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New academies to address age-old question: Why do I have to learn this stuff?

Graduates will soon choose career paths earlier in high school. (Echo Press file photo)1 / 2
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The new high school in Alexandria will not only establish a modern education campus, but also a whole new, innovative learning program too.

Alexandria School District 206 will introduce learning academies at Alexandria Area High School, beginning in the fall of 2014.

The new academies, or small learning communities concept, basically addresses those questions you've likely asked as a student and heard your kids ask: Why do I need to learn algebra? When will I ever use this again in my life? Why do I have to learn science stuff?

Julie Critz, director of learning and teaching, explained, "An academy is a smaller group of students and teachers working collectively to take skills learned in the classroom and figure out where and how those lessons apply to life, particularly a career."

Students in grades 9-12 will select one of these four academies during their high school education:

-- 9th Grade Academy.

-- Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies and Natural Resources Academy.

-- Health Sciences and Human Services Academy.

-- Business, Communication and Entrepreneurship Academy.

The academies will be career-focused and a lot like mini-schools-within-a-school.

A district news release noted, "Core classes in math, English, social studies and science will be combined with classes that focus on the academy's career theme, making curriculum relevant and meaningful. Global elective classes (e.g. music, foreign language, art) are available to students across all academies."

In addition, the district will partner with local business and civic leaders to provide students with a look at real-world application of what they're learning. There will also be opportunities for students to explore future college and career opportunities through internships and mentorships in the community.

The concept was approved by the school board Monday.


Critz said the effectiveness of the academies will be measured by state mandated test scores, as well as data on student attendance, levels of engagement and satisfaction.

"The small learning community [approach] is spreading across the nation [and it's] really in response to kids feeling like schools don't meet their needs anymore. This generation - they're used to a different level of engagement and technology and media. We need to find ways to engage students differently and that's what prompted [small learning communities/academies] for us," Critz said.

Teachers may work in teams to tailor lessons, ensuring student success around each academy's career theme. For example, physics, math and industrial technology teachers would collaborate and tailor lessons on building a robotic device for students in the Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies and Natural Resources Academy.

"The goal is to promote a more personalized and supportive learning environment, while helping students build strong relationships with peers and teachers," the news release noted.

Critz said core subjects, state standards and basic skills will be the same, but those same skills will be applied in different ways according to academy focus.

She said, "There are still basic skills that all students need to learn, but our teachers are learning a problem-based learning model, which is more of an inquiry-based model allowing for more personal choice, and for [students] to find the answers. So, teachers become more like facilitators of learning versus deliverers of information. We certainly have some of that happening already, but it will become more the norm than the exception."


The academies will be implemented over the next four years.

"We'll start small," Critz said. "We're starting with basic concepts and interdisciplinary projects for all academies - those will be some of the first steps. We've really had to say, 'What can we accomplish in year one and how do we grow in year two and year three?' We know we need to start small and be successful and grow."

Critz said while staff continues to develop the framework and details of how the academies will work, some career awareness lessons will begin this fall with ninth graders so that they're ready to make an academy selection for the fall of 2014 when they'll enter the new high school as 10th graders.

"We know we'll also have students in 11th and 12th grades [at the new high school] who will not have the full four-year experience that our other students will have, so we will plan accordingly," Critz said.

Over the next year, she said, stakeholders will be making presentations, hosting meetings and generating as many communication opportunities as possible to get the word out about the academies and keep people informed.

Also of note, Critz said they're not aware of another school in Minnesota operating with the career academy.

However, there are schools operating as academies in other parts of the country. Alexandria school district staff and business leaders have visited a high school in Nashville, Tennessee, that has successfully implemented academies.


"Our goal is for students to feel prepared for whatever their next step is," Critz said. "We'll be asking kids to make a lifeplan. Where do you want to be five years after graduation and what will it take to get there?

"Change is hard, you know? Our message is: We're doing it for the right reasons and we need to support people through the change. We need to answer questions, we need to provide training and support to implement a different model," Critz said.

"We're preparing our students and children for their future, not our past," Critz said. "If we don't change, we may not be meeting their needs for their future. We want people to know we're doing something innovative. We believe it will be more engaging for kids and they'll feel more prepared for their future."

Amy Chaffins

Amy Chaffins is a journalist working for the Echo Press newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota.

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