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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Big, Diverse California District Embraces Academies

Multiple pathways of career technical education lead to academic rigor and success on a district-wide level at Elk Grove Unified School District in California. More to this story.
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Steven: Elk Grove Unified School District is the fifth largest school district in the state of California. We serve approximately 62,000 students. We cover 320 square miles, which is one-third of the entire county of Sacramento. We have a very richly diverse population, with over 80 languages being spoken inside the district. When I first started my career, I was a shop teacher, and so one of the things that I will share is that when we talk about career technical education in the 21st century, those woodshops of the past is not what career technical education is about today. For the 21st century, we have young people in the Elk Grove Unified School District that are harvesting algae so that they can press out of the algae oils so that they can make biofuels. And we're seeing teachers at a variety of our schools that are getting students not only engaged in the academic rigors of a multiple-pathway career technical education program but are getting them engaged in ways that their academics are very rigorous, that they're taking the kinds of higher mathematics that you want to see. And so I would suggest that it's green academy, animation, agriculture that is allowing our students to be very productive, both academically and being well prepared to go into higher education and then go into the workforce because the skill sets that they're getting really are 21st century. We are seeing our students with higher attendance rates in our academies. There is a very, very high success rate of students not only completing the program but going on to higher education. We're seeing students that are highly motivated, and there are several reasons for these things-- obviously, the connection with the instructors, connection with the family, kind of a feel inside the academy programs, the peer support for one another, so we're seeing all of those. Now, we're also watching our young people do very well on the California High School Exit Exam. We are seeing success in the programs. We are seeing success in graduation. We're seeing success in kids going on into higher education and the world of work.

Male: Again, and just a little more theatricality.

Steven: Our academies are not exclusive. They are inclusive. California Partnership Academies ask for at least 40% of the students to come into the program that would be, in some people's eyes, considered at-risk students. Now, our doors are open. We want to see, as does the California Partnership Academy, that there is dedicated staff that work with a collection of students on an integrated fashion to ensure that the delivery of the work, all the way from the keystone class all the way through the academic rigor coming through the program, is integrated, that is focused, that there is clear evidence of where those relationships emerge. And if you have a particular-- let's take culinary arts. So that in the science aspect of culinary arts, we want to see the science that really is not only good science but how does it relate to culinary production or food production. We were one of the first districts in the state of California actually to use a modified national rubric to certify academies, and quite frankly, we wanted to make sure that if you said you were an academy, that the criteria that we wanted to see in place as the Elk Grove Unified School District and that the gold seal that you would get would be reflective of a true academy and that we didn't want to be confused about that. We didn't want to have a collection of electives be categorized as an academy, so we put that in place.

Teacher: This is a closed-loop photo bioreactor, and it's designed to be able to grow algae. And what we want to do then is to be able to take that algae and turn it into products like fuel or…

Stephen: Part of the Academy and certification is tremendous outreach, and that is a valuable, necessary ingredient to academies and the pathways to have business partnerships that are there not just for money, because money is certainly helpful and important, but it's that technical view of what is your trade looking for in young people going into college and then into work or going directly into the workforce. What we need to do is quit talking about this as being an either or, college or careers. This is about making sure that the young people of today in California and across the country are prepared to go on to higher education, go into the world of work and be successful, and be contributors in a global economy, that our students have a quality of life that anchors them to be productive citizens.

Narrator: For more information about what works in education, go to Edutopia.org.

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Video Credits


  • Karen Sutherland

Associate Producers

  • Doug Keely
  • Kathy Baron

Camera Crew

  • Mike Elwell
  • Doug Keely

Video Programming Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Original Music

  • Ed Bogas

Edutopia's Schools That Work Merging Career Tech and College Prep installment is supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation.

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