Music City’s Greatest Export? – Nashville’s Career Academies

You may be forgiven for thinking that the best thing to come out of the wonderful city of Nashville is the country music of legends like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. But don’t be fooled by the gentle Southern ballads – change has been fast paced in Music City’s education system over the last ten years.

In 2005, the city had a high school graduation rate of just 57% and, in the words of Melissa Jaggers, President of Alignment Nashville, ‘we knew it wasn’t time for tweaks, it was time for wholesale change.’ That is exactly what they embarked on, led by the business community that wanted to ensure that young people in this corner of Tennessee got the skills they needed for their future workforce. Through a process of intensive collaboration across business, education and the city’s government, the model of Career Academies was rolled out in 12 Nashville schools by 2010. A small team from Edge went to see how it was working out. 

Career Academies

Career Academies are a school within a school; the model builds on the small school movement that has been popular in the United States since the 1970s. In their 9th Grade year (age 14/15) young people join their school’s Freshman Academy. They spend time every day on English and maths, but they also learn the essential work skills, such as models of team working and structured note taking that will set them in good stead across their school career. They have time and support to investigate and explore their career options through presentations from older students, careers fairs, job exploration and college visits. This provides an excellent model for the government’s proposed ‘transition year’.

This experience helps them to choose the Career Academy that will be their focus for the remaining three years of High School – there are around 40 across Nashville and 2-4 in each school. They range from the Academy of Automotive Design to the Academy of Health Management and the Academy of Digital Design and Communications.

Their choice of Academy shapes every aspect of a young person’s school life, from structured employer engagement like job shadowing to relevant technical education qualifications. Perhaps most importantly, the Academy provides the context for their broader curriculum – young people learn about mathematical formulae from an aviation engineer or English comprehension through the lens of researching a court case with a local lawyer.

Making learning relevant

This approach makes the learning so much more relevant, making young people more enthusiastic as they can see exactly how it will be put into practice. As Robin Wall, Principal of McGavock High School says,

‘They don’t like math, English or science any more than they did ten years ago, but now they go in and they want to learn them because they can see their relevance to their future job’.

This was reinforced by one of his Seniors, Hayley, who told me,

‘I got the opportunity to job shadow at Country Music Television. The lighting designer showed me how angles mattered to his work and suddenly math was worthwhile.”

Supporting teachers

As we walked around the high schools of Nashville, one of the most striking things was, not just how happy and engaged the pupils were, but how positive and relaxed the teachers seemed – a far cry from the overstretched workforce in our schools trying to do their best with insufficient resources and an overbearing set of performance measures.

That’s no surprise when you realise that teachers are given time to plan lessons during the week – both individually and as a group to spot cross-curricular opportunities. As new members of staff they receive mentoring and there are ongoing opportunities for lesson observation and personal development. Over the summer break, they spend a few days together on an externship with an employer, keeping their experience current and bringing back a cross-cutting project for pupils to work on over the coming year. Teaching young people relevant work skills whilst being invested in and supported yourself is a world away from forcing reluctant pupils into a narrow EBacc and an endless cycle of English and maths retakes.

The role of local employers

All of this is not just underpinned by, but led by local employers who see it as their moral and economic duty to induct the next generation of young people into the workforce. Their CEOs are the ones that sit down with a new Superintendent of Schools to tell them that the Academies are central to Nashville’s educational and economic priorities, ending the constant cycle of revolution that plagues the English technical education system. As Marsha Edwards, one of the CEO Champions in Nashville says,

‘It’s easy to assume that high school students don’t want adults around because they’re teenagers, but that’s not really true. Our young people are looking for role models; adults who take an interest in their professional future. They want to hear from adults who are succeeding in the ‘real world.’ They want to see examples of what they can become in life.’

Graduating and beyond

The results speak for themselves. Young people are voting with their feet with attendance rising from 87% to 96% and suspensions falling 40% as they feel more engaged. In ten years, the graduation rate has gone from 57% to 81% and, as a result, the Academies model has added $96m to the local economy.

We joined 400 education practitioners from across the US looking to borrow from the academies model in their own communities – people who believe that the Academies are the future of education in the States. It’s high time the UK picked up its guitar and learned some tunes from Music City, USA.  

Alice Barnard, CEO, Edge

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