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How Olathe Is Integrating Career And Technical Education Into The School Day

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Students in the e-Communication Academy at Olathe Northwest film the weekly in-school broadcast.

Back when she was in eighth grade at California Trail in the Olathe Public Schools, Lilly Beckwith loved making amateur videos with Windows Movie Maker and posting them to her YouTube channel.

So Beckwith was excited when it came time to enroll for high school and she learned she could hone her filmmaking skills in the e-Communication program, she was excited. But there was a catch. Beckwith, who was supposed to go to Olathe East, would have to transfer to Olathe Northwest.

“It was definitely a big decision to make, especially at that age, leaving all my friends to go to a school where I knew no one,” Beckwith said.

But Beckwith knew making videos was her passion. She started working on “ONW NOW,” a student-produced weekly broadcast. And that’s when she knew transferring schools was the right decision.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Lilly Beckwith, left, and a classmate watch the taping of 'ONW NOW,' Olathe Northwest's weekly news broadcast.

“I know how to make things look good in pre- and post-production,” said Beckwith. “I know that one of my weaknesses was anchoring and speaking, and I’ve really improved.”

21st Century Academies

Olathe Public Schools has taken a different approach to career and technical education than the other big, suburban school districts. While there are students who ride a bus every day to the Olathe Advanced Technical Center to take classes in the construction trades or culinary arts, a lot more – a quarter of all high school students in Olathe – are enrolled in one of the 21st Century Academies, located within the district’s five high schools.

“This gives the students who’ve wanted to be a paleontologist since they were five, or a doctor, or a teacher, a way to focus all four years of high school in that career field,” said Angela Epps, the 21st Century Academies coordinator for the Olathe Public Schools.

And it gives them that opportunity without having to leave the high school environment. That’s been one of the barriers to getting college-bound students to take career education classes. They don’t want to spend an hour on a bus traveling between their high school and the career campus, especially when that time could be spent taking classes that boost their GPA and bolster their resume.

Olathe solves that problem by situating career and technical education within the normal school day. Students apply in eighth grade to whichever 21st Century Academy aligns with their interests.

“When we go through the list of academies with the eighth graders, what they’re about and where they are, you can kind of hear the oohs and aahs. ‘Oh, phew, that one’s at my home high school,’ or ‘oh no, that’s not at my home high school,’” Epps said. “But once they change schools, they become part of that high school, and you don’t really think about the kids being transfer students.”

If accepted, students might have to go to a different high school, but they’ll stay at that school all four years. Every year they take at least one class with peers in the same career track. For example, a tenth grader in Beckwith’s program, e-Communication, might take classes in animation and graphic design, while an eleventh grader in the Medical Professions Academy at Olathe North enrolls in Advanced Biotechnology. These classes are considered electives, and academy students must still fulfill Kansas high school graduation requirements like four years of English, three years of social studies, three years of science and three years of math. Most of the academies require more credits to graduate with a credential than the state does.

There are also 21st Century Academy-specific sections of some courses. Sophomores and juniors in the Public Safety Academy at Olathe West take Spanish for First Responders in lieu of Spanish III. Once they’ve satisfied the world language requirement, they’re encouraged to take a sign language class.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Students in the e-Communication Academy at Olathe Northwest operate the board during the school's weekly news broadcast.

There’s no need for academy students to get on a bus; when the bell rings, they leave their academy class and go to choir or band or AP English or whatever interests them.

“I don't have to deal with travel time, and the teachers are here. I can go in during lunch and get help,” said Kendall Batten, a senior in the Design Academy at Olathe East.

There’s a lot of interest in the district’s four-year career exploration model, especially since so many center-based programs are only open to juniors and seniors. Epps has taken out-of-state visitors on tours of the district’s high schools.

“Most (career and technical education) sits over there, a different place, a different campus, and I think we must continue to push it as a mainstream,” said Clyde McQueen, president of the Full Employment Council, a workforce development agency that works with school districts on the Missouri side of the state line. “What I would like to see is less of an artificial, a barrier between the four-year, two-year post-secondary institutions and K-12 when they’re all part of the same continuum.”

Career goals

Breaking down that barrier hasn’t been easy. Some Olathe students decline their academy invitation because they don’t want to leave their friends.

But the eighth graders who go ahead and switch schools seem to recognize the importance of career exploration.  

“I was actually the only one from my middle school to go over here, and I saw it as a chance to make new friends and get to do what I was really interested in,” Batten said.

Students enrolled in the 21st Century Academies get to spend time with industry professionals. Batten initially thought she wanted to be an architect, or maybe a civil engineer. So she did what Olathe calls a “shadowship” in civil engineering.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Olathe East senior Kendall Batten is headed to Kansas State University to study mechanical engineering.

“And after doing that shadowship, I was like, you know what, maybe I don’t want to do civil engineering for the rest of my life,” Batten said. “But for my next shadowship, I did mechanical engineering, and I was like, OK, this is what I want to go into.”

Occasionally, students will enroll in one of Olathe’s 21st Century Academies and realize that career really isn’t for them. Epps asks students to stick it out for their freshman year, but if they still want to leave the academy after that, they can. Transfer students can stay at the school they’re at, or return to their home school.

“If they find out it’s not for them, we’ve been successful because they’re not having to do that exploration in college,” Epps said.

More often, she said, students will stay in the academy because they’ve made friends, even if they don’t plan to pursue that career pathway in college anymore.

As for Batten, she figured out exactly what she wants to do with her life.

“We’re learning programs like AutoCAD,” Batten said. “That’s more of the technical and engineering side, but I’ve also enjoyed getting to use Photoshop, doing hand drawings and learning how to shade.”

Her plan is to study mechanical engineering at Kansas State University.

This week KCUR is publishing stories about career and technical education. You can read more stories about how schools are preparing students for the jobs they’ll have after graduating here.

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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