Toledo academy offers rich school-to-career lessons

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A delegation of union, education and government leaders traveled to Ohio this April to visit the Toledo Technology Academy (TTA), a four-year public high school that is considered one of the gems of the Toledo Public Schools system and a model for community-supported education based on teamwork and project-based learning rather than a school day crowded with "fill-in-the-bubble" test fixation.

Career and technology education (CTE) is much in the news these days, as educators, employers and policymakers struggle with how best to prepare young people with the necessary academic and employability skills required for successful entry into the workforce. CTE has proven to be an effective tool for improving student outcomes, helping to prepare students for both college and careers, and TTA is a uniquely successful model.

This month, the Toledo school district received nearly $4 million through the Obama administration's Youth CareerConnect grant program—designed to prepare students for high-demand jobs in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Students at TTA study technology tied to manufacturing, engineering and science, work that is rooted in a rigorous academic environment. The program attracts students from surrounding districts as well as the city, and large numbers come from economically disadvantaged households.

Over the years, the school has achieved a variety of accomplishments, including winning the National Robotics Challenge in several specialties, being designated as a "model school" by the International Center for Leadership in Education, receiving a Blue Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education, and being designated as a "school of excellence" by the Ohio Department of Education. Underpinning these successes are many lessons learned about how to build a coordinated, engaging program for students—lessons that are poised to find a wider audience thanks to new resources and heightened interest both in the district and around the nation.

"TTA grads are prepared for the 21st-century workforce when they walk out the door," says AFT Executive Vice President Francine Lawrence, who visited the school this month with a delegation that included national and state representatives of the AFL-CIO; a labor-management team from Hamtramck, Mich.; leaders of AFT Michigan; U.S. congressional staffers from Ohio; and William Symonds, a nationally known scholar in the field of career and technical education.

Lawrence says she was particularly impressed with how Toledo Technology Academy encourages students to "apply their skills in team-based, real-life problem-solving environments," and with the school's "unique labor-industry-school district governing board" that helps build and coordinate these opportunities.

Rick Anderson, CEO of Radco Industries, is a new TTA board member who hires TTA graduates he describes as having the skills necessary to begin to work on the first day of employment in a highly sophisticated business that designs and builds custom machinery. The system of governance for the school is unique, and it "operationalizes" the concept of the school being a collaboration among education, industry and labor. The governing board members represent the decision-making elements of the Toledo Public Schools system, as well as area businesses, industry and labor unions. They regularly meet with area business and labor leaders, gathering their ideas, and meet formally each month to discuss issues and opportunities and to set the direction, which the school staff then implements.

Tom Volk, president of Ohio Belting and Transmission and a longtime TTA board member, told visitors how he first got involved with TTA, when a teacher from the school came to his shop asking for his help. He has been involved in the governance of the school since the early 1980s. He says the school works because "the key element was getting people who have a vested interest … and putting them on the governing board. There are no inherent conflicts here. We don't allow it—or an adversarial or confrontational approach—because everyone here is truly focused on a relatively small school for the kids."

Also important is the deep-seated collaboration between the school's building representative and director. And all faculty members are involved in decision-making and are represented on the governing board by their building rep.

The challenge today, TTA leaders say, is to grow the school by offering a curriculum that prepares students for careers in those technologies that will power the global economy in the 21st century. The school will also continue to maximize the power of extracurricular activities, such as its championship robotics team and its newer alternative energies team. Participation in these groups is highly prized by students, allowing them to engage in "fun" activities that challenge them to make full use of the knowledge and learning they gain from the science, technology, engineering and math curriculum. Next school year, TTA will expand to seventh and eighth grades, making it only the third STEM academy in Ohio with grades 7-12.

The Youth CareerConnect grant will expand this successful technical education program and enable the district to serve four other Toledo public high schools, offering sector-specific certification and career pathways that prepare participants for strategically placed entry-level positions that are steppingstones to more sophisticated, in-demand occupations.

"Career and technical education can be a direct pathway to this century's middle-class jobs," AFT President Randi Weingarten said after the White House released its list of Youth CareerConnect grant recipients this month. "It's great to see a president embrace both emerging and proven career and technical education programs. Programs like P-Tech in New York City, Austin Polytechnical Academy in Chicago, and Toledo Technology Academy in Ohio are the gold standard—bringing together employers, teachers unions, high schools and universities in collaborative partnerships to give students a top-notch education that leads to real jobs."

AFT and AFL-CIO leaders are planning future meetings to explore ways in which to highlight and expand the collaborative approach employed by the Toledo Technology Academy, as well as other union partnerships that contribute to the nation's system of education and skills development. [Mike Rose]

May 1, 2014