George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Districtwide Approach to Career and Technical Education

Support from the top boosts local academy success.
Kathy Baron
Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.
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Steven: Elk Grove Unified School District is the fifth largest school district in the state of California. We serve approximately 62,000 students. We cover 320 square miles, which is one-third of the entire county of Sacramento. We have a very richly diverse population, with over 80 languages being spoken inside the district. When I first started my career, I was a shop teacher, and so one of the things that I will share is that when we talk about career technical education in the 21st century, those woodshops of the past is not what career technical education is about today. For the 21st century, we have young people in the Elk Grove Unified School District that are harvesting algae so that they can press out of the algae oils so that they can make biofuels. And we're seeing teachers at a variety of our schools that are getting students not only engaged in the academic rigors of a multiple-pathway career technical education program but are getting them engaged in ways that their academics are very rigorous, that they're taking the kinds of higher mathematics that you want to see. And so I would suggest that it's green academy, animation, agriculture that is allowing our students to be very productive, both academically and being well prepared to go into higher education and then go into the workforce because the skill sets that they're getting really are 21st century. We are seeing our students with higher attendance rates in our academies. There is a very, very high success rate of students not only completing the program but going on to higher education. We're seeing students that are highly motivated, and there are several reasons for these things-- obviously, the connection with the instructors, connection with the family, kind of a feel inside the academy programs, the peer support for one another, so we're seeing all of those. Now, we're also watching our young people do very well on the California High School Exit Exam. We are seeing success in the programs. We are seeing success in graduation. We're seeing success in kids going on into higher education and the world of work.

Male: Again, and just a little more theatricality.

Steven: Our academies are not exclusive. They are inclusive. California Partnership Academies ask for at least 40% of the students to come into the program that would be, in some people's eyes, considered at-risk students. Now, our doors are open. We want to see, as does the California Partnership Academy, that there is dedicated staff that work with a collection of students on an integrated fashion to ensure that the delivery of the work, all the way from the keystone class all the way through the academic rigor coming through the program, is integrated, that is focused, that there is clear evidence of where those relationships emerge. And if you have a particular-- let's take culinary arts. So that in the science aspect of culinary arts, we want to see the science that really is not only good science but how does it relate to culinary production or food production. We were one of the first districts in the state of California actually to use a modified national rubric to certify academies, and quite frankly, we wanted to make sure that if you said you were an academy, that the criteria that we wanted to see in place as the Elk Grove Unified School District and that the gold seal that you would get would be reflective of a true academy and that we didn't want to be confused about that. We didn't want to have a collection of electives be categorized as an academy, so we put that in place.

Teacher: This is a closed-loop photo bioreactor, and it's designed to be able to grow algae. And what we want to do then is to be able to take that algae and turn it into products like fuel or…

Stephen: Part of the Academy and certification is tremendous outreach, and that is a valuable, necessary ingredient to academies and the pathways to have business partnerships that are there not just for money, because money is certainly helpful and important, but it's that technical view of what is your trade looking for in young people going into college and then into work or going directly into the workforce. What we need to do is quit talking about this as being an either or, college or careers. This is about making sure that the young people of today in California and across the country are prepared to go on to higher education, go into the world of work and be successful, and be contributors in a global economy, that our students have a quality of life that anchors them to be productive citizens.


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Video Credits


  • Karen Sutherland

Associate Producers

  • Doug Keely
  • Kathy Baron

Camera Crew

  • Mike Elwell
  • Doug Keely

Video Programming Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Original Music

  • Ed Bogas


Edutopia's Schools That Work Merging Career Tech and College Prep installment is supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation.

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."

What do you think? We'd love your feedback on this installment of Schools That Work.

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