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Academies At Risk: The Effect on Budget Shortfalls on a College and Career Ready Education

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February 02, 2012 04:36 pm


In my current position at the Alliance, I work a lot on understanding and advancing the practices of high quality career academies and other high school models that promote college and career success for all students. What I saw at a recent site visit though is that recent state budget short falls have come to really endanger some of the key attributes of what makes for high quality career academies. Moving forward, policy makers must be more aware of the consequences current budget decisions can have on state and local educational and economic outcomes.

Indeed, the nation’s economic downturn has made significant budget challenges an on-going reality in schools and districts everywhere. According to analysis by the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, 37 states are providing less funding per student to local schools in the new school year than they provided last year and 30 states are providing less than they did four years ago. In the nation’s largest state, California, since 2007-2008 funding per pupil for the state’s K-12 public schools has declined by roughly 5 percent (from $8,235 per pupil to $7,693).

Some will undoubtedly argue that money doesn’t buy outcomes. That might be true, but while money itself does not, intelligent investments do. For example, there are several decades of research on the benefits of career academies on not only secondary education outcomes, but post secondary and labor market outcomes as well. Most recently, a study on the benefits of the California Partnership Academies program found that academy students had graduation rates that were significantly higher than their peers. The finding was even more noteworthy given the fact that California Partnership Academies often target more disadvantaged populations.

What’s also clear is that it’s not again just academies that are important. Over the course of the last three plus decades, the academy field has come to agreement on ten practices that define high quality career academies. Practices include everything from personalized environments for students through cohort scheduling, to professional learning communities among staff that foster collaboration, and high quality work-based learning opportunities.

On my recent site visit to Media College Prep, in Oakland, CA, I saw budget shortfalls putting many of these quality practices in jeopardy. Located in a tough neighborhood and a tough school, the program has been succeeding in providing a large number of students college and career preparatory work for many years.

In the current climate, administrators, teachers, and students find much of this work being put at risk with regards to several indicators of high quality career academies:

  • Cohort scheduling-One characteristic of high quality career academies is a common cohort that goes through grades together. Now with budget shortfalls in Oakland, the district has been forced to close down continuation schools. Students from these schools who often suffer from significant challenges have been placed into Media College Prep and other schools. This fact has not only jeopardized personalization at the school, but also given the extreme needs of some of these students, has strained the social service capacity of the school as well.
  • Professional learning communities-Another attribute of high quality academies is the presence of professional learning communities. Academies are driven by a team of teachers who engage in a great deal of collaboration often through a common planning period. This collaboration not only leads to more interdisciplinary and integrated curricula, but also helps the team identify student problems and address those problems more effectively. Budget cuts across the district have not only jeopardized the common planning period, but also forced the staff at schools to reshuffle and in the process endangered staff cohesiveness.
  • Work-based learning opportunities-In turn this cohesive, interdisciplinary team of teachers is able to design curricula that feeds into more significant work-based learning opportunities for students. Without a dedicated staff of counselors, teachers, and others to cohesively work together on designing and implementing work-based learning opportunities, quality tends to slip. Additionally, economic realities facing companies has made providing work-based learning opportunities much more difficult as companies themselves are cutting staff and cannot give employees the same level of compensated time to mentor students.

Of course, some of these realities lie well outside of what we can reasonably affect with education policy. For example, education policy clearly can’t in the short-term affect the fact that many companies are shrinking and cutting internship opportunities. That said, other areas such as maintaining the common planning period and being more strategic about how staff time is rearranged are much more within the wheelhouse of administrators and other policy makers.

Indeed, while there’s no doubt that on some level tough times force tough decisions, it is neither in students’ nor districts’ interests to respond to these realities with a more indiscriminate slash and burn policy. There have often been years of work and relationships that have been invested into building some higher quality academies into what they are. The destruction of some of the key structures cannot simply be undone when budgets look rosier. At the end of the day, there are many ways districts can be smart about what they are forced to cut (see Arne Duncan speech from November of 2010 for examples) and indeed failure to do so can prove more costly in the long-term for not only our students but our community and nation as a whole.

Ace Parsi is the Policy and Advovacy Associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.



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