Project-Based Learning (PBL)

The Districtwide Approach to Career and Technical Education

Support from the top boosts local academy success.

September 27, 2010

The adage that there's strength in numbers is as apt for the survival of career academies as it is for the animal kingdom. Elk Grove Unified School District has been a leader in CTE for 20 years, offering 17 career academies and seven career pathways spread over its nine high schools. If you're interested in public service, go to Pleasant Grove High School. If you prefer auto technology, head to Florin High.

One of the leaders in career academies, career-themed high schools and career pathways is ConnectEd, which was established in 2006 specifically to serve as a hub for Linked Learning in California through policy, research, and by developing and supporting career and technical education in high schools. After several years of promoting individual school-based programs, ConnectEd has refocused its energy toward bringing entire districts into the fold in order to build stronger foundations for this reform. The director of San Diego State University's School of Teacher Education, Nancy Farnan, says the switch is intended to avoid "the vagaries of personnel changes that can get in the way of systemic, ongoing change" by transforming the entire culture, curriculum, and structure of a school.

Though not directly affiliated with ConnectEd, Farnan's department received funding from the James Irvine Foundation to work with the organization on Linked Learning Lens, a program within the School of Teacher Education to certify new teachers in the Linked Learning method. (Note: Edutopia also received support from the James Irvine Foundation to compile this "Schools That Work" report.) The program has since expanded to three additional California State universities with the University of California, Los Angeles and CSU East Bay in the works.

The newly certified teachers will be in high demand in the 11 districts selected by ConnectEd to share $12 million dollars in grants to participate in the district initiative. Although Elk Grove wasn't selected for funding, the district's Manufacturing Production Technology Academy at Laguna Creek High School is one of ConnectEd's original model demonstration sites because it embodies the principles and components of Linked Learning.

The district, the fifth largest in California, walks the CTE walk under the guidance of Christy Moustris. She oversees the academies and makes sure that teachers get what they need, an increasingly challenging task in these lean years. The district's budget has been cut by $100 million over the past three years.

"I think as money becomes less plentiful, we become more committed to being very creative in maintaining the programs that we see are most successful," explains Moustris, who gets high marks from academy teachers for almost always finding a way to get them the supplies and equipment they need.

Elk Grove Unified School District has 24 academy and career technical classes where superintendent Steven Ladd and industrial arts teacher Jeff Merker have pioneered a culture shift to support CTE.

Credit: Ethan Pines

Having a district commitment to CTE does give districts a certain measure of budgetary flexibility with their academies and a critical mass that resonates with prospective funders. Elk Grove, for example, received nearly $900,000 this year from state and federal CTE funds, the majority coming from the California Partnership Academies program.

The district initiative also provides the capacity to create uniform standards for academic rigor, certification, and professional development. "Quite frankly, we wanted to make sure that if you said you were an academy in the Elk Grove Unified School District, the criteria you had in place and the gold seal that you would get would be reflective of a true academy. We didn't want to have a collection of electives be categorized as an academy," explains Superintendent Steven Ladd.

California's district approach is capturing national attention. Recently, Farnan took part in a briefing in Washington, DC, on the Linked Learning approach. Nearly a hundred congressional staff, policy makers, and leaders of education organizations turned out to learn about the goals and benefits of this strategy. Despite the excitement generated by the event, participants acknowledge that career and technical education isn't a hot-button issue in Congress at this time. California Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-Calif), recently introduced H.R. 6174, a bill that would establish a Linked Learning grant program in the U.S. Department of Education. But if the single co-sponsor is any indication, the issue isn't expected to see much momentum on Capitol Hill. (Editor's update: The bill H.R. 6174 was introduced on September 22, 2010, but was not enacted.)

District Model Goals:

  • Create broad-based community coalitions.
  • Become part of an economic strategy for the local community.
  • Build the capacity of district and school leaders to develop quality pathways.
  • Collaborate and share ideas with other districts doing similar work.


  • It creates sustainable academies: "The structure can't be dependent on an individual," says Mike Henson, director of the California branch of the National Academy Foundation (NAF), a network of predominately urban career academies located throughout the country. Academies developed by a teacher or teachers with a strong interest in an industry or occupation are vulnerable if one or more of those teachers moves on.
  • It has targeted teacher training: District coordination of academies and pathways makes it easier to craft professional development tailored to the interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum of career technical education. Both Elk Grove and the NAF run their own programs to certify academies. Elk Grove also has a separate teacher training program.
  • It promotes student achievement: "Our student data shows that our academy kids meet or exceed our district's attendance rate," notes Moustris. "Our academy kids are passing the California exit exam at just as high a rate if not higher than our general population. Our academy students see more meaning in their education."

Size: Fifth largest school district in California with 62,000 students and covering 320 square miles
Number of High Schools: 9
Number of Career Academies: 17 (15 funded by CPA, 2 unfunded)
Number of Career Pathways: 5 (Artswork, Business Careers, Engineering/Building Trades, and Visual and Performing Arts)
Number of Student Participating: 2,623

Number of Districts: Nine district implementation grants and two district planning grants
Number of Programs: Each district will develop systems of 6-8 pathway options
Number of Students Participating: Each participating district serves at least 5,000 students

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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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Career & Technical Education
  • 9-12 High School

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