Getting Jump on Careers

Getting Jump on Careers

Academies Provide Real-World Experience

Aug. 28, 2002

Going back to school for some students also includes working toward a certificate in network design, earning a license in cosmetology, completing an internship at a local business or receiving job mentoring from a corporate executive.

Fairfax County Public Schools has five high-school academies that offer juniors and seniors elective courses in advanced technical and specialized fields. Depending on the academy, students can take courses that vary from animal science, Air Force Junior Reserve Officer's Training Corps, construction technology, culinary arts, cosmetology, engineering physics, auto technology, hotel management, criminal justice, management of information systems, dance, occupational therapy, television production to network design and engineering, among others.

In many cases, the students can take the tests required for certification or a license in their chosen field, with the academy footing the bill.

"Our focus here is certification. For example, if a student takes Cisco, we pay for the test. If a student is studying cosmetology, we pay for the license. So our students get their national or international certifications as well as credits," said Jerry Caputo, administrator of the Edison Academy. "We also provide work experience. It does no good if you have a certification and no work experience. All our classes have internship possibilities."

THE ACADEMIES replace the vocational schools of old. The classes are more technology- and consumer-driven. Many of the students go on to some form of postsecondary education, whether it's a two-year community college, a four-year university, a trade school or even the military.

"We stress a postsecondary education. Almost all the career fields require at least two years beyond high school," said John Wittmann, administrator at the Chantilly Academy.

The classes are offered depending on the interest level in a particular subject. Criminal justice, for example, was added to the Marshall Academy this year, and international marketing was dropped from its course list.

"It's just like the market place. If courses don't have the enrollment, we cut them," said Paul Wardinski, administrator of the Marshall Academy. "The only thing that is consistent is change."

Chantilly added the Air Force Junior Reserve Officer's Training Corps, which is an aero-space science program taught by the Air Force, last February and the class is already 90 students over capacity.

The classes at the academies meet every day for at least 90 minutes and are worth two credits, as opposed to the block scheduling used by the high schools, which have students taking a course every other day for one credit. Students continue to take the academic courses such as English and math at their base schools. In most cases, students are bused back and forth between their academy and base school.

The classes are open to juniors and seniors who typically have some experience in their field of interest.

"We have auditions for the performance arts courses. For other courses, the students have to submit portfolios or transcripts," said Dave Saunders, administrator of the Fairfax Academy. "Fact is, if the student thinks that this is the career they want, it will give them an accurate look, and some find out it may not be what they wanted."

MANY OF THE ACADEMIES have waiting lists of students wanting to take a particular course. And their popularity has grown. Saunders said the Fairfax Academy started with 33 students in a part-time dance class. Come Sept. 3, the academy is looking at an enrollment of 470 students from 22 high schools. Similarly, Chantilly will have 1,200 students from 18 different high schools, Edison's enrollment will be 800 students — the academy received more than 1,250 applications — from 15 high schools. Marshall is welcoming 780 students from 18 high schools, and West Potomac will have 400 students from 12 high schools.

"Our classes do get maxed out," said David Eshelman, the administrator at West Potomac. "Unfortunately, we've had to turn kids away."

One of the advantages of the academies for students who are seriously seeking advanced training in a particular field is the partnerships the academies have with the business world. The partnerships allow the academies to receive the latest in technology and up-to-date equipment, provides internship opportunities and a steady stream of guest speakers. The partnerships also allow the students to make business contacts while still in high school.

"There are some students who take classes at the academy during summer school and other electives during the school year," said Caputo. "We have students, for example, getting their cosmetology license at the academy and then while still going to George Mason University, making more money than if they were working in retail. The academies let you leave high school with a certification that ensures a higher level of employment in the working world."