Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Academies: School Within a School

September 27, 2010

Dave Hackett is a master of illusion. The juniors in his science class at the Manufacturing Production Technology Academy (MPTA) of Laguna Creek High School, in Elk Grove, California, are too busy launching and chasing the rockets they made in class to notice they're actually learning physics. Hackett's class is part of a high school innovation movement known as career academies. They're small schools, located within larger comprehensive high schools, and they integrate academics with technical know-how in an occupation or industry that has important ties to the local region: renewable energy, health and science, agriculture, or, in the case of MPTA, computer-aided design and manufacturing.

Outside, on a patch of grass separating the baseball and football fields, students take turns blasting their single-engine rockets into the sky while their classmates chase after them like fly balls. Back in the classroom, Hackett draws a diagram and equations on the interactive whiteboard and has his students compute height, acceleration, and velocity.

With the exception of some electives and Advanced Placement courses, academy students move together from class to class. Dedicated academy teachers, like Hackett, coordinate the curriculum so all subjects, from math and science to English and history, advance the design and manufacturing theme.

Hackett says half the MPTA students are considered at-risk, and he suspects most wouldn't even take physics were it not for the academy. And yet, he notes, "They have better attendance and better grades, and they are more engaged."

Credit: Ethan Pines
College and career prep are fully integrated in academies that give students a wide range of options after high school.

One of the school’s other academies isn’t showing as impressive results. The Green Energy Technology Academy (GETA) is in its first year of full enrollment through all four years, grades 9 through 12. If MPTA, which has been around for 15 years, is any indicator, GETA should enjoy improved results in the years to come. Young as it is, GETA already has strong industry support and recently received a $10,000 grant from Pacific Gas and Electric to build portable solar generators.

In some states, career academies go by the name multiple pathways. The organization ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career, created by the James Irvine Foundation (which also funded this installment of Schools That Work), along with other groups, adopted the term Linked Learning to emphasize the connection between academics and career skills. The California Department of Education funds an approach to career and technical education that embodies many components of Linked Learning called California Partnership Academies.

Most career academies share four guiding principles and four components.


  • The academies prepare students for college and career, including careers after high school: Students should possess the academic and technical abilities to succeed in college, apprenticeships, community college certification programs, and some skilled jobs.
  • They create an engaging curriculum: Students apply academics to real-world issues and situations through project-based learning, internships, and job shadowing.
  • They place value on life skills: Teaching students to work collaboratively, think critically, and solve problems is as important as teaching them academic knowledge.
  • They improve student achievement and provide equal access: Although there may be waiting lists for academies, admission should be open to all students within the district, regardless of their academic ability.


  • Multiyear courses: The career technical curriculum should include at least three or four yearlong courses that are infused into the core academics.
  • Project-based learning: This gives students the chance to apply what they've learned to a real-world problem, which helps make school relevant.
  • Community partnerships: Academies need the support and participation of local businesses and industries for funding and resources and for opportunities for job shadowing, internships, and mentorships.
  • Support: With so many at-risk students, academies must have a strong network of support services to help students master the academic and career content.

In this "Schools That Work" installment, we feature two career academies at Laguna Creek High School, near Sacramento, California:

Manufacturing Production Technology Academy (MPTA)

  • Number of Academy Students: 161
  • Grades: 9-12
  • Opened: 1995-96 school year

Partnerships: (partial list) Department of Mechanical Engineering at Sacramento State University, Klein Educational, LEED Sacramento, United Cerebral Palsy, Lynne Rose Bridal, Sacramento City College, Feist Cabinets, Lodi Upholstery, State of California Industrial Relations, California Professional Association of Specialty Contractors

  • Average GPA:
  • Academy Students: 3.15
  • Elk Grove District: 2.70
  • Graduation Rate:
  • Academy: 100%
  • Elk Grove District: 87%
  • College Attendance Rate:
  • Academy Seniors: 96% (42% four-year college, 54% community college)
  • Laguna Creek Seniors: 95% (30% four-year college, 65% community college)
  • Elk Grove District: 73% (24% four-year college, 50% community college)
  • Dropout Rate:
  • Academy: 2%
  • Elk Grove District: 9.8%
  • Attendance Rate:
  • Academy: 96%
  • District: 96%

Green Energy Technology Academy (GETA)

  • Number of Academy Students: 125
  • Grades: 9-12
  • Year started: 2008 - 09 School Year

Partnerships: (partial list) Chevron, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, OptiSolar, the California Energy Commission, the Office of the State Architect, California State University at Sacramento and the Los Rios Community College District, Pacific Gas & Electric, Ternion Bio Industries

  • Average GPA*:
  • Academy Students: 2.3
  • Elk Grove District: 2.70
  • Graduation Rate:
  • Academy: Not yet applicable; 2010-11 is first year with senior class
  • Elk Grove District: 87%
  • Dropout Rate:
  • Academy: 2%
  • District: 9.8%
  • Attendance Rate*:
  • Academy: 92%
  • District: 96%
* GETA achieved full enrollment in the fall of 2010. As was the case with MPTA, results are expected to improve substantially in years to come.
School Snapshot

Elk Grove Unified School District And Bravo Medical Magnet High School

Grades 9-12 | Elk Grove and Los Angeles, CA
Per Pupil Expenditures
Free / Reduced Lunch
69% Hispanic
16% Asian
13% White
2% Black

The above demographics are for Bravo Medical Magnet High School. The demographics for Elk Grove Unified School District are as follows:
26% Hispanic,
25% White,
23% Asian,
18% Black,
6% Filipino,
2% Pacific Islander,
1% Native American

Data is from the 2008-2009 academic year.

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