Caroline Brady, a student at Cedar Lane High School, wants to take a course in medical health technologies next year. Pamela Hider, a student at South Lakes High School, plans to take animal science. More than courses offered by their home schools, the medical and veterinary classes provided by the Fairfax County academy schools may help the girls prepare for life after 12th grade.
Computer hardware, cosmetology, culinary arts and criminal justice are just a few of the courses offered as part of Fairfax County's professional technical studies (PTS) program. Providing middle-school and high-school students with hands-on classes in diverse subjects, the PTS program extends opportunities to students beyond those traditionally targeted by vocational classes. At the Chantilly Academy, 15 percent of the high-school-age students are also in AP (advanced placement) or honors courses, and 25 percent of the students have special needs or are learning-disabled. In part because of its broad appeal, the PTS program has grown steadily with middle-school and high-school enrollments up by 10 percent since 1998. At the academy level, enrollment in the computer and animal science courses is particularly heavy.
In some ways, academies are schools-within-schools. Physically, Edison Academy is a series of halls and classrooms inside Thomas A. Edison High School. In the academy classrooms, students spend as much time getting hands-on experience as they do listening to lectures. Cosmetology classes begin in a classroom but end up in an adjoining salon laboratory. In the salon, students practice manicures, hair coloring, styling and makeup application. After two years the students can take a test to become certified as cosmetologists.
<mh>Five Academies in All
<bt>Fairfax County has five academies — at Chantilly, Edison, Fairfax, Marshall and West Potomac high schools. At each location there is a different mix of classes. At either end of the spectrum of possibilities are Marshall Academy and Fairfax Academy. Marshall's program, more typical of the other academies, offers classes in such subjects as advanced accounting, auto body, and network design and administration. Fairfax focuses on what it calls communication arts, including such diverse classes as dance, digital photography and fashion design. All of the academies are open to students throughout Fairfax County.
<mh>History of the Academies
<bt>Nine years ago Chantilly High School had “job-preparation programs.” According to John Wittman, Chantilly Academy's high-school administrator, Chantilly High School teachers then referred to the vocational classrooms as "the ghetto." As Jerry Caputo, Edison Academy administrator, put it, vocational training often was nothing more than a program that warehoused students until they were 18.
Beyond interesting courses and motivated teachers, PTS programs differ from vocational training by an emphasis on community investment. Academy students have done mock interviews and job shadowing. They attend job fairs and work as interns. PTS programs also emphasize competition, and many academy students have earned scholarship prizes. Chantilly Academy's culinary arts program alone has had its students earn $500,000 in scholarship money in the last four years.
Students who complete their courses can also receive credits that go toward college or culinary or technical-school completion. Under what is known as “articulation agreements,” satisfactory course completion — in some cases by maintaining a B average — can give students from two to 19 credits at participating colleges and technical schools. Articulation agreements exist between the Fairfax academies and Northern Virginia Community College, Johnson and Wales University, George Mason University and Stratford University, among others.
<mh>Measures of Success
Testing of Fairfax County's PTS programs has only begun recently, but there are hopeful signs. Academy attendance appears to aid in success at two-year colleges. Academy graduates working permanent full-time jobs had higher wages that did those who had not graduated from an academy. Academy graduates employed in careers matching their PTS work had greater job satisfaction. A noteworthy point is that academy students did no better at four-year colleges than did those students who had not attended an academy.
Administrators such as Caputo and Whitman often point to students who have been helped by academy courses. Edison High School’s auto-body class has had state champions in auto-body-repair competitions. At Chantilly Academy in Davi Anson's computer technology course, there are digital photos of the students who passed their A-plus certification exams.
Judging by Chantilly Academy's Feb. 11 open house, attending an academy is often a family decision. Occasionally, there was a strain between a teen-ager's interests and a parent's interest in her child's future. One girl wanted to take cosmetology classes. The girl's mother thought it made more sense to take the culinary arts courses.
<bt>The original academy, Chantilly, offers courses in engineering and scientific technology, and health and human services. New programs include a class in management information systems offering training in Oracle systems and an Air Force Junior ROTC program. This past year Chantilly added a girls-only section for one of its A-plus certification classes.
<bt>Edison Academy offers courses in international studies, business and engineering or scientific technology. A highlight of Edison's program is its auto-body course taught by Steve Davis, the 1975 auto-repair national champion. Other classes at Edison include courses in computer systems technology, heating and air conditioning, and construction technology.
<bt>An academy specializing in communication arts, Fairfax offers courses in such subjects as graphic imaging and design, music and computer technology and television production. Fairfax Academy also offers master classes that have in the past been led by cellist Yo Yo Ma and the Australian Ballet, among others.
<bt>Like Edison Academy, Marshall Academy offers courses in international studies, business and engineering or scientific technology. New for this year is a course in criminal justice. Other classes offered include Chinese, hotel management and cosmetology.
<bt>Focusing on communication arts, and health and human services, West Potomac offers courses in dental careers, occupational and physical therapy and television production.