A closer look at 865 Academies

Beth KinnaneFountain City, Our Town Youth

The education news this week has been centered around two things: high school graduations and the disastrous consequences of Tennessee’s third grade retention law relative to TCAP scores. Congratulations on the former, and we will get back to the latter.

For the moment, we’re turning our attention back to the 865 Academies coming to eight Knox County high schools starting with the freshman class of 2023-24. Specifically, we’re looking at the available academies for Austin-East, Fulton and Central high schools, less about what is there and more about what isn’t:

Austin-East: Entrepreneurship and Professional Services  / Health Services and STEM

Central: Automotive Services and Technology / Business and Design / Health and Life Sciences

Fulton: Health and Human Services / Communications / Public Service

While STEM is included in one of the academies at A-E, it is missing from Central and Fulton, as is an Academy of Liberal Arts like they have at Hardin Valley, which includes communication and design. In other words, there isn’t an academic academy at these schools. While this does not mean there are no traditional academic electives for students to choose from, the question that has been on my mind, and that of concerned parents since their announcement, is where does this leave the students who have no interest in the available academies at their schools? Where’s the college prep academy? How do they opt out of it?

The short answer on the latter question is they can’t. Two weeks ago, Central’s principal of Business and Design, Danielle Rutig, intimated that concerned parents could have their child’s needs looked at on a case-by-case basis. Shannon Jackson, Knox County School’s executive director of college and career readiness, indicated the same in an interview on May 22 that was joined by KCS’s multi-media specialist Josh Flory.

The conversation essentially got stuck in the same circle. While overall there is great support for the academies in theory and that KCS should, in fact, provide more in terms of CTE and vocational options, many parents are not pleased that their more academically inclined child is going to be forced to choose between pathways in which they have zero interest. And KCS isn’t simplifying things by offering an academic academy at every school, or at the very least, allowing students to opt out of the available academies without having to schedule a special meeting at the school. Every student has to do this, whether they want to or not, even though this instruction is not required by the state of Tennessee for a high school diploma.

The contention from some parents is that college prep at these schools is being sacrificed for career-based classes and vocational training. Rutig, Jackson and Flory all said there will be plenty of room for all students to explore other global electives that aren’t part of academy pathways. The state requires 22 credits to graduate, 19 of which are specified and 3 of which have to be focused electives in the same area of study. Knox County requires 28 credits, but a student can take as many as 32 (not including summer school/dual enrollment). That’s a max of 8 classes a year, 4 per semester.

So, the 19 credits with the freshman academy class and 3 academy focus classes gets a student to 23 credits, and that leaves them with 9. It sounds like a lot, unless you play in the band and wish to play in marching band in the fall and concert band in the spring every year, taking up 8 credits. Or a student participating in chorus, or who wants to take art classes every semester. Or is just an academically average student who has no interest in the academies being offered.

Katie Allison is the parent of a CHS rising junior (who won’t be affected by the academies) and a rising 8th grader. She isn’t happy about her youngest being required to participate in the academies at Central and wants her to have the same opportunities as her older sister.

“This plan denies my child the right to the same academic opportunities that students at schools like West High School and other schools with a strong academic focus are able to access. I don’t believe we should have to apply for a transfer to a school outside our neighborhood that hasn’t been turned into a Career and Technical academy in order for our child and others like her in Fountain City to have the same opportunities as students in other school zones,” Allison said.

In an email received Tuesday afternoon, Flory pushed back at the notion that Central, A-E and Fulton are being focused as CTE/vocational schools:

“We do believe it is important to offer robust CTE courses and pathways at all of our schools, and that students should be equipped to enter a high-wage career directly out of high school, if that is their choice. However, it is false to say that Central is being turned into a school with only “vocational” offerings. As we discussed, the pathways available at Central include Networking Systems, Nursing Education, Marketing Management, Digital Arts and Design, and Therapeutic Services, all of which could prepare students for success in college.

We recognize that these pathways, and the others available at Central, may not have been the first choice for every student. In fact, some students may choose career paths that are more closely aligned with the many AP, honors, visual arts and performing arts courses that Central will continue to offer. However, it is certainly not accurate to say that Central does not offer any college prep pathways.”

Our contentions are these: students are not being “asked” to choose a pathway, they are being “made” to choose a pathway in which they may have no interest and their parents aren’t interested in them doing while still in high school. There isn’t an academy at every school that aligns with traditional college prep coursework regardless of courses available, and the academies remove 4 choices from electives they would prefer. It matters to college admissions what courses students take, not just AP/SAT test scores and GPAs. From the outside looking in, if a college is looking at a student from Central, A-E or Fulton, the academies at those schools make them look like vocational schools, especially if the CTE classes are required but more rigorous academics are not. Classes are not electives if students are having to take them against their will.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com

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