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Students Finding Their Way Through Career Academies

Mike Moen/WNIJ

Students at Rockford’s Jefferson High School are on holiday break. When classes resume in January, they’ll keep navigating through the first full year of the school’s academy program. The initiative blends career-themed courses with traditional learning. Since the launch, WNIJ’s Mike Moen has been following two Jefferson students. He recently caught up with them, along with some new voices as well.

In the basement of Jefferson High School, students in Mike Polen’s principals of aerospace class are preparing for a simulated flight, which is programmed to head into southern Wisconsin. Junior Braxton Washington is one of the aspiring pilots taking this course.

“Every day, we come in and do the Metar, which is basically the weather report. Mr. Polen is a great teacher. He was a pilot, so we learn a lot about aviation,” Washington said.

Four months into the academy program, Braxton says he’s noticed a difference in how his fellow students embrace learning. He says they seem more focused. He also says teachers appear more driven.

Instructor Mike Polen spent 20 years in aviation before becoming a teacher. He’s one of the many new academy instructors here at Jefferson, which is the first high school in the district to fully implement the courses. Polen says, for his part, he likes the idea of bringing in fellow professionals to help motivate his class. His goal is to lure guests who match the demographics of this very diverse student body.

“If you’ve got African-American and Hispanic students, and you show them a Caucasian pilot, that doesn’t make the connection,” Polen said.

The academy has four distinct sections. In each of those sections, there are several career pathway courses that compliment the core classes. Students must choose a particular academy before their second year.

When we spoke with Sophomore Juliana Solis in October, she said she was a little frustrated over what she called a lack of interaction with her career instructors. Solis, who wants to be a federal agent, says the frustration is still there.

“They’re still trying to stabilize the academy situation with the classes, the teachers and the students. That’s the reason we don’t see changes in the curriculum,” Solis said.

And, now, Solis says she’s starting to understand that the first year is a test run that won’t give students the complete experience. She’s thankful that she still has two more years to get that opportunity.

Senior Gerardo Castillo recently lamented that he won’t experience the program’s full effect. But Castillo, who wants a career in medicine, says he likes a good challenge, and that some of the career classes are a little more difficult than he imagined.

“It seems to be a pretty rigorous course, and I’m learning a lot about the body. So it seems to be a good pre-requisite for college,” Castillo said.

As for the overall learning environment, Castillo says there appears to be to a type of a bond developing among students within the four academies. He says they try to help each other more, adding that friendly competitions have emerged with other academy communities.

Meanwhile, some students, including Cassandra Roberson, have complained that they would like to see more pathway courses offered.

“Even in arts, we still want media, production, other types of classes,” Roberson said.

Program administrators say they hope to add more career classes as the program evolves, including one Cassandra just mentioned. But academy coach Judy Gustafson says they need to be mindful of a couple of things when establishing curriculum: budget constraints, and the needs of the Rockford community.

“What are the jobs and careers available in Rockford – with the ideal hope of re-populating Rockford’s businesses and industries with our own grads,” Gustafson said.

In the meantime, officials say they will keep evaluating the program. In the New Year, they will get a sense of how students like it when sophomores are given the option to switch academies.

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