Fine dining might draw the epicure. Theatre appeals to the cultured. A vibrant nightlife lures in young crowds. But how does a city grappling with an identity crisis get residents to put down roots? Perhaps nothing matters more to young families than the quality of the public school system. To build strong, vibrant communities, schools form an important piece of the puzzle.

Akron Public Schools have made headlines lately for the opening of the I Promise School sponsored by NBA legend Lebron James. The school even scored a recent visit from Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel. It’s hard to top that.

But another transformation—one not driven by celebrity philanthropy—is sweeping through the school system, and it has the power to change the lives of even more students in Akron’s schools. The change may also have a lasting impact upon the community. APS has embraced a new model creating college and career academies in their secondary schools.

North High School launched its college and career academy this fall, with other high schools to follow suit in 2019. The profound restructuring of the schools has the program’s director, Rachel Tecca, excited and optimistic.

Formerly the principal of North High School, Tecca has seen the need for more guidance of students on the secondary level. She eagerly took on the role of Director of the College and Career Academy program to spearhead the effort. Tecca realized that some students may not have the support system at home to help them navigate the complicated process of transitioning from high school to college that other kids have. The academies will help students create a path to college or meaningful employment when they complete high school.

Akron Children’s Hospital Academy of Health and Human Services

It has taken some time to get the program in place.

“In 2011, Mr. James, our superintendent, began looking at programs for our Akron schools to produce graduates that would be competitive,” Tecca says of the project. “He started looking at a national model called college and career academies. He built some momentum from business leaders in the community.”

James and the business leaders visited Nashville, Tennessee to study the academy model. James approached North High principal Rachel Tecca asked her if the school would be interested in piloting the program. Tecca says the number of kids going on to college from North was low.

“If you don’t have someone guiding you, it’s difficult,” Tecca explains. “We wanted to do something different for our kids.”

A group of teachers then visited Nashville. A second group followed, and everything began to fall into place.

Stepping in to help was The Ford Next Generation Learning Community, a national organization affiliated with the Ford Motor Company. “The company kind of builds you a roadmap to do this transformational work. Ford focuses on community transformation through transforming high schools,” Tecca says, explaining that Akron Public Schools was the first in Ohio to earn the formal designation of being a Ford community school.

Tecca says, “One of the best things about Ford is they supply coaching and support with the transformation. What our superintendent and our assistant superintendent did really well is establish a phenomenal foundation of business and community partners who want to get involved in this transformation to support education in our community.”

Students at the Academy of Global Technology and Business

Businesses and organizations can commit $100,000 in time and talent rather than dollars, and their names will be on the academies. For example, Key Bank’s support for East High School means one academy bears the name “Key Bank Academy of Business and Health Services.” At Firestone, several academies have a Kent State affiliation: Kent State University Academy of Technology and Engineering, Kent State University Academy of Design, and Kent State University Academy of Performing Arts. At North, students in Akron Children’s Hospital Academy of Health and Human Services can shadow physicians and nurses at Children’s hospital.

Ford uses a three-strand model to effect change. Strand 1 is transforming teaching and learning. Strand 2 is transforming the secondary school experience. Strand 3 is transforming business and civic engagement.

According to Tecca, the biggest strength for Akron, is “business and civic engagement.”

High schools are restructured into small learning communities based upon students’ interests and academic strengths. All Akron freshmen will enter high school in a freshman academy. As freshmen, they will do a lot of career exploration, find out what classes and skills they will need for each career, and form a ten-year plan.

Students at the Academy of Global Technology and Business whose area of interest is IT Support Services examine the inner workings of a computer.

By the end of the freshman year, they will have picked an academy, and within that academy they pick one area of interest. They take four courses in their area of interest freshman year. They remain in that academy throughout their remaining high school years unless they decide that they are more interested in another tract. The hope is that finding their interests or changing their minds early on will help them have a stronger sense of their direction when they reach college, where a change in a major can add thousands of dollars onto a student’s educational tab.

The teachers still teach their standards, but they try to take those standards and make them relevant to the area of interest their students are studying.

“What they’re trying to do,” Tecca says of the ultimate goal, “is build a small community—a family—of people who wrap their arms around these kids and make them successful.”

With the backing of the business community, getting kids on the right track to go to college builds the foundation for urban revival in Akron.

(All photos by Shane Wynn. Used with permission.)