George Lucas Educational Foundation

Learning on Purpose: Transforming a Good School into a Great School

Wall-to-wall career academies and a transition program for ninth graders have helped create an environment at this Texas high school in which rigorous, relevant education -- inside and outside of the classroom -- is the norm for all students. Read the article.
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Teacher: So, one, two, three, go.

Narrator: Whether they are learning how to teach a first grade science lesson..

Student: One, two, three.

Narrator: Or how to save a life, students at South Grand Prairie High School, near Arlington, Texas, are pursuing their passions.

Shawnda: BP is 130 over 70.

Narrator: As sophomores, students can choose to enroll in one of five academies that will prepare them for college and careers in everything from accounting to art, from building bridges, to building arguments.

Student: He spots these two, and with this jealous rage consuming him, he murders them.

Roy: What we found out is that we weren't successful with 60 percent of the students, that yes, they were graduating, yes, they were moving on to life after high school, but not at the level that we would like to see them. So we decided that old phrase, what's good for one is good for all, and go to wall-to-wall academies for all 2,500 students, to give each and every one of them an opportunity to explore, to experiment, to find out what they wanted to do, and yes, to find out, what, perhaps, they didn't want to do after they graduated.

Debra: When we first went to academies, we were really fighting the concept that moving to career academies was dumbing down and just catering to vocational skills, and that we were throwing academic rigor out the window. And that's not it at all.

Teacher: Where is your roadway going to be?

Student: Right here at the top.

Debra: What we're trying to do is, we're trying to give our students some marketable skills, either in their career, or skills on a high level, that they can use in the workplace. So perhaps, instead of flipping burgers to earn some college money, they are repairing computers.

Stephanie: It's great being in the academy, because you get to learn with the people that want to do the same thing, like, being in big school, people may distract the class, and or not wanting to be there, but when you're in academy, everyone wants to be in that academy, and you're able to learn more.

Chuck: Hi, guys, what have we got?

Shawnda: We've got an 18 year old female, her initial BP was 130 over 70, pulse is 64--

Narrator: Most of the academies invite professionals, like flight paramedic Chuck Skinner, to volunteer as mentors.

Student: INO times three at that point, and respirations were still 18.

Chuck: Rather than this pie in the sky kind of education, where we all hold hands, sing Kumbaya, and read Socrates, we actually are talking about stuff that matters today. I mean, they'll come out of school ready to go to work. We have jobs waiting for some of these guys.

Narrator: If they do well in the course, and pass a battery of tests, students can graduate as certified emergency medical technicians.

Shawnda: And being able to know what I'm doing and actually take charge and do it, it really makes me happy, because if you think about it, that's a real patient, you saved their life. I mean, you were part of that, you got to save their life, if, of course, they live. But I mean, you help them, and you get to help them and it's just-- it's so much fun.

Barbara: The formalwear that you just started, I like this, but we always want to include some type of background, so--

Narrator: While students in the arts academy are given time to experiment and express themselves, the focus, as with the other academies, is on pursuing a career.

Barbara: Students are working toward pulling together their very best talents and skills, and take art very seriously.

Student: I kind of would like to maybe do swimwear.

Barbara: By their senior year, they are able to walk out of high school with a completed portfolio, and able to possibly get college credit from that portfolio. They actually are not just doing class work and projects just to get a grade, they are doing it for higher purpose, they are doing it for something that will affect their future.

Tuyet: I see other schools that don't have the AP Program, and I really feel sorry for them, because I'm getting, like, a lot of experience, getting chances to win a lot of contests, and get my name out, and I definitely want to pursue, you know, art as a career, so I think it's a great opportunity.

Debra: We are trying to create a positive atmosphere for our students and for our teachers, by letting them explore things that they're interested in, letting them be with people that are exploring similar things, so they have the same kind of likes and dislikes, and the same directions, and that makes them happier.

Student: Can you wiggle your fingers? Good job.

Roy: What I see many times from students, is that they truly have that sense of belonging. It provides an individual an opportunity and a reason and a desire to come to South Grand Prairie High School. I think that we are a very diverse school here, and everyone fits in, and I guess that's what's exciting to see, that everyone can, and they do succeed.

Teacher: So we're going to try again.

Narrator: Success at South Grand Prairie High School, often leads directly to a job. In a unique program called, Ready, Set, Teach, the district has been able to grow its own future teachers.

Ann: Ready, Set, Teach is a practical hands on experience and in some ways, it's-- would be like the student teaching at a college level. We cover a lot of different things, the philosophy of education, different management techniques in the classroom.

And you don't have to always know the answer. You can say, I don't know, but what? And let's find out together. Oh, move to the head of the class.

Jacquelyn: First I got into psychology, and I did-- I even did AP Psychology, and then I was like, oh, I don't want to do that, so I was like, well there's Ready, Set, Teach.

Narrator: After spending their first six weeks in course study, students like, Jacqui Gonzalez get to test their newfound teaching skills in the crucible of a first grade classroom.

Jacquelyn: You have to have a lot of patience with them. I think that's the most difficult thing. You have to be really patient, because there's like, 20 of them, and they all want to talk at the same time, and I want to go to the bathroom, and you have to be really patient. I think that's the most difficult thing about it.

Need you all to listen. The next thing-- we need the paper, because I don't know what the next step is.

Usually when I tell people, ooh, this is what I do, they're, what? You're doing that in high school, and you're not even in college yet?

The spoon that has one fourth, uno cuarto.

I guess some people in college don't even get to be with the students as much as I am with them during the day.

Narrator: After successfully completing the course, and getting letters of recommendation from the teachers they work with, students are eligible to receive a letter of intent from the district, offering a first job in their teaching career.

Jacquelyn: What did you all just smell?

Student: Yukky.

Jacquelyn: It stunk, right, and what about-- what did you all hear?

Student: It was like a S-S-S..

Jacquelyn: It was sizzling, right?

Kristin: I was really pleased to hear Jacqui vocalize, "Wow, I was really glad when this student had this response. He really got it." She went through a lot of the ah-has, and the feelings of success that one goes through when one begins to teach.

Jacquelyn: Watch again.

Kristin: And it's wonderful if they can have those experiences, because of opportunities they had in high school.

Jacquelyn: No, high, real high.

Narrator: For more information on, What Works in Public Education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Diane Demeé-Benoit
  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Tom Waldron
  • Mark Angelo


  • Noel Cisneros

Comments (2) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Tammy Sapp's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would think that an additional benefit of academies would be a modivational factor for keeping more kids in school through graduation! How much time is spent in academies during the day and what other basic classes are all students required to complete for graduation? Do studts choose different academies each year or semester or do they stick with one academy throughout their highschool carreer?

Diane Demee-Benoit's picture
Diane Demee-Benoit
Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Career academies started over 35 years ago as a high school reform effort -- breaking large comprehensive high schools into more personal small-learning communities. A key feature of career academies is linking academics with a career focus. The curricula and strategies employed prepare students for both college and career. Most career academies are smaller "schools-within-a-school," although there are a growing number of high schools that are "wall-to-wall" academies.

For more information about career academies, read the article with accompanies this video. Just click on "more to this story" (just above the video player.) Edutopia has another video/article on a biotech academy which you'll find at

A great place to learn more about career academies is the Career Academy Support Network (CASN) Web site at

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