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OKCPS graduates first class of career academies students


from left Marilu Cardenas and Cassidy Lopez perform a bio lab at Northwest Classen High School. They are part of the first graduating class of the school’s Academy of Health Sciences. | Photo Laura Eastes
  • from left Marilu Cardenas and Cassidy Lopez perform a bio lab at Northwest Classen High School. They are part of the first graduating class of the school’s Academy of Health Sciences. | Photo Laura Eastes

Harley Smith placed a small glass bowl into the hands of a Northwest Classen High School special needs student, who stacked the bowl on top of its mate.

“Good job,” Smith said as she raised her hand and high-fived the student.

Lessons of Life skills are essential in the special education classroom at the Oklahoma City Public Schools site, which serves ninth- through 12th-grade students from the city’s northwest quadrant. Educators plan lessons that enable students to gain important basic skills, which often include completing tasks they face at home.

Smith, who created the dish-stacking lesson and grading rubric, gave the special needs student a pat on the back before she grabbed her backpack and left for her next class. Since January, Smith has interned in the special education class, interacting with students for one class period daily.

Smith is one of seven students involved in Northwest Classen’s Academy of Teacher Preparation, one of 12 academies offered by the district.

“When I was little, I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I always enjoyed school and loved my teachers. In the third grade, I struggled. It was a tough year for me. My teacher helped me a lot. She encouraged me and was very caring. I decided I wanted to be like that for kids. I want to be there for kids and love them. I feel like this is a direct way to make an impact on a kid’s life.”

Academies’ role

The district’s career academies were first introduced four years ago with the aim of creating small learning communities and better pathways from high school to further education and the workplace.

The academies are organized around themes of engineering, information technology, finance, hospitality and health sciences. Academy students take a tailored curriculum of academic and career-oriented courses together. The program includes internships, community service projects and career and college exploration, giving students momentum and the know-how to transition to higher education or the workforce after graduation.

Cassie Sharp serves as the coordinator for Northwest Classen Academy of Health Sciences. Her position calls for teaching lessons such as anatomy and physiology. It also involves working closely with a community advisory board.

With the board’s help, students are offered paid internships, meet medical professionals, attend career fairs and take field trips designed to give them a look into the health sciences field. Additionally, Sharp helps students prepare for their futures. She also assists them with college and federal student aid applications.

She believes the academy prepares students for high-demand and high-skilled health sciences careers in Oklahoma.

“I think they have been exposed to every career opportunity there is, whether it be a MetroTech program, college or career,” Sharp said of her graduating seniors. “I think they are prepared because of the individualized instruction and the time spent to explore careers. In the general classes, we don’t have time to explore careers and other options as well as talk about scholarships and what it takes to get into [higher education].”

The academies are like a school within a school, explained Cynthia Walls, coordinator of OKCPS’ career academies. There is an application process, but the district uses the information to gauge interest.

Applicants are assigned to an academy. They enter the program as ninth-graders and enroll in career-themed courses as an academy cohort through their high school years.

“Academies work well inside a school,” Walls said. “Not all students want to be part of academies, but I think as the district moves forward with the academies, more students will see these small learning communities and the benefits.”

Four years ago, there were six academies located at five high schools: Capitol Hill, John Marshall, Star Spencer, Northeast and Oklahoma Centennial. This school year, the district offered 12 academies at nine high schools and reached just under 1,000 students.

The district launched Northwest Classen’s Academy of Teacher Preparation last August and plans to create an Academy of Entrepreneurship at Emerson High School, the district’s alternative education program for secondary students, this coming school year.

OKCPS career academies are modeled after recommendations from the National Academy Foundation (NAF), an organization dedicated to bringing education, business and community leaders together to create a high school experience providing industry-specific curricula and work-based learning experiences. Annually, NAF assess the district’s academies.

Three district academies — Capitol Hill Academy of Engineering, Northeast Academy for Health Sciences and Academy of Engineering and Northwest Classen Academy of Health Sciences — reached model status for their ability to deliver high-quality educational experiences.

Senior perspective

Academy seniors are making history as the first graduating class of the district’s various academies. They joined the programs as freshmen and sophomores during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic years and receive their high school diplomas and NAF certifications in late May.

At graduation ceremonies, special green-and-white honor cords will drape over students’ shoulders.

As a health sciences academy student, Candis Rodgers interned at Diagnostic Laboratory of Oklahoma to understand medical laboratory work. The experience confirmed her interest in the medical profession. She said she will pursue nursing school after graduation.

“Your life can be changed,” Rodgers said. “Being in the health science academy, I feel like it made me stand out.”

Classmate Marilu Cardenas agreed.

“We got a head start,” she said. “A lot of people don’t take anatomy or biotech courses when in high school.”

As students like Cardenas and Rodgers complete their senior capstone laboratory to finalize the academy’s graduation requirements, Smith concludes her internship in the special education classroom.

In addition to an internship, Smith and six other classmates meet daily for a one-period course to discuss the profession and learn ethics and classroom management skills.

As an honors and advanced student, Smith was unfamiliar with the special education classroom and pursued the internship to gain knowledge working with nontraditional students.

To be a successful special education teacher, one must be patient and care about their students, Smith said.

“This has been an amazing experience,” she said. “It is going to be really sad when I graduate and leave my students.”

Smith looks forward to entering the special education classroom, where she is greeted with wide smiles on the students’ faces. Next August, she will attend Oklahoma State University and enroll in the College of Education with health education and promotion as her major.

“This is an experience that you probably wouldn’t get at any other school,” Smith said. “I have a lot of kids ask me — right after they walk by the classroom — ‘What are you doing? Are you an (teacher) aid?’ I tell them about the internship and the academy.”

Print headline: Career impetus, OKCPS graduates its first class from career academies and students exit high school with unique skills.

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