Career Academies

Local governments can invest in this strategy using State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

  • This strategy can help address educational disparities. The U.S. Department of Treasury has indicated that strategies that help achieve this outcome are eligible for the use of Fiscal Recovery Funds.
  • Investments in this strategy are SLFRF-eligible as long as they are made in qualified census tracts or are designed to assist populations or communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Program overview

  • Preparing students for college and career: The career academy model is “school within a school” approach to high school education that integrates both academic and career-oriented coursework and experiential education. It aims to improve students’ readiness for postsecondary education and workforce opportunities in specialized fields, like health sciences, engineering, and business.

  • Integrating academic and career education: Career academies are organized as small learning communities (typically between 30-60 students per grade), often as schools embedded within existing high schools. Students choose a career track (e.g., health sciences, information technology), which has a defined sequence of academic and career-oriented courses leading to graduation.

  • Offering work-based learning experiences: In addition to academic and career-oriented instruction, career academies offer work-based learning experiences. Often, these experiences are developed in partnership with local employers and may include internships, summer employment, shadowing opportunities, and more.

  • Supported by an advisory board: While school staff handle administrative matters associated with running a career academy, they are typically supported by an advisory board. The board typically includes representatives from the school district, career academy, the business community, colleges and universities, and other stakeholders. It focuses on identifying work-based learning opportunities and other experiential components.

  • Using primarily existing school district funds: Since career academies are part of the public school system, they are primarily funded with existing school district dollars. When a career academy is founded, the district reallocates resources from other high schools based on the size of the career academy’s enrollment. That said, many academies receive additional support through philanthropic or state and federal government sources (e.g., Carl Perkins Act funds).

Evidence and impacts

Proven

Ranked as having the highest level of evidence by County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, Social Programs That Work, the National Institute of Justice; the second-highest level of evidence by Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, the U.S. Department of Education What Works Clearinghouse

A single study with a rigorous design provides some evidence for career academies as a strategy for improving postsecondary workforce outcomes.

  • A 2008 randomized controlled trial found that career academy students earned an average of $113 more per month than non-academy students in the first four years after graduation. In years five through eight, the effect increased to an average earnings premium of $216 per month.

Best practices in implementation

  • Design the academy as a small learning community: Career academies are characterized by a strong sense of community. Other than maintaining a small enrollment, school districts can strengthen community by using cohort scheduling, which ensures students take a series of classes together each year, and setting aside clearly delineated space for the career academy within the broader high school building.

  • Structure the high school-career academy relationship: Many career academies operate within existing high schools, sharing equipment, space, and teaching, support, and administrative staff. School districts should develop a memorandum of understanding that outlines how both schools will cooperatively use shared resources.

  • Align career to local employer needs: In the design phase, school districts should solicit input from major employers and the chamber of commerce on high-value jobs and career paths. This can include recommendations on specific skills, subject areas, and post-secondary programs to partner with. In doing so, students will be better positioned to access the labor market, while employers will be incentivized to dedicate resources to work-based learning experiences (e.g., internships).

  • Dedicate staff to address administrative matters: When a career academy operates within another high school, at least one teacher and one administrator should be given dedicated time to handle the career academy’s administrative needs. With dedicated administrative time, career academy leaders can better manage relationships with local employers, which is vital to providing students with meaningful work-based learning experiences.

  • Prepare students for post-secondary opportunities: An explicit goal of career academies is increasing students’ readiness for post-secondary educational and workforce opportunities. In addition to work-based learning experiences, career academies should adopt evidence-based college access strategies to assist students in accessing higher education opportunities.