No guarantee for career academies

Jerry Winthrop roared with laughter when the director of a career academy asked him if the programs will be protected in the event that California’s revenues fall short and the state pulls the trigger on education funding at the end of the year. Winthrop, who oversees more than 400 California Partnership Academies, told the 25 academy coordinators and teachers gathered at an Oakland High School last week that they may want to learn how to write grant proposals.

Jack Aiello, who asked the question, didn’t intentionally make a joke. His Electronics Academy at Independence High School in San Jose’s East Side Union High School District is about 20 years old. Aiello wants to see it reach 21.

In normal times, the school only had to submit an annual report and it was pretty much guaranteed continued funding as long as it met all the state requirements. In these uncertain financial days, however, there’s no sure thing, not even for the tried and true.

The academy has a 95% graduation rate (15 to 20 percentage points higher than the rest of the school), boasts strong attendance, and sends a large group of students to community and four-year colleges.

But recently Aiello has been finding it difficult to do things exactly the way the State Department of Education wants them done, and that makes him a little tense. “There are so many stresses on budgets and trying to make everyone happy that it’s hard to follow all the rules exactly the way they’re supposed to be followed,” he said.

For example, students in California Partnership Academies are supposed to be in the same classes together so they can form a bond among themselves and with their teachers. But when an academy class in a core subject, like English, math, science, or history, has an unfilled seat or two, Independence High has been placing non-academy students in it. That could cost the program its state funding.

“Jack, I bleed for you, man, but I have 200 schools about to close. Your superintendent and principal signed on the line every year that you took money,” said Winthrop. “They’re taking state funds while not doing what they’re contractually obligated to do. They’re putting you in a position where you’re out of compliance.”

Money drying up

Winthrop is tall and imposing and, having started three academies during his teaching days, is arguably one of a handful of CDE staff who can hold court on California Partnership Academies. That’s what he did at Oakland’s Media Academy High School last Friday, running through a PowerPoint presentation and fielding questions on what to expect in state funding for next year. The answer: Don’t get your hopes up.

As we reported here last week, a new report from UC Berkeley’s Career Academy Support Network gave academies high marks, particularly for improving graduation and college-going rates for students considered at risk of dropping out of school.

Funding sources for partnership academies.  (Source:  Edutopia. Sept. 2010) Click to enlarge
Funding sources for partnership academies. (Source: Edutopia. Sept. 2010) Click to enlarge

At the same time, two major sources of funding for academies are drying up within a year, putting about 200 in jeopardy. So it was natural that most questions from academy directors focused on other places to seek funding, and the chances that they’ll be able to get a slice of a new, but small, state academy grant program for next year.

“Is there any other funding source?” asked one teacher. “Not that I know of at this time,” Winthrop answered, “but send me a note; there are lots of places to get money here and there if you know how to write grants.”

The woman sitting to my left, Brenda Calvert with the Green Hospitality, Tourism and Recreation Academy at John F. Kennedy High School in Fremont, cupped her hand over her mouth and whispered, “I’m really nervous about this.  Our first seniors are graduating this year.”

To my right, Ryan Cheshire had just started a multimedia animation and videogame design academy at Encinal High School in Alameda with a seed grant from the CDE.  He said they knew the program was sun-setting at the end of this academic year, but hoped the legislature would step in and extend the program.

“One year is just not enough time.  It’s a complex program, there are so many different parts to it that at one year, you’re just scratching the surface of being effective,” said Cheshire.

A brief history

As it turns out, there is one new state source of funding; it’s just so small that the competition is expected to be fierce.

During a special session last April, the Legislature passed SBX1 1, authored by State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Sen. Steinberg.  It was supposed to provide $40 million in

Growth of Career Academies. (Source:  Career Academy Support Network). Click to enlarage
Growth of Career Academies. (Source: Career Academy Support Network). Click to enlarage

grants over five years, to support up to 100 clean technology and renewable energy partnership academies, with the money coming from the Renewable Resource Trust Fund and paid for by a small surcharge on utility bills from.

Republicans insisted that the funds come from Proposition 98 general funds for education.  So the program now has a little over $3 million for the first round of grants and no guarantee that the remaining $37 million will be available.  Instead of nearly 100 academies, the amended law will now pay for about 21 grants.  Nevertheless, Winthrop expects hundreds of schools to apply.

Another bill, SB 70, fades out at the end of this school year, but Sen. Steinberg said he is already in talks to try to refund it.

California first passed legislation for partnership academies in 1984, providing money for 10 pilot programs.  Three years later, a second bill added forty more academies.  Those funds have been renewed over and over since then.

That’s how Aiello’s academy continues to operate, and where Oakland’s Media Academy High School gets the bulk of its funds.  The Media Academy is marking its 25th year, and director Michael Jackson has been at the school for all of them.  Although his funding is the most secure – a tenuous commitment these days – Jackson says the state is moving too quickly to start new academies, especially when so many existing programs could use some help.

“Another way to look at it is there’s way too many of these academies to do them right,” said Jackson, especially for the $70,000 or so that they each receive from state Proposition 98 funds. “Why don’t they put more money and support into the ones they have that are working and see if you can’t built a little more slowly until the economy recovers.”

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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