EDITORIAL: Anchorage schools embark on a worthwhile experiment

Stock.- school, classroom, desks

Earlier this month, the Anchorage School Board committed to a career-focused academy model for local high schools — starting this fall with freshmen and expanding to higher grades in future years. It’s an adaptation of a plan that has shown promise elsewhere, and one the district hopes will help provide a more direct connection between students and their aspirations after graduation. It’s also a potential win for Alaska businesses, which stand to benefit from high school graduates exiting high school with more specialized preparation for their career field. If executed well, the academy model can give students more options without compromising their educational experience.

The academy model Anchorage is adopting is based on similar efforts underway in Lower 48 districts such as Nashville, Tennessee, where academies have been in place for 15 years. Under the model, first-year high school students will have one period per day focused on career exploration, and as they progress through the focused “academies” that specialize in different job fields, they have the opportunity to collaborate with local businesses, receive job-specific training and potentially internships in careers that interest them. It is, in a way, a direct retort to the common student gripe about lessons they find too abstract to have a practical application in the ‘real world’: “When are we going to use this?”

The academy model is also an important recognition and gesture on the part of the Anchorage School District that there are many different paths to success for students, and the district should do what it can to accommodate that. Some of the academies will feed into traditional college paths and two- or four-year degrees (and sometimes beyond, in the case of white-collar fields such as health care and law) — but some will focus on career and technical education, and will be no lesser for it. For decades, Alaska has been ahead of the curve when it comes to career training and lucrative career paths outside of the traditional postsecondary education system. But demand for those trade workers — plumbers, welders, electricians, and so forth — has almost always exceeded local supply, a fact well-known by anyone who has had to wait weeks to get a leaky faucet or a broken bathroom fan fixed. Now schools will be doing more to address that directly, and everyone involved — students, schools, local businesses and residents — stands to benefit.

Of course, no added initiative in schools comes without costs or tradeoffs. For the academies to succeed as they have other places, the district will have to maintain a commitment to them beyond the initial five-year, $3 million-per-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education. And the district has already said it will need additional funds beyond that federal grant to put the “career track” portion of the program (which will serve students in 10th-12th grades) in place. Those are important questions the district will need to answer to keep the academy model going and make it successful, and the state funding situation for schools has been precarious amid budget uncertainty.

Importantly, the School Board also gave students the option to opt out of the academy model, which should help address concerns by some students, parents and staff who testified that they would be less able to participate in activities and electives they enjoy (music, art, sports and so on) because of the mandatory academy period. This will put some burden on teachers and administrators who will have to coordinate the bifurcated tracks for students, but it will also maintain options for those who prefer the more traditional school schedule.

All in all, the academy model is a worthwhile experiment for Anchorage schools — one that could provide a more direct connection between students and their post-graduation jobs, as well as keep them engaged in pursuing topics that interest them. But it will require a substantial commitment from the School Board and district administration so that it doesn’t wither on the vine. That would be helped by more state budget certainty, especially where education funding is concerned.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.