A summer job for a 16-year-old typically involves serving coffee, scooping ice cream, or babysitting the neighborhood children. Some students at Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Public Schools, however, spent their summer vacation designing a children's Web site for the city of Miami Beach. An increasing number of students are finding themselves mingling among professionals with internships in local businesses—the culmination of a work-based learning curriculum.
Nationwide, districts are exploring the prospects of incorporating work-based studies into their high school courses. One organization, the National Academy Foundation (NAF), has collaborated with schools and teachers since 1982 to develop and implement career-centered curricula. Schools can choose from four fields of study to offer their students: finance, hospitality and tourism, information technology, and engineering. On average, a student takes one or two courses per year as electives and completes an internship with a local business before graduation.
NAF was created with the intent to form a partnership between business leaders and educators. The organization is currently working in 219 school districts, which encompasses 376 public high schools across 40 states and D.C. The role of NAF is to work with teachers to implement a career-centered curriculum into the classroom and provide assistance throughout the academic year. Over 90 percent of NAF students graduate from high school, and four out of five students continue to college or postsecondary education. Of those students, 52 percent earn a bachelor's degree.
"What the students choose to study doesn't limit where they are able to go in their career," says Colleen Devery, communications officer for NAF. "They are able to get to college and set a professional path for themselves in a way that their peers aren't as successful."
Lupe Diaz, director of Schools of Choice and Parental Options of Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Public Schools, has seen NAF evolve over the 23 years it has operated in her district. She feels the academy engages students and gives them critical skills for success.
"We are transforming education and engaging students by utilizing their interests to keep them focused to graduate," says Diaz. "I've had employers tell me they need a student that has a good presence, can communicate with others, and think on their feet. These academies do that by offering interdisciplinary studies and presenting kids with real, current issues."
In addition to nationwide partners, NAF works in the community to team up with local businesses to assign students a paid summer internship to gain hands-on experience in a professional environment. According to Devery, internships allow students not only to explore that particular career but to speak with professionals about their potential career paths as well.
"Internships are a transformative experience," says Devery. "Students see all facets of companies. They really come out with a different lens on careers."
The American Management Association (AMA) and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) released the AMA 2010 Critical Skills Survey on April 15, which found that executives from major corporations overwhelmingly believe that skills such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity are vital for success in their companies. According to the study, which surveyed 2,115 managers and executives, 59 percent of managers believe it is easier to develop these skills in students than in experienced workers.
"It's beneficial to tether experiences of what students are expected to do in the real world with what they're learning in school," says Ken Kay, president of P21. "The context of these critical skills becomes much more clear to students."
NAF begins an enrollment process in the fall of every year for districts interested in joining the network. If approved, each district undergoes an 18-month planning process to prepare and incorporate the different elements needed to implement an academy in its high school(s).