George Lucas Educational Foundation

Academies: School Within a School

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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."

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

Credit: Ethan Pines

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.



Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Anthony Armstrong's picture
Anthony Armstrong
8th grade U.S. History, 7th grade World History

Our nation would greatly benefit if we could find ways to attract a greater number of talented instructors like Mr. Hackett into our schools today. Grant them the freedom and autonomy to provide students the type of learning opportunities described here in this post and there is no doubt our nation's high school drop out rate would significantly decrease.

Gwendolyn Faulkner-Holley's picture
Gwendolyn Faulkner-Holley
Intervention Specialist - Jackson County Comprehensive High School

I'm currently coordinating an academy designed primarily to help students who may have fallen behind with their classes or need to graduate early. The courses they take are computer based.

I would really like to hear from people who could help me develop this program into the type of school that allows students more of a hands-on learning, collaborative model. I know that one of the concerns will be the funding. Also, I'd like to understand how I can be instrumental in developing our model further.

Kathy Baron's picture
Kathy Baron
Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.

Hi Gwendolyn,
I'd start by contacting a few organizations that specialize in developing academy models. We have several listed on our resources page of this installment of Schools That Work at A few of note are ConnectEd, Career Academy Support Network and Project Lead the Way. There are links to all of them at the above url.

Dennis Pack's picture

Amazing what relevant lessons can accomplish!
Might be a novel idea to start looking at the curriculum and MAKE IT RELEVANT!
Why should the kids outside the academy have it any different?
What is the key here ... smaller classes? resources?
Why can't all science teachers be like Dave?

Gwendolyn Faulkner-Holley's picture
Gwendolyn Faulkner-Holley
Intervention Specialist - Jackson County Comprehensive High School

Kathy, thanks for the information. I'm beginning to read through the documentation and will use it to present my ideas to my administration.

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