Foreign exchange students in the United States often remark about the differences in education in their home country with what they find here. One difference is that American students take basic core classes through their senior year, then branch off to a more specialized education in college or technical school. In some other countries, students take classes in their latter high school-age years that match their abilities or career interests.
Things are changing in the U.S., and now Shakopee. Plans for the soon-to-be expanded Shakopee High School is implementation of the so-called “academy model.” For Shakopee students, that will mean elective courses will be split into six main areas of interest, or six academies. Included are science and technology, engineering and manufacturing, arts and communication, business and entrepreneurship, human services, and health sciences. (The seventh will be a freshman academy, designed to help ninth-graders with the transition to high school and serve as a home base for them until they choose an interest-based academy of their own.)
Shakopee High students are required to take a certain number of required classes that focus on core academic subjects like math, science, English/reading and social studies. Students also have a certain number of elective courses available to them that allow for exploration into specific interest areas. Under the academy model, students will have a more defined opportunity to explore academic areas of interest prior to graduation so that they might discover whether that academic direction is right for them after high school — or just as important, whether that academic path is not right for them. Students are also likely to take classes in their interest area with the same teacher more than once, which will help her or him develop an academic relationship with an instructor. Not only that, students in academy models will often be together with like-minded students in their academic block, which should enhance their learning experience.
The high school building itself, which will double in size when it expands, will also have newly designed (or redesigned) classrooms to accommodate the academic model, with spaces that encourage collaboration. The addition will be more accommodating to new technology, as well. Each academy will be housed in its own wing of the school.
“Part of the reason we initially went for the two high school option was because of a desire to keep learning communities as small as possible,” said Shakopee School Board Chair Reggie Bowerman. “Clearly the community wanted to have the larger school, so when we committed ourselves to that, we never lost sight of keeping learning as personalized and contained as possible. We are committed to the academy model.”
In the quest to implement the Academies of Shakopee when the new high school opens, the district sent a total of 70 people on four out-of-state trips to research and tour other schools with the same model. Next month, a group of 30 more will make a fifth trip. Of all the trips, four will have been to Nashville, Tenn., where the Academies of Nashville opened 10 years ago.
The Academies of Nashville are a part of the Ford Next Generation Learning (NGL) network and are considered a national hub that other districts tour when they want to implement a similar academic model. The Shakopee School District is striving to become a member of the Ford NGL network, as well.
Although Bowerman was a supporter of the academy model before touring Nashville, he said the trip only made it that much clearer to him that Shakopee students will benefit from this new model of learning.
“Going to Nashville, for me, was critical,” he said. “Universally, the kids talked about how well they fit into their program, how important it was to them as a person. They’ve got a home, they’ve got something they can identify with, and they have a group of fellow students they can identify with.
“The experience was very informative and very enlightening.”
Bowerman agreed that this is a deep transformation in the way students are taught, but believes it will also change the way students engage with their learning.
“We’re really reshaping the delivery of education, and it will be very meaningful for students and generate even better results over time to turn out the kinds of kids who are ready for college or career,” he said.
The academy model is not new — similar programs have been in some schools in the country for a few years. But it’s still a new concept for most secondary schools in this country, which leaves us wondering what everyone is waiting for. The academic model improves how students focus on educational interests and learn, and that is a good thing.