Kemple, now the executive director at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, said his study suggests that career academies can be an “equalizing force,” noting that most of his data was drawn from schools and districts with high concentrations of black and Latino students, and students from low-income families and communities. For the desired effects, he said, three important elements must work in tandem: strong personalized-learning environments, a commitment to helping students complete high school, and opportunities to participate in meaningful work-related learning experiences. The biggest threat is inflating any one component at the expense of another. “An over-emphasis on job-specific skills training could lead to tracking,” Kemple said, referring to the educational practice of dividing students based on perceived abilities. “From this perspective, [firefighting] should provide the same opportunities for integrated learning, career-development skills, and advancement to college as business and finance.”
A model that seems to reflect Kemple’s research is found in Cincinnati at the newly renovated Deer Park Career Academy, where students in grades seven through 12 choose from a variety of career pathways, from digital design to civil engineering. With an eye on emerging STEM fields, Deer Park plans to expand its curriculum next year to cater to the diverse interests of its students—a group that is overwhelmingly white (82 percent) and fewer than half (42 percent) receive free meals at school. However, in Delray Beach, Florida, it’s just the opposite. The demographics at Atlantic High School’s career academy—a partnership between the police department and Palm Beach County School District to guide students into law enforcement—ring familiar: 75 percent students of color, 53 percent black enrollment, and slightly more than half enrolled in the free-lunch program.
Louie F. Rodriguez, an associate professor in the college of education at California State University San Bernardino, said he has seen this trend before when you take a traditional school environment and examine the program offerings by race, language, and class. Rodriguez, who co-authored Small Schools and Urban Youth, said there is “a lot of research to suggest that tracking students by race … perpetuates inequality at the school level.” While considering some of the examples cited, Rodriguez said it is vital to scrutinize the degree to which all career academies offer all students the same opportunity to learn. “If some academies offer more academically rigorous and more selective courses, and there are clear disparities in enrollment patterns by race, language, and class, then there is obviously a need to be concerned,” he said.
Rodriguez adds that a major oversight in these kinds of college-and-career-readiness reforms is inattention to school culture, and the failure of “visionary educators [to] embrace career academies with a critical lens.” He stresses that many efforts are overly-concerned with setting up the structure of the academies, overlooking conditions that can replicate and perpetuate age-old inequalities for youth of color. “What kind of experiences do we want students to have? We need to intentionally create environments that contribute to the social, cultural, and intellectual development of our students. A structure alone won’t do that.”