When I met Reanna Garnsey two years ago, she was a 4.0 junior at Laguna Creek High School in the Elk Grove Unified School District. As a ninth grade student, her GPA was 0.8. Reanna cut school – a lot. What brought her back from the brink of dropping out was the Green Energy Technology Academy (GETA), a program that combines academics with real-world skills in alternative energy, including research, mentorships, and internships. Reanna’s transformation was so stunning that State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg asked her to testify before the Legislature in support of a bill to fund more of those programs.
Her story may be on the far side of average, but programs like GETA, known as California Partnership Academies, are producing many success stories, according to a report released Tuesday by the State Department of Education.
“A Profile of the California Partnership Academies 2009-2010″ by UC Berkeley’s Career Academy Support Network, found that high school seniors in academies have a 95 percent graduation rate, compared with 85 percent of seniors statewide; they’re more likely to attend college and more than half – 57 percent – graduate with the courses required for admission to the University of California or California State University, a whopping 21 percentage points above the statewide rate.
Academies are programs located within comprehensive high school that focus on growing industries in their communities, such as alternative energy, health care, the arts, or building trades. They’re small, usually serving about 200 students in grades 10 through 12, who stay together for three years. At least half of the students must be considered at risk for dropping out or failing. School districts have to supply matching funds and develop partnerships with local business and industry.
“This kind of hands-on learning, this connection to the real world, makes so much sense,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson during a phone call with reporters yesterday. “It engages students to see the relevancy of the mathematics, the science, the language arts that they’re asked to do.”
So I was surprised to receive an email last week from Eric Johnson, the Laguna Creek teacher who started GETA, asking for help because the program’s funding runs out at the end of this academic year.
“This means that we must now go through the entire grant application process to secure future funding,” wrote Johnson in an appeal to business partners to write letters of support to help GETA make its case for new funding from the state.
Funding is starting to fade
Money for more than 200 of the state’s 500 partnership academies is slated to sunset at the close of the current school year. However, there are new funds available. During a special session last April, the Legislature passed SB 1x 1, authored by Sen. Steinberg, which allocates $8
million a year through 2017, from the State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission, to pay for about 100 academies focused on green energy and technology.
Despite its successes, GETA will have to reapply for the money, going up against every school that decides to enter the pool.
“No question that not only do we have to expand what we’re doing, but before we can expand we have to keep what exists and what is successful intact,” said Steinberg during Tuesday’s telephone conference call.
Keeping the doors open at all 200 academies will cost about $15 million. Some of that money would be available if lawmakers reauthorize SB 70, the bill that initially established the California Partnership Program. Steinberg said his office will be working on that during the next session.
Still, partnership academies aren’t exactly sweeping the state. There are just under 48,500 students enrolled in the programs – about 3 percent of all students in grades 10-12, raising questions about their cost effectiveness.
What’s more, the overall gains seem to have slowed a bit. Back in 2004-05, 80 percent of academy tenth graders passed the California High School Exit Exam in math, compared to 74 percent for all other tenth graders. The gap was even larger for the English language arts section of the exam. But by 2009-10, statewide pass rates increased to within 1 or 2 percentage points of academy students, whose rates barely changed.
But that’s not the case for tenth grade Hispanic students in academies, who outperformed all other Hispanic sophomores in math and English language arts. The report also found that both African American and Hispanic seniors in academies graduated at significantly higher rates than those not in academies – 16 percent higher for African Americans and 14 percent higher for Hispanics.
Those are the statistics that Steinberg said should provide strong incentive to keep these programs funded and continue to expand them. “In my view, this report illustrates the future of high school in education, not only in this state but in this country,” he said. “It shows that we do not need to make the false choice between academic rigor and real world learning. High school courses must include both.”