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Career Academy Impacts for Students at High Risk of Dropping Out

Authors: James J. Kemple, Jason C. Snipes
Date Published: January 13, 2001

During the past five years, education policymakers and practitioners have been pursuing a number of far-reaching strategies aimed specifically at improving high schools. Almost universally, each of these school reform initiatives have included a special, if not a primary focus on schools serving students at high risk of leaving school without the credentials and skills needed to make successful transitions to further education and the labor market.
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Career Academies have existed for more than 30 years and have been implemented in more than 1,500 high schools across the country. The durability and broad appeal of the Academy approach can be attributed, in part, to the fact that its core features offer direct responses to a number of problems that have been identified in large comprehensive high schools. Career Academies attempt to create more supportive and personalized learning environments through a school-within-a-school structure. Their curricula combine academic and occupation-related course requirements that aim both to promote applied learning and to satisfy college entrance requirements. Academies establish partnerships with local employers to build sequences of career awareness and work-based learning opportunities for their students.

While the basic organizational features of the approach have remained the same since the inception of Career Academy model, the goals and target population have changed. The original Academies were designed primarily to prevent dropping out of high school and to increase preparation for work among students who began high school at high risk of school failure. There is now widespread agreement that Career Academies should seek to prepare students for both work and college, and that they should include a broad cross-section of students, including those who are highly engaged in school.

This paper focuses on the effectiveness of contemporary Career Academies as dropout prevention programs for students who enter high school at high risk of dropping out. It is based on findings from an ongoing, longitudinal evaluation of Career Academies being conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC).    The evaluation uses a random assignment research design in which Career Academy applicants were randomly assigned to en- roll in an Academy program or to a non-Academy control group that was not invited to enroll. The results discussed in this paper follow student through the end of their scheduled 12th grade year and capture the impact Academies had on dropout status and measures of student engagement and performance during high school.

The findings indicate that Career Academies substantially improved high school out- comes among students at high risk of dropping out. For this group, the Academies reduced drop- out rates, improved attendance, increased academic course-taking, and enhanced other indicators of school engagement. These benefits for students at high risk of dropping out did not come at the expense of lower expectations or outcomes for students who entered the program highly en- gaged in school or who were only at moderate risk for dropping out. While the Academies did not substantially improve educational outcomes for these groups of students, they enabled them to keep pace with their peers in other high school programs. They also provided low and medium risk students with greater access to career and work-related experiences both in and outside the classroom. The paper concludes with a discussion of several implications the findings may have for policies and practices aimed at improving the education of students at risk for dropping out.December 2000

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