How themed schools-within-a-school turned things around in Texas.
Come tax season, more than 1,000 residents in the Waco, Texas, school district will bundle up receipts and records and deliver them to a team of volunteer accountants: high school students at Waco’s A.J. Moore Academy. In preparation, these students are now poring over Internal Revenue Service rules, soaking up a book as thick as the Waco phone directory. By April, the 16-year-olds will be prepared to explain the intricacies of the U.S. tax code to people 10, 20, and 30 years their senior.
Daunting, perhaps, but the students eat up the challenge: one of many authentic, real-world projects offered at the academy. In 2004, when students at A.J. Moore started the free tax service, they filed 373 returns—a total of $350,198 in refunds. The next year they completed 795 returns, totaling $974,698 refunds. This year, they expect to exceed 1,200.
“There aren’t many high school volunteers who can say they had that kind of economic impact on their community,” says Debra Bishop, principal of A.J. Moore. “With projects like this, kids can see a direct application of what they’re learning in the classroom to the real world.”
The school’s focus on authentic, real-life projects began in 1998, when A.J. Moore became a pilot school for the National Academy Foundation’s Academy of Information Technology. The school is one of 630 that are a part of the NAF and was one of the first 12 in the country. Now students can attend academies of Environmental Technology, Constructive Science, Finance, and Public Relations and Tourism.
Academy programs like those under the NAF umbrella started in the U.S. in the 1960s in Philadelphia. An academy is not a vocational school. Rather, it is a school-within-a-school based on a theme—such as information technology, finance, or hospitality. The students take core classes just as they do at any school: fine arts, music, physical education. But instead of other electives, they delve intensively into themed areas such as landscape design, digital electronics, or international finance—almost like a college major.
In the early years, these academies were within the walls of a traditional school at A.J. Moore. Now the school is “wall-to-wall academy,” says Angela Reiher, one of the school’s assistant principals. “If we’re not teaching what’s in the world, it doesn’t make sense.”
From Chaos to Magnet
Nine years ago, A.J. Moore was a school in disarray.
“It was out of control,” says Reiher. “The kids were disrespectful, tearing down bulletin boards and writing graffiti in the assistant principal’s office.”
Reiher and Bishop, who came to the school close to the same time in 1997, spent their first year putting out fires. The next step was completely transforming the way the school taught. After changing to the academy model, A.J. Moore became Waco ISD’s first exemplary-rated high school. Now a magnet school, it draws students from all over Waco. While students must apply, their grades are not considered. The school is limited to 200 students and generally has a waiting list.
“A.J. Moore has gone faster and better than the norm,” says John Ferrandino, NAF president. “In 95 percent of the cases, we see significant growth and change. That has a lot to do with leadership and commitment on the part of the school and the district.
”The success of A.J. Moore is spreading throughout the district, where more academy models are in the works—an aviation program at Waco High School, a health sciences program at University High School, and a pre-law program being developed at a middle school.
A. J. Moore “is a high-performance campus with a unique approach,” says Roland Hernandez, Waco ISD superintendent. “It provides an environment in which students can focus on what kind of track they want to be on.” Hernandez would like to give the district’s 16,000 students the same advantages enjoyed by those at A.J. Moore. “I like to give them choices rather than just the traditional approach,” he says.
Adrian E. Lara was one of the first
graduates of A.J. Moore’s Academy of Information Technology two years ago. “I thought it was something innovative,” says Lara, 20, now a web site designer at Curves International and a student at Texas State Technical College. “We had all this new technology, like laptops. We saw that the teachers were geared toward technology. The atmosphere was geared toward learning new things. It wasn’t the same, ‘Take your textbooks out and look at this page.’”
A vital part of the academy model is its partnerships, which focus curriculum on real-life business practices, help students find summer internships, and help gather community support. Tom Pardaen, credit manager at the Brazos Higher Education Service Corps (a student loan originator service) got involved with A.J. Moore’s Business Advisory Board
six years ago and is now president. Over the past several years, 12 to 15 interns from the school have worked summers at the company.
“Most of these kids come from the lower-end poverty side, and the vast majority are minorities. To see them succeed and come out of their shells is just incredible,” Pardaen says. “When they come up to you and they thank you, it’s amazing.”
The academy experience “really helped me with my communication skills,” says Lara. “Not just with my peers but with people who were twice my age and prominent in the community. It wasn’t so much that we would have discussions on how to speak.
It would be more like, ‘We’re having this presentation and the Business Advisory Board is showing up.’ It was just the practice.”
Statistics show that the academy model is working. In most urban areas, 50 percent of students graduate from high school; that percentage is 90 in academy schools. And 85 percent of graduates are in a professional field five and 10 years after graduation.
“Career academies are one of the tools that every community should use, but it’s not the only one,” Ferrandino says. “If we look at the brain research, we know we all learn differently. It’s a piece of the puzzle.”
Bishop agrees. “A lot of kids should be able to experience this,” she says. “We have our challenges—the kids who walk through our doors swim in the same water as other urban kids. It’s all about making kids feel good about what they’re doing and know that success is within their reach.”