As California’s political leaders push educators to link high school classes with career options for their students, an Oxnard high school program is succeeding in getting some of the state’s hardest-to-reach students enthused about careers in engineering.

Among the students in the Engineering and Design Academy at Hueneme High School in Oxnard are children of migrant farm workers. Educators on a high school campus where almost 90 percent of the student body is Latino say the academy has boosted both test scores and career prospects of a student population that has traditionally struggled in school.

The Hueneme program, which serves about 100 students, or about 5 percent of the total student enrollment, is one of nearly 500 high school programs statewide known as California Partnership Academies, which offer college-prep classes, career education, internships and support services.

This “school within a school” approach focusing on career options is getting the support of political leaders at both a state and national level.

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed Assembly Bill 790 requiring the Department of Education to work with school districts to establish 20 pilot “linked learning” programs — pending funding being available — that will link high school curriculum with college and career options.

In his proposed 2012–13 budget, President Barack Obama asked Congress to spend $1 billion on high-school career academies and “other opportunities for students to participate in college-preparatory and career and technical curricula in their schools.” Obama’s still unfunded plan would add another 3,000 academies across the nation.

One of eight such programs in the Oxnard Union High School District, the Engineering and Design Academy began in 2009 with a $75,000 grant from the Alliance for Regional Collaboration to Heighten Educational Success (ARCHES) program. The collaborative effort, supported by The James Irvine Foundation, works with a half dozen school districts, including Oxnard, on pre-engineering and “green” technical education programs. (Note: EdSource receives a grant from the Irvine Foundation.)

As with other academies, the Oxnard program enrolls at least 50 percent so-called “at-risk” students, who are falling behind academically, have poor attendance or are economically disadvantaged. Nearly half of the Hueneme academy students will be the first in their families to graduate from high school, said Karen Chadwick, Hueneme’s assistant principal who oversees the program, which is housed in a regular classroom on the high school campus.

One participant is 17-year-old Ivan Vega, whose mother works in the fields picking raspberries and whose father is a delivery truck driver. Both parents grew up in Mexico, and neither finished elementary school. Vega says he plans to study mechanical engineering in college. “If it weren’t for the academy, I wouldn’t have learned about mechanical engineering and wouldn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” Vega said.

Students are admitted to the academy based not on grade point averages, math skills or other academic criteria, but on their enthusiasm for the program. Chadwick says enrollment reflects the makeup of the school, which is 87 percent Latino, with 19 percent of students coming from migrant families.

According to school officials, 88 percent of 10th grade students in the program passed the California High School Exit Exam’s English section this past year, compared with 71 percent school-wide. Academy students also had a 92 percent pass rate on the math section, compared with 75 percent school-wide.

Children of migrant workers are typically difficult to reach academically, but the academy has developed a program that allows them to thrive, Chadwick said.

Students in this program often stay with relatives when their parents move to take other farmworker jobs. If students need to travel with their families, the school offers an “extended-leave program,” which allows them to take schoolwork with them. Sometimes they are gone for as long as three to four weeks.

Academy officials have also found a way to sustain the program without relying on private foundation support — by using the high school’s existing teachers to staff it and enlisting local businesses and nonprofit organizations to provide supplies, guest speakers and internships.

The Hueneme academy enrolls 10th through 12th grade students, and connects class work to engineering careers, lending focus to their studies, said lead teacher Lindsay Burkhart. Students take English, social studies and science courses and a career-related class. Sophomores take a class titled “Introduction to Engineering Design.” Juniors take a class in computer engineering, and seniors a class in architecture and design.

Each day academy teachers meet together to plan classes to encourage an interdisciplinary approach, Burkhart said. When students learn about technological advances after World War II in a social studies class, for instance, they also read a novel about the time period in English class.

Engineering and design professionals visit classes and work with teens on projects.

They also get contributions from government institutions and businesses in the area. Naval Base Ventura County, Lockheed Martin and the City of Oxnard provide internships or donate classroom supplies. Chadwick also tries to familiarize students with the idea of going to college by taking them to visit nearby community colleges and universities.

Chadwick would like to see the academy grow because, she said, the academy offers the best model she has found to help Hueneme’s struggling students.


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