National Academy Foundation
When Marc Forde was in elementary school, he had a friend who lost an arm in a bad accident. “Everyone used to stare at it, and my Mom would always tell me not to stare,” said Ford, now 15 years old.
At the time, the friend’s missing arm was a curiosity, but lately it’s become an inspiration. As a student at a Brooklyn high school dedicated to preparing young people for careers in engineering, architecture and technology, Forde has developed an interest in biomedical engineering – and, more specifically, prosthetics.
“I am fascinated by biology and the human body, and I feel this might be a way to make my mark on the world,” Forde said.
Forde attends City Polytechnic High School. Known as “City Poly” for short, it’s part of the National Academy Foundation’s network of 500 high school career academies across the United States. The NAF Academies are located primarily in urban school districts. Their mission: to prepare young people for college and career success by combining core academic studies with hands-on coursework and real-world experience in engineering and other fields.
The success of the Academies is evident in the fact that more than 90 percent of their students graduate from high school, compared to 50 percent in the urban areas where most NAF Academies exist. Four out of five NAF Academy graduates go on to college.
A New Kind of High School Experience
Engineering is the latest new Academy “theme” added to the NAF portfolio; the others are finance, information technology, and hospitality and tourism. A new health sciences theme is in the works. NAF academies are designed to use these career themes as a curriculum unifier for core academy subjects, including science, technology, and mathematics.
With curricula, teacher training and other support provided by NAF, the Academies function as partnerships between educators and local businesses, which supply classroom speakers and other volunteers and mentors, paid internships for students, and other resources. Some academies operate as smaller schools within larger public high schools, while others function as stand-alone public schools.
City Poly joined the network in the 2007-2008 school year as a stand-alone school made up of a NAF Academy of Information Technology and a NAF Academy of Engineering. The curriculum allows Forde and his fellow students to complete their high school requirements – including both core academic work and career and technical education – in three years. Students completing their Academy studies then move directly to the New York City College of Technology (“City Tech”) for a free, two-year associate’s degree program designed to pave the way for a smooth transition to a four-year college or university.
More than 1,200 miles down the Atlantic coast from Brooklyn, Hialeah Gardens High School in Miami created four NAF Academies as school-within-a-school programs. Students enroll in the academies as an elective. In the Academy of Engineering, Cynthia Wu, who previously worked for a Miami structural engineering firm, teaches six classes ranging from Introduction to Engineering Design for freshmen to a civil engineering and architecture class open to juniors and seniors. The Academy supplements the classroom lessons with guest speakers, field trips and summer internships for students with local engineering-related businesses.
“It’s really an amazing opportunity for these students,” said Wu. She said she has noticed a special impact on the girls in her engineering classes. “Many of them would never even consider engineering as a career path, and now they’re getting a close-up look and the Academy is opening doors for them to a whole new world.”
Business Involvement Essential
Active business involvement is part and parcel of the NAF model, which was developed in the 1980s by Sanford I. Weill, chairman emeritus of Citigroup, as a partnership between businesses and educators. Each NAF Academy has an Advisory Board of business leaders and community representatives who support teachers and students, in part by providing internships and other work-based learning opportunities.
Caroline McCullen, director of education initiatives with the software firm SAS, served for three years on the advisory board for the Academy of Information Technology at Apex High School, just a few miles from SAS’s North Carolina headquarters. She said SAS worked closely with the Academy teachers to incorporate a class in the SAS programming language in the Academy curriculum. In addition, several Academy students have worked in paid internships at SAS.
According to McCullen, her company’s interest in NAF stems from its concern about recent declines in the number of college and university graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. “Through our support for the NAF Academies, we’re trying to help schools bring more relevance and rigor to the teaching of math and technology so students get excited about these subjects and so they get the preparation they need to succeed,” McCullen said.
A Solid Research Basis
The NAF approach is founded on research showing that high school career academies contribute to better jobs and higher earnings for participants. NAF’s own research suggests that NAF Academy graduates are earning bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than the broader population.
Marc Forde won’t know for a while where he will go to college or what jobs await him as he pursues his interest in biomedical engineering and prosthetics. What he does know is that the Academy of Engineering at City Poly is providing him with a pathway to success in college and later in life.
“It’s hard sometimes, but I know I am learning,” Forde said. “And I’m getting a flavor of what goes on in the real world so I’ll be prepared when my time comes.”
The National Academy Foundation is working to ensure that more students can discover their passions in the same way Forde has. NAF’s associate vice president of programs, Bill Taylor, said new academies are being added to the network every year: “our new Academies of Health Sciences will bring engaging educational opportunities to young people that can put them on a path to fulfilling careers in a fast-growing industry.”
“We’re finding that when we bring this concept to school districts across the country with students at risk of not completing high school,” he added. “There is a great deal of enthusiasm for giving these students a better chance.”
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