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Academy Rewards

In the ‘Dynamo of Dixie,’ shop class is now a thing of the past, as vocational ed retools for a changing economy.

By Tim Walker

“Well, now you know that how they do it on Grey’s Anatomy is wrong!”

Lisa Callegari watches her students pack up and make their way out of her spacious blue-walled classroom. Littered with stethoscopes, bandages, and surgical masks, it’s also home to two makeshift hospital beds inhabited by two pajama-clad mannequins. On this fall day, she’s just completed an activity about scrubbing for surgical procedures that included details ABC’s popular nighttime hospital drama sometimes disregards.

The students in Callegari’s health careers class are enrolled in Tyner Academy’s Science Academy, one of three “career academies” offered at this 1,400-student high school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where a changing economy and more diverse student body have led to dramatic changes in the district’s approach to vocational education.

The Science Academy helped Jennifer, a senior, explore her long-held dream of being a doctor. Exposed to the workings of a diverse array of health care fields and professions, Jennifer, initially interested in practicing surgery, discovered a potential stumbling block.

“I hate blood,” she says. “It never bothered me on television, but trips to the hospital almost made me pass out.” Now she hopes to pursue a career in physical therapy.

Downstairs in Rick Castleberry’s transportation tech classroom, Brandon sits transfixed in front of one of the new computer diagnostic equipment trainer boards. “This thing can do everything but change my tires,” the high school junior marvels. What it does do is help students troubleshoot automotive problems with brake systems, suspensions, and steering and engine performance. Brandon, who is enrolled in Tyner’s Engineering Academy, doesn’t want to be a mechanic—he plans on studying chemical engineering in college—but enjoys learning about automotive diagnostics. “I just think these are skills you need to learn in life,” he says.

Students making “real world” connections to their coursework are a common sight at Tyner. “[They] know what they learn here is relevant to their lives—without their teachers having to spell it out,” says Tyner Academy Principal Carol Goss. “They graduate from school with a vision of what they want to do in life.”

Twelve of the 17 high schools in Hamilton County, which includes the city of Chattanooga and outlying areas, are now home to one or more career academies, learning centers that have redefined and modernized career and technical education. Like elsewhere, vocational education had long been a haven for academic underachievers, separated from the rest of the student body. Since they began launching six years ago, these academies have turned the outdated models upside down by blending career education with a more rigorous academic menu. Doing so has helped address the district’s achievement gaps. Hamilton County officials are encouraged by significant increases in graduation rates and scores on state English tests, which a greater percentage of students are passing at an advanced—not merely proficient—level.

The blueprint for these academies was designed by district officials, teachers, and business and community leaders, with the area’s changing economy in mind. “Chattanooga lost its manufacturing base to the point where less than 20 percent of the jobs here were in that sector,” explains Bill Kennedy of the Public Education Foundation, a local education foundation that’s partnered with the district on the $14 million program. “[It’s] a different town from the one their parents and grandparents knew. Our high schools—particularly our vocational ed classes—were still preparing our students for jobs that no longer existed. That had to change.”

Chattanooga was once heralded as the “Dynamo of Dixie”— not bad for a city that is only the fourth largest (population: 155,000) in Tennessee. From the 1930s through the 1960s, it was a thriving industrial center, motored by foundries, tanneries, brick kilns, and textile mills. Chattanooga’s luster started to erode in the 1970s, as the city’s manufacturing base began to shrink. As heavy industry fell on hard times, plants closed, leaving behind a reeling economy and a stockpile of abandoned, polluted sites. A 1970 national air quality survey by the U.S. Department of Health, Welfare, and Education pinpointed Chattanooga as the “most polluted city in America.” The city was also besieged by problems shared by many urban areas: rising crime rates, declining school quality, racial conflicts, and “White flight” to the suburbs. The “Dynamo of Dixie” had become just another American city in decay.

Today, it’s hard to find signs of this recent history in the clear views of Lookout Mountain and the surrounding ridges, or the bustling, picturesque waterfront—home to new condominiums, restaurants, and museums—along a looping bend of the Tennessee River. The city’s economic comeback was fueled by creative partnerships between business, governments, and civic leaders and has been held up as a model of “sustainable development.” In 1996, President Bill Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development placed Chattanooga on its list of case-study communities.

But the national attention given to the city’s “green” economic revival was soon overshadowed by Chattanooga’s less-illustrious status as home to some of the worst-performing schools in the state. City leaders, local foundations, and district officials set their sights on duplicating the collaboration that characterized the city’s model of economic renovation.

Propelling the district toward reform was the contentious 1997 merger of two neighboring school districts: the largely Black, lower-income Chattanooga City Schools and the predominantly White, suburban Hamilton County district. When city and county leaders voted to unite the two districts in 1996, howls of protest were heard from all corners, particularly since the merger plan included the redrawing of school attendance boundaries. In an area with a history of racial tensions, such a merger was also bound to stir rumblings of discontent, although they were often masked under the veil of differences between “city and country.” In 1997, the sprawling, racially and economically diverse 40,000 student-district, now known as Hamilton County Schools, was born.

“For the suburban folks in Hamilton County, the baby was left on the doorstep,” Goss recalls. “We knew all the old tensions were still there. But we also were confident that if educators and administrators from both districts focused on student achievement and instruction, the merger could benefit us all.”

Following the merger, Hamilton County steadily lost students to local parochial and private schools and to the surrounding suburbs. Central to plans to overhaul the county’s high schools was ending, or at least reducing, the academic and geographic isolation of minority students. Then-school superintendent Jesse Register mapped out an ambitious plan to create magnet schools—in the form of career academies—that would attract White and Black students across the traditional boundaries.

The district joined forces with Chattanooga’s Public Education Foundation (PEF) to help coordinate plans to bolster student achievement. In its role as a “critical friend” to the district, PEF was crucial in providing data analysis and the resources necessary to line up grants to finance the district’s initiatives. Chattanooga is home to a community of strong foundations, including the Benwood Foundation, which, in 2001, made its largest grant ever—$5 million—to help overhaul nine of the lowest-performing elementary schools in Chattanooga.

Hamilton County’s burgeoning reform efforts also attracted outside interest. In 2004, the NEA Foundation awarded Hamilton County $2.5 million over five years to help close the achievement gaps between lower-income and more affluent students in the district’s middle schools; the Foundation later awarded similar grants to Milwaukee and Seattle.

PEF and Hamilton County also secured an $8 million Schools for a New Society grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the largest private grant in the history of Chattanooga’s schools. Then PEF raised an additional $6 million, for a total of $14 million dedicated to reinvigorating the district’s high schools.

The high school reform initiative was ambitious: establish a more challenging and relevant curriculum and tailor it to the new socioeconomic diversity of the district and the new economic climate. Flush with grant money, Hamilton County high schools would begin launching small “learning communities” organized as academies with career focuses that included health sciences, engineering, construction, communications, and technology. Educators would also collaborate with members of the local business community to embed career-based lesson plans into the curriculum.

For veteran career tech teachers like Rick Castleberry, the academies have transformed classrooms that once lacked a strong academic focus into exciting and rigorous learning centers.

“Once, ‘shop’ was ‘shop.’ And ‘auto’ was ‘auto.’ They had no connections to academics,” says Castleberry, who has taught transportation technology for 30 years. “Teaching that used to be about simple diagnostics now incorporates electronics, math, and science into a more comprehensive package.”

Castleberry also marvels at the disparate group of students now attending his classes, a change driven in large part by the district’s adoption of a single-track curriculum. In its consultations with local colleges, business leaders, and researchers, PEF and district officials were hearing the same refrain: students need a core set of skills—academic and technical—to succeed after graduation. All students are now required to complete a course of study that includes mathematics, science, foreign language, fine arts, and other core subjects. By doing so, district officials aim to better prepare students for college, an apprenticeship, or the workforce, narrow the achievement gaps between college-bound and vocational students, and provide equal access to high-level courses.

“I get all kinds of students in my classes: the troublemakers, special ed kids, and class valedictorians,” Castleberry says. “It never used to be that way.”

But for many educators assigned to the academies, the prospect of blending career tech into their curriculum was not an easy assignment. “High school teachers are, by nature, loners,” says Goss. “They teach in relative isolation and don’t necessarily have to interact with other teachers to do their job effectively.”

And that’s the key of the academy approach. A recent highlight for Lisa Callegari, Tyner’s health teacher, was a schoolwide project in which students from all of the school’s academies teamed up to design a school emergency preparedness plan. The Engineering Academy created a blueprint for a shelter, the Communication Academy produced videos and DVDs on emergency preparedness, and all students used math skills to create budgets for health supplies and writing skills to write correspondence to area institutions, including hospitals and law enforcement.

Hamilton County had its share of teachers who were quite comfortable staying in their groove. Denise Hearn has taught English and social studies for 25 years at East Ridge High School, which became home to Hamilton County’s first career academy, with a focus on construction. With a little prodding from her principal, Hearn reluctantly accepted the assignment to teach in the new academy.

“I was terrified,” she recalls. “I’m a traditionalist—I’ll lecture your ears off if you give me half the chance! At the same time, I did suspect that my teaching probably needed to be re-energized.”

Teaching literature had to make room for more technical instruction that will assist students in the workplace, including writing memos and sharpening interview skills. Though she wishes students were as passionate about literature as she was when she was a student, Hearn has been invigorated by her students’ heightened interest and participation.

There’s still room for the classics, but Hearn has repurposed her instruction to elicit more discussion from students. When she teaches The Crucible, for example, instead of discussing the historical connections of Arthur Miller’s play, she has students talk about the role of authority and its potential for injustice in their own lives.

“The academies, by making the classes more directly relevant to students’ interests and aspirations, give them more control over the learning environment,” Hearn says. “We’ve given them a sense of ownership over their own education.” 

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