Earlier this month my wife and I spent about a week, in two visits, in the little town of St. Marys, Georgia, on the southernmost coast of Georgia just north of Florida and just east of the Okefenokee Swamp. It's a beautiful and historic town, which is best known either as the jumping-off point for visits to adjoining Cumberland Island National Seashore or for the enormous Kings Bay naval base, which is the East Coast home of U.S. Navy's nuclear-missile submarine fleet and which is the largest employer in the area.
St. Marys is known to our family for its complicated and often-troubled corporate history, which I described long ago in a book called The Water Lords and which we'll return to in upcoming posts. But it also highlights an aspect of American education which we've encountered repeatedly in our travels around the country and is well illustrated by the school shown above, Camden County High School, or CCHS from this point on.
CCHS is the only high school in the county, drawing a total of some 2800 students from the cities of Kingsland (where it is located), St. Marys, and Woodbine plus unincorporated areas. Each year's graduating class is around 600 students. Its size gives it one advantage well-recognized in the area: it is a perennial athletic powerhouse and has won the state football championship three times in the past 10 years. It also has another advantage that I recognized from my own time as a student in a single-high-school community: it creates an enforced region-wide communal experience, across class and race, rather than the separation-by-suburb of many public schools. This part of Georgia has relatively few private or religious schools.
As a matter of statistics, the CCHS student body is more or less like the surrounding area: about one-quarter black, most of the rest white, and small numbers of other ethnic groups (including from Navy-related families). About 40% of the students qualify for reduced-price lunch, the main school proxy for income level, and about 60% go to post-high school training of any sort. Each year, a small number go away to out-of-state schools, including selective ones. In 2001, only 50.5% of the school's students graduated from high school. Now that is up to 85%, a change that Rachel Baldwin, the CCHS Career Instructional specialist who showed us around, attributed mainly to the school's application of programs from the Southern Regional Education Board. CCHS has the best AP record of high schools in its part of the state.
That's the background. Now what struck us, which was the very practical-minded and well-supported embrace of what used to be called "vocational education," and now is called the "career technical" approach.
In practice what this means is dividing a large, sprawling campus and student body into six "academies," with different emphases. One of them is the Freshman Academy, to get the new students acclimated. ("I don't know if you've seen ninth graders recently," one person there told us. "But some of them look big and old enough to be parents of some others. It's a big range, and it helps to have a special place for them.")
The other five academies each have a "career technical" emphasis. After freshman year, all students enroll in one of the five. While they still take the normal academic-core range of subjects, they also get extensive and seemingly very-well-equipped training in the realities of jobs they might hold.
A few examples:
- In the "law and justice" curriculum, which is part of the Government and Public Service Academy, a former Navy-Kings Bay NCIS official named Rich Gamble (right) trains students in conducting mock crime investigations, and preparation for testimony in court.
On the day we were there, he had staged a mock robbery, in which the perp grabbed a cashbox from an office, ran through the hallways, and dumped the box as he was escaping. (The students acting out the scenario wore their white CSI lab coats, so other teachers would know what they were up to.) Then Rich Gamble divided his students into three teams to investigate the crime -- making plaster casts of footprints (below), taking evidence, filing reports, preparing a case. "We emphasize a lot of writing," he said. "I give them issues where they have to defend themselves, in very few words, because courts don't like you to waste words. Some of these papers are as good as any written by NCIS."
In the Engineering and Industrial Technology Academy, students design and build doghouses and other structures, which they sell in the community; do welding (and compete in state and national welding competitions); run an auto-repair shop that handles county vehicles; do extensive electrical work, and other activities I'll suggest by the photos below. Wood-frame construction:
Inside the wood-and-electric shop:
This same academy also includes computer-aided design and robotics programs, under the direction of Fred Mercier. The houses in the first photo are ones his students had designed and built, sitting on top of a 3D printer they use. The contraption in the second is part of the school's entry in a national robotics competition.
3D printer above, catapult-throwing arm for robot (with Fred Mercier) below.
(These photos show young men, but that is happenstance of where it was feasible to take pictures. The academies are diversified by gender and race.)