Yes to College and Career Academy
I admit to initial skepticism when Kim Learnard invited me months ago to join the group she was assembling to consider the creation of a College and Career Academy (CCA) in Fayette County. After all, I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy, and I guess Kim realized that because she said my critical view was what she wanted.
So I participated with this premise: Show me what such a special school, designed to be part of the high school system, brings to the table that our high schools cannot? Along the way, this old dog learned a couple of new tricks.
From reports of the experience of 30 or so other Georgia counties that have developed their own CCA, and tours of some of them including contact with students, a picture took shape with a clear message for those holding the reins of our school system: Shed the straight-jacket of the way things have been done over the last 50 years, be willing to think outside the traditional box and innovate to get a better education product from our scarce resources.
To share with you my newfound and meager explanation of a College and Career Academy, I need to first mention a few challenges inherent in high schools.
First, students planning for college find seats in coveted advanced placement (AP) courses to be scarce, and dual enrollment courses that actually earn both high school and college credit are not available.
Second, the dropout rate in Georgia is 33 percent, and even though Fayette County’s dropout rate is much lower at 10 percent, that is still one out of every ten kids we are losing.
Third, economic development depends on a highly educated workforce, and the business community will tell anyone smart enough to listen that our high school kids graduate completely unprepared in workplace “soft skills” like work ethic, punctuality, reliability, communication skills, proper dress, employer loyalty, etc.
Furthermore, with the majority of students headed to college, trades such as electricians, machinists, welders, auto mechanics and others requiring specific skills are aging without younger waves of qualified workers to step into their shoes.
The CCA is designed to help the entire system do a better job on these issues. Not every high school can offer courses of study to be a trained dental assistant, auto mechanic or welder. Not every high school can offer a full complement of AP courses for college-bound kids.
But when resources for those specialties from all county high schools are pooled into one location, students with their own transportation can choose to spend part of their high school day in a curriculum not offered within the walls of their high school, and teachers with special skills can be better utilized with classrooms filled from multiple high schools.
When kids who are discouraged and marginalized see a hands-on training program that treats them like an adult while building a marketable skill, they have a real alternative to dropping out. They may not only graduate, they might graduate with immediate job prospects.
When Kim Learnard herded cats to take a tour group to the Coweta CCA in Newnan, I asked students in one AP class why they preferred the CCA classes to their high school.
They said with enthusiasm, “This course wasn’t available in the high school, and our teachers here call us ‘associates,’ treat us like adults and expect us to discipline ourselves and perform.”
The auto mechanic and welding shop students weren’t available at the time, but the dental assistant lab, run by an experienced teacher who clearly established a demanding and professional simulation of a dental clinic, was full of eager young women including dual enrollees from high school as well as tuition-paying graduates who returned to earn the skill and certificate. The robotics lab, full of equipment funded by local businesses, was chock full of experiments and even fun.
Last week I drove my high school sophomore daughter, Melanie, to accept Kim’s invitation to join a group touring the Newton County CCA. I skipped the tour so Melanie could accompany Kim and give her candid student feedback without Dad’s influence.
On the drive home, Melanie told me with considerable excitement, “Dad, those students look you right in the eye, give you a firm handshake and talk with the confidence of a grown-up!”
She told me about the fine lunch they had, cooked and served by high school students of the culinary arts program working on their chef certificate.
Melanie was most impressed by the passion of one girl who explained to her when she graduated from high school she would also have a certificate in nursing.
Other programs included cosmetology, agricultural mechanics, forestry, broadcast and video production, computer networking and some others. What struck Melanie most was these students had choices, even the choice to take a course that counted for both high school and college credit, and she wondered whether some of the job preparation choices may have turned prospective dropouts into employable workers.
Beyond student motivation, there are advantages to partnering with local businesses and industries. Private funding helps build unique resources, like the Coweta CCA robotics lab, welding shop and auto shop lift, expensive equipment that would be impossible to replicate in every high school.
When Yamaha became active in curriculum planning for the Coweta CCA, it was with an eye to graduates as prospective employees.
Business partners also connect the workplace to the classroom with internships, shadowing and participation in courses. And by centralizing unique talent and resources from one high school that has done an outstanding job in a particular area, that program can grow and be available to all high school students in the county.
Sometime early this year, Kim Learnard began to quietly work to pull together members of the Fayette County School Board, community leaders, representatives of prominent businesses in the county, and start a dialogue on recognizing the need, to develop support for Fayette County’s own College and Career Academy. There is a survey now ongoing to cast a wider net for business input.
If you wonder about how successful Kim has been tapping business interest in the value of CCA, she has garnered active support from many organizations like Dolce, Wyndham, Coweta-Fayette EMC, Fayette-Piedmont Hospital, Cannongate, Integrated Science & Engineering, Heritage Bank, Clayton State University, NAECO, Southern Crescent Technical College, the Fayette County Development Authority and of course the Fayette County Public School system as well as other businesses and community leaders.
Elsewhere in Georgia, Troup County CCA is in a similar stage of development; they have the good fortune that Kia recognizes the need and value and has committed to donate $3 million over five years.
At the state level there is seed money potentially available to help get started, and of course the school board has to be committed to integrate CCA as part of the high school system.
To make CCA work, the Board of Education has to be not only committed to the ideology of CCA, they have to reallocate teachers and other resources and carefully manage the budget.
That will require quite a turnaround in Fayette County, where “dysfunctional” is too kind a word for BOE recent performance on conflict with their own superintendant, paralysis on tough school closing decisions and complete budgetary incompetence. Hope springs eternal for the new BOE in January.
Building consensus and support of innovative methods while so many of us have our heads stuck in the past has been and continues to be an upstream swim, and however long CCA startup takes, all of us in Fayette County already owe Kim a debt of gratitude for her tireless work to champion this issue.
I think the one-word description of her efforts is “leadership,” a refreshing characteristic in a world where too many politicians find a parade and jump in front to call themselves a leader.
Kim is not engaged in this effort to earn praise and is likely uncomfortable that I am turning the spotlight on her. But her work on CCA is one fine example of leadership and public service; it deserves mention.
Color me sold on CCA. I do hope our new BOE seated in January will live up to Kim’s leadership by putting dysfunction aside, managing the budget like adults and committing to implement CCA as soon as fiscally possible.
Our Fayette County kids deserve it no less than the other Georgia counties where CCA is a raging success.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]