George Lucas Educational Foundation

Biotech Academy: Challenging Assumptions and Changing Lives

This school within a school puts the emphasis on academics and a future career.

October 1, 2003
VIDEO: Biotech Academy: A Catalyst for Change

Running Time: 10 min.

When Erica Diaz began high school, she did not expect to graduate. "As a freshman, I just thought I was going to be a single mother and at my age -- at sixteen!" Miguel Villafana thought he would graduate from high school, but college was not in his plans. It turns out neither Diaz nor Villafana gave themselves enough credit. She graduated in June and hopes to be a doctor. He is attending San Diego State University and mentoring high school students. Their lives were changed by their experiences in the Biotechnology Academy at Andrew P. Hill High School, in San Jose, California.

Connecting career exploration with academics is not a new idea. Academies have been operating in schools across the country for over thirty years and have a proven record of success. A number of rigorously designed studies have generally shown improvements in attendance, retention, graduation rates, and grades. They also show that both students and teachers like academies better than traditional high schools. (Visit the Web site of the Career Academy Support Network, at the University of California at Berkeley, for links to these reports. The CASN has a helpful list of frequently asked questions and their answers; download a PDF) of the list.)

More familiarly known as the Biotech Academy, this school-within-a-school was founded in 1999 as part of Andrew P. Hill's medical magnet program. It serves about 125 students out of the total school population of nearly 2,000 kids. Because the career-academy model has proven to be especially effective at reaching students with socioeconomic and academic challenges, more than 50 percent of the academy students were selected because of their at-risk status. "The goal of the program isn't to accept C and above students," says Director Mary Metz. "I am looking for that D and F student who is capable of being able to do the work but who is, for some reason, not doing it."

Personalization -- A Team of Caring Adults

The Biotech Academy is a work in progress striving to sustain all the qualities that research and experience indicate make an academy successful, including being a small learning community with a college-preparatory curriculum and postsecondary partnerships. Committed adults -- teachers, counselors, and business partners -- work together to keep students in school, help them plan for the future, and encourage their academic achievement. Another critical element of the academy is that every student is known and valued and has a caring adult in his or her life. Teachers work as a team to ensure that each student is known well and has the support needed for success.

In order to achieve their goals, teachers participate in voluntary meetings twice a week to discuss student progress, develop curriculum, and coordinate the academy's many outreach events. As a community, the teachers try to learn about the students' living conditions, family support, and outside interests. For Miguel Villafana, the personal connection with the teachers, and the advice they gave, was critical to his staying in school and, ultimately, his acceptance to college. "Biotech, they would not let us go," he says. "Whatever they had to do, they would do -- call us at home, tutoring."

Students are recruited and enroll at the end of the ninth grade for this program for grades 10-12. Academies keep students and teachers together over the course of three years, so students develop close-knit relationships. Erica Diaz notes that the academy's family-like atmosphere promotes familiarity and a sense of comfort. "Since I have almost all my classes with all the same students, it's easier for me to work," she says. "The teachers are always behind you. They talk about you in meetings, and they know what's going on in your life."

The Biotechnology Academy staff is dedicated to helping every student reach his or her potential. They believe they make a difference in the lives of the Biotech students and are, therefore, willing to spend additional time beyond the school day, and expend additional efforts beyond traditional teacher expectations.

"I tend to spend a lot of my time talking to other teachers, certainly spending more time talking to the students at lunch or after school, chasing them down and saying, 'Hey, what are you struggling with?'" says history teacher Doug Schaefer. "The reward is to see many of them going to college, many of them coming back and really making something of themselves. When we see their little brothers and little sisters in a few years, they are going to have the expectation of 'Yeah, I am going to college.' That's a huge reward for all for us, not just for me but also for the whole community."

Although the curricular focus is on science, English and history courses are also integrated. Students learn through projects and activities and through field trips to local biotechnology companies. A core group of academic teachers works with the students across all grade levels to ensure high-quality work, regular attendance, and on-time graduation. If a student is struggling, intervention is swift. "We have four teachers who staff an after-school tutoring program where students are required to go for help if their grades drop below a C in any of their classes," says Metz.

(See the "Biotech: At a Glance" multimedia feature and PDFs of the academy's Biology Objectives, Science Project Rubric, Peer Editing Form, Peer Evaluation Form, and Making It Happen Q&A for more insights into this school.)

Business partners show students how chemistry and biology have real-world applications.

Credit: Edutopia

Personalization -- Business Partners As Role Models and Mentors

The Biotech Academy has established partnerships with several local Silicon Valley companies, including Agilent Technologies, Alza, Applied Biosystems, Guidant, Genentech, Genencor, Incyte Genomics, Kaiser Permanente, Exelesis, and Stanford Medical School. These companies provide guest speakers, field trips, and job- shadowing opportunities. Some offer internships for students. Others also participate in the mentor program for academy juniors and seniors. Mentors volunteer two hours each month and offer academic support, role modeling, and encouragement to students. Often, mentors are the experts for student projects.

Agilent Technologies has been a partner since the academy's inception. Terry Lincoln, the company's public affairs director, serves on Biotech's advisory committee and says that because of Agilent's focus on life science and bioscience, the business links perfectly with the academy. The company has provided two monetary grants: one for $30,000 and another for $10,000.

It also sponsors the Agilent After School hands-on science program, in which Biotech Academy seniors work with incoming eighth-grade students on science-related projects. When asked about the benefits to Agilent, Lincoln explained, "We want to encourage, inspire, and excite students about science. Hopefully, they will go on and pursue an education and a career in science."

Homero Rey is a product test scientist at Applied Biosystems. As one of a group of prospective volunteers from the company willing to help encourage student interest in biotech careers, he heard a presentation Metz made to the company and decided to donate some time with Biotech Academy students. "My background is Latino, and a lot of these students are of Latino background, so I think it helps to see someone who comes from their culture," says Rey.

Rey mentors two male students, meeting with them twice a month either at the high school or when they visit Applied Biosystems. He views his role, he says, as helping them "understand what it takes to become a successful scientist." Rey encourages them to focus on succeeding in school and learn what it is they enjoy learning and doing. While sharing his background growing up in Brooklyn with parents of Cuban descent, he asks about their lives and tries to understand their problems and concerns.

Students who visit Applied Biosystems are led through a day-long series of activities beginning with a lecture from Rey about the general skills required to be a product test scientist and the specific knowledge of chemistry, physics, molecular biology, and mechanical engineering he uses every day at work. Following Rey's talk, the students conduct a hands-on laboratory experiment guided by other Applied Biosystems employees who have also volunteered their time. They learn how to make a calibration curve using mathematics and how to use scientific equipment such as a hemacytometer (an instrument that counts blood cells in a measured volume of blood) and a microscope.

During their visits, students also have opportunities to learn about other careers such as biochemistry, engineering, biology, and chemistry. Through exposure to the real world, business partners such as Applied Biosystems hope to encourage students to stay in school, focus on academic achievement, and plan for future success.

Ninety-five percent of last year's seniors were college bound.

Credit: Edutopia

A Better Future

Most Biotech Academy students enter the program with a poor attitude about school and a less-than-stellar academic record -- cutting classes, being pressured by peers to be cool, and not believing in themselves or other people. Most, like Miguel Villafana and Erica Diaz, who received the Turn-Around Student of the Year award from the local Kiwanis Club, learn that perseverance and hard work can lead to a better future. "I felt like I did something, you know?," Diaz says, beaming. "I am getting somewhere, and it's paying off. I am getting scholarships. I'm getting known throughout the school that I did do something for myself."

In 2000, the Biotech Academy was selected as a Lighthouse Site for UC Berkeley's Career Academy Support Network. A Lighthouse Site is an academy that provides materials and meeting space and hosts classroom visits and opportunities to network and discuss real issues around academy development and improvement. Educators from the Bay Area interested in establishing an academy or improving an existing academy can visit the Biotech program for a day, talk with staff and faculty, collect samples of related materials (such as brochures, contracts, and parent letters), and speak with one another about what they have seen and how it might be implemented at their site.

Additional resources about career academies can be found at the Web site of the California Partnership Academies and through the National Career Academy Coalition.

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  • Career & Technical Education
  • Community Partnerships
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  • Student Engagement
  • 9-12 High School

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