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Why Do Most Charter High Schools In Kansas City Focus On College Prep?

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
University Academy juniors have a daily seminar where they learn how to navigate the college admissions process.

Career and technical education is having a moment, but not in all schools. Most charters still focus almost exclusively on college preparedness.

“University Academy seeks to prepare students for higher education and to be leaders in society,” said superintendent Tony Kline. “The vision is to be the best college prep school in the country.”

The charter movement has always focused on underserved populations. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, most of the charter high schools that opened promised to get low-income students of color into college. University Academy was no exception, and that’s still the mission today.

But there’s another reason why career and technical education hasn’t taken off in the charter market. Its predecessor, vocational education often tracked students of color into low-wage work while their white peers went to college.

“They literally had things like shoe shining. I mean, tracking doesn’t even cover how offensive it was,” said Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of Opportunity America. “It was a dumping ground for kids of color.”

A short list

Opportunity America is a nonprofit organization that promotes career education and minority entrepreneurship. A few years ago, Jacoby decided to compile a list of charter schools that were focused on career and technical education. She thought there would be a lot – after all, there’s inherent flexibility in the charter model that would let schools explore new ideas in technical education.

But Jacoby could only come up with about 200 focused on career education, out of more than 7,000 charter schools, none of which are in Kansas City.

That’s probably because of how Missouri’s charter school law came about. Passed in 1998, it was supposed to create new schools that succeeded where the urban districts had failed. So a lot of the schools that opened promised to get students into college, including University Academy.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Kenath Mitchell is headed to Cornell University to study architecture.

The school doesn’t offer career and technical education in the traditional sense. Students can take an accounting class or a coding class, but not shop class. When teachers talk about jobs, they mean the careers students will have after they graduate from college. Juniors and seniors at University Academy spend an hour a day in a college seminar, just learning how to navigate the admissions process.

“Junior year, I thought I had it all figured out,” said senior Kenath Mitchell. “Like, ‘Oh yeah, I know where I want to go. It’s going to be easy. Financial aid can’t be that hard.’ But then we started doing the deep, deep college search, and I was like, ‘Oh. This is a lot harder than I expected.’”

Mitchell is headed to Cornell University to study architecture. Most of his classmates will also pursue four-year degrees after they graduate in May. There are always a few who don’t, though. Usually the reason is financial, but sometimes students want to pursue a career outside of a four-year degree, and University Academy supports them, Kline said.

“If they say, ‘Hey, I want to go into culinary arts,’ we’re going to be there and give them advice for that,” Kline said. “Well, if that’s what you want to do, what’s the best culinary arts program you can get into? Who are the chefs you should study under? Ultimately, we want our students to be able to choose what they want to do in life.”

But University Academy also tells students, starting in kindergarten, that they’re going to college someday. So students pick career paths with that in mind. Senior Domini Johnson wants to be a doctor.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Domini Johnson originally wanted to go to a big, state school, but through her college search at University Academy, she settled on a private school, Tulane.

“I’m planning to go to Tulane University in New Orleans and study either biology or neuroscience with a pre-med emphasis,” Johnson said. “I started off wanting to do art and actually studied abroad in India through my school, and the program I got chosen for was medicine. Going over there brought out my passion for it.”

What Kline wants is for every University Academy student to be able to get into a competitive college or university, even if they don’t end up pursuing a four-year degree right away.

“If you only get ready for one opportunity – and it’s not four-year college – and you change your mind when you’re 23, 24, 25, it’s really hard to go back and take those necessary AP courses or retake the ACT,” Kline said.

Challenges in the city

It’s also just a lot harder for small, urban schools to put together the kinds of CTE programs that big suburban districts have. Blue Valley and Northland have CAPS, a Center for Advanced Professional Students. It’s what school districts call “profession-based learning.” Students get real world experience at internships, but they have to get themselves there.

“The hindrance to that program is student transportation,” Kline said. “While some of our students have cars, many, many don’t, and that’s also the case at other schools in Kansas City.”

Jacoby is trying to figure out those logistics in Indianapolis, where she plans to open a career and technical education charter school. She doesn’t expect it will be easy.

“You have to break the rules if you’re going to do CTE right,” Jacoby said. “You have to do things differently. You have to get kids out of the classroom, you have to be willing to send them across town. You have to hire teachers out of industry. You probably have to change the school day all around.”

And she doesn’t think most established charters will be willing to do that.

“I was on stage once with one of the national leaders of the charter movement, and this was before I really understood the dynamic. I said, ‘You know, this CTE thing is exciting, they’re experimenting with it all over the country, you guys should think a little more about that.’ And he said, ‘Don’t you dare come to my school and tell young people they’re not going to college. I promised them MIT. I promised them Amherst. Don’t you dare tell them they’re going to be welders and plumbers.’”

Supporting graduates

At University Academy, what the emphasis on career and technical education has changed is how it supports graduates after high school.

Only about 16 percent of low-income students finish college, compared to 60 percent of students whose families are wealthy. Affluent students usually get help paying for college, as well as help from social connections finding a job.

What Sonja Shaffer tries to do is replicate that professional network for students whose parents don’t have those connections. Shaffer is the director of career programs for Friends of University Academy, a nonprofit that supports alumni of the charter school. 

“Last year was the first year, and we did a two-day, pre-internship professionalism workshop where we had a business etiquette lunch and workshops on how to dress for success or how to use Excel or bring your A game to work,” Shaffer said.

Friends of University Academy also provides cash incentives for good grades every semester students are in college. Kline calls this approach “to and through.” It’s not enough for academically rigorous charters to get kids into college. They also need to provide resources to get them through college as well.

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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