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Teacher Melissa Chavez leads a class in the biomedical pathway at STEM Academy of Hollywood.

California’s hundreds of high school career academies can now boost their prestige — and create more uniformity in quality— through a new voluntary certification program, announced by the Linked Learning Alliance at its annual conference in Oakland on Jan. 24.

“It’s like taking the Wild West and bringing it into a lane of coherence,” said Alex Taghavian, vice president of the Linked Learning Alliance, which promotes programs linking the high school curriculum with career pathways.  “Having clear, set standards is something we need as Linked Learning expands and more and more districts and schools join in.”

Up to now, there have been at least three different sets of standards for programs that link the high school curriculum to career pathways.

The earliest were the standards specified in the California education code for programs known as the California Partnership Academies programs funded by the state since the 1980s. The National Academy Foundation also has set standards for NAF academies in California schools and elsewhere. Over the last five years or so, ConnectEd, a Berkeley-based organization has developed Linked Learning quality certification standards, and close to 50 academies have been certified according to those standards.

The new standards in effect encompass all of these standards, and offer a tiered set of certifications so programs in the burgeoning career pathway field can assess their progress from one level to another. “We needed a streamlined certification process, which would allow career pathways to immediately recognize identify themselves as based on Linked Learning principles, and work to higher and higher levels of quality” said Gary Hoachlander, president of ConnectEd.

“The intent was not to move away from the old system but to accommodate more people and programs and to streamline it,” he said.

Career academies refer to programs within high schools that link the academic curriculum to career-related topics such as engineering or biotech. The academies offer college-prep courses in addition to internships, with the goal of giving students real-world experience based on what they’re learning in the classroom and preparing them for jobs or college majors. The topics are often related to science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields, and are intended reflect the needs of the local job market.

Such career academies have been in existence for decades, often as vocational education, but have evolved to include tougher academic and broader vocational or career themes, such as the Law and Government Academy at Highland High in Palmdale and the Agriculture Academy at Galt High in rural Sacramento County. In the Health Academy at Oakland Technical High, for example, students take AP biology and other courses. They also participate in summer internships at Kaiser Permanente, Children’s Hospital Oakland, the Oakland Fire Department and other local organizations. Guest speakers, field trips, first-aid certification and public health service projects are included in the program as well.

The new certification standards, which build on those developed by ConnectEd, includes about two dozen measurements, ranging from the number of college credits offered to how interdisciplinary projects are woven into the curriculum. Measurements include student test scores, the number of internships and the extent of career and college counseling provided by the program.

Studies have found that programs like these  have had a positive effect on graduation rates and college and career readiness. A 2016 report by SRI International found that students enrolled in the Linked Learning District Initiative, a multi-district effort funded by The James Irvine Foundation, were 5.3 percent more likely to graduate from high school than their peers who had not participated in the programs, were 2 percent less likely to drop out, and had earned an average of 8.9 more credits by the end of high school.

The new certification program announced Tuesday is expected to further boost career pathways academies. Inspired by the LEED certification program of the U.S. Green Business Council, the program will start by offering a tiered set of certifications starting with “candidate” and “silver” certifications, and next year will include “gold” and possibly “platinum,” said Hilary McLean, executive vice president of the Linked Learning Alliance.  All current programs that have been certified will automatically be giving “gold” status, Hoachlander said.

Certifications will be issued by the Linked Learning Alliance. To achieve certification, staff at career pathway academies would answer a series of questions at certification.linkedlearning.org such as whether the program includes college guidance, job application workshops, student orientation or a sequence of at least three career-themed courses. Staff are also required to provided data to back up their claims. The certification level – “candidate,” “silver” or eventually “gold” –depends on how many of the benchmarks an academy achieves. Academies can improve their ranking at any time.

The primary goals are to help schools and districts see what needs improvement, recognize academies whose students are achieving high levels of success, and give students an extra boost in job and college applications, McLean of the Linked Learning Alliance said.

For students, the advantage is being able to list on resumes and college and job applications that they graduated from a silver- or gold-certified program. For schools, certification can bring bragging rights as well as help meet assessment goals, McLean said. Students who graduate from the highest-level certified programs may get accelerated opportunities in college or help finding jobs through the National Academy Foundation, a national network of education, business and community leaders that supports linked learning programs.

The data compiled for certification could also potentially help the California Department of Education as it develops an indicator of college and career readiness. Certification includes data on the number of students who do job shadows, workplace tours and internships, and who learn job application and other work-related skills.

Seven districts have already embarked on the certification process. Bijou Beltran, director of career education at the Oxnard Union High School District, said trying to achieve certification has been a useful way to evaluate the district’s 22 linked learning academies.

“I’ve always been shamelessly proud of our academies, but this helped us see areas where we could improve. Are we providing enough internships? Administrative support? How are we doing on A-G curriculum?” she said. “How do we really know we’re doing a great job? This rubric is helping us figure that out.”

Staff from the Linked Learning Alliance will randomly audit the certification applications and in some cases may visit a school site. Each district will pay $1,000 annually for an unlimited number of applications.

For Joan Bissell,  the director for teacher education and public school programs at California State University, the new  certification standards will bring a level of legitimacy and uniformity in quality that will benefit students, schools, employers and colleges.

“It will give students a sense of agency and self-esteem, and for educators, recognizing excellence is in itself an incentive,” she said. “Until now, when we’ve looked at the numbers what have we been focusing on? Outcomes. Now we’ll know how well we’re providing students with opportunities to learn.”

Louis Freedberg contributed reporting to this report. It was was updated on Feb. 2 to include information on previous standards and certification programs in place before the Linked Learning certification program was announced last week.   

EdSource receives support from The James Irvine Foundation.  EdSource maintains sole editorial control over the content of its coverage.

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