still trying to figure out what the career tracks — which they are calling academies — will be, and how the logistics will work. The district hosted a summit on Thursday with elected officials, industry and nonprofit leaders, parents and students to help narrow down the academies’ focuses based on community need and student interest.
The new program, which the district aims to launch next fall, is also part of a broader community effort to address Anchorage’s shrinking workforce and a labor shortage, and to make the city a more desirable place for students to stay after graduation.
Anchorage has lost nearly 10% of its working-age population over the last decade, according to a three-year outlook report published in August by the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. Similar issues are being seen statewide.
“In Anchorage, not only do we have outmigration, but a lot of these individuals who are leaving are working-age, younger people that would typically have children in our public schools,” district superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said in interview. “So that puts a real ceiling on our potential as a city and as an economy to grow.”
How it will work
The initiative will launch with a freshman seminar in fall 2024. All ninth grade students will spend one designated class period per day exploring career possibilities and their own skills and interests, according to Sven Gustafson, chief academic officer with the district.
Then in fall 2025, sophomore students will choose a career track to focus on for their remaining three years of high school. Each high school will have between three and six academies for students to select from, and they’ll have the option of switching academies at least once. Next year’s freshman class will be the first cohort of students to participate in the program, Gustafson said. If a student wants to attend an academy that is at a different school than the one they attend, Gustafson said the district is working on a transportation plan for those students.
District officials said they are also still working out the other logistics of how the academy elective will work, but that it will likely include a mix of internships and apprenticeships with local businesses, certifications and college courses. Each academy will have pathways based on what students are interested in — a health academy, for example, might have a nurse pathway as well as as a physical therapy focus, said Kersten Johnson, the district’s senior director of secondary teaching and learning.
“One of the biggest goals of shifting to the career academy model is students graduating not only with their diploma, but with either some dual credit at the university level, or an industry credential that they can use as they apply for jobs or apprenticeships in the future,” she said.
Corey Aist, head of the Anchorage Education Association teachers union, said Friday that he saw a lot of positives that could come out of the new model. But he also expressed trepidation about the resources that would be required to pull off such a change, and the added burden that could fall on teachers.
This month, the district received a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help with the new initiative, which was announced last spring. The district has also partnered with Ford Next Generation Learning, a national organization, for help with logistics and planning. The organization has helped other districts around the country implement similar models.
Many of those districts have more resources and lower teacher-to-student ratios than Anchorage does, Aist said. And with a high number of teachers retiring or resigning in recent years, his concern is supporting the ones that have stayed.
“We need to make sure that educators have a voice, and we need to make sure that they have the time to do the tasks that they’re being asked to do,” he said.
Aiming to jump-start careers
Bryantt and Johnson said they’ve heard concerns from some parents that new model would mean less of a focus on college, as well as humanities and arts electives. Both said that wasn’t the case.
“It really is just one period of the day. So it’s one course in their schedule. So they would still have lots of opportunities to take other electives and other courses,” Johnson said.
“I do want to assure the community that if students and family choose college, that is fully embraced by the academy model,” Bryantt said. “Students will still have a well-rounded education,” including advanced placement classes, he said.
The goal of the initiative is also to give students a stronger sense of their options and a quicker path to a career that pays a good wage, school administrators said.
In recent years, the school district has seen a drop in attendance, which Johnson attributes partially to students or families perhaps not seeing the usefulness of a high school education.
Not a complete answer
Jenna Wright, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., said she believes as part of the new model, students will “be motivated to stay here in Anchorage because they see a brighter future for themselves in a career that they’ve already been introduced to.”
Still, she said the reasons young people leave are complicated, and that more needed to be done from an economic perspective to address the shrinking workforce.
“I think that improving the education system in Anchorage is one thing that will significantly help retain some of our young population that’s currently leaving, but I don’t believe that it’s the complete answer,” she said.
The latest Alaska workforce data paints a complicated picture of more jobs than workers, and young graduates who don’t necessarily have the skills needed to fill those jobs.
“Our employers in the state do not have enough workers,” Johnson said. “And what we’re seeing with our students is that they’re not seeing those opportunities in their backyard, and we’re trying to give them a roadmap.”
More than half of Alaskans born within the state have moved away, according to a recent analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. In 2021, Alaska had a higher rate of outmigration than any state but Wyoming, according to that data.
The Anchorage Economic Development Corp. report indicated that many employers will likely continue to face challenges in finding and hiring workers to fill job openings as the population keeps getting older and the birth rate has declined.
Johnson said the initiative was also an acknowledgement that the job market has changed over the last few decades, and that most jobs now require a college degree or some kind of technical training. “And that’s vastly different than it was 20 to 30 years ago,” she said.
A former principal at West High School, Gustafson said as he used to shake students’ hands when they walked across the stage at graduation, he often felt a sense of uncertainty about what those students’ plans were.
“I believe this is the way that we can turn around part of our state because we can develop a better workforce that will stay in our community,” said Gustafson. “And even if they’re college-bound, they get to explore what their passions are, what is it that’s going to make them feel like they belong.”
Parents and families can provide input or ask questions about the program via a form on the district’s website, at asdk12.org/ccl.