Mountain Home Career Academies High School has taken a big gamble over the last decade. It transformed itself from a traditional high school into one consisting of three academies--engineering, communications, and healthcare. Unlike many high schools which have career mentoring programs tucked inside a regular curriculum, Mountain Home is "wall to wall" academies. Each of its 875 students were tested as freshmen, and based on their learning styles, skills, and interests, the students have chosen which academy to join.
"Our community came to us and said their workforce was retiring, and they were looking at different areas where we could continue to grow our community and keep our graduates in town," says principal Dana Brown, who oversaw the switchover. "At first it was scary...but if you empower people, people support what they help create."
Brown says nearly a decade in, student test scores are above average, and more students are going to two- and four-year colleges after graduation. "There is a passion behind these students," says academy coordinator Brigitte Shipman. "You can see it, and you can't fake that."
Thomas McLees is a senior who moved here from Montana, where he attended a traditional high school. After some thought, he chose Mountain Home's engineering academy. "I knew I was more 'hands on' because all my life I had been taking apart computers, toasters, my mom got really made at me for that." He comes from a long line of military veterans. "I want to make military body armor and medical stuff."
Do career academies better prepare students for life after high school? Social policy research group MDRC looked at results from nine academies in or near large urban school districts and found that graduates earned, on average, 11 percent more over eight years compared to non-academy peers. The effect was concentrated among men. Nearly all academy students--95 percent--graduated or completed their GEDs. (Read More: America's Top States for Business 2012- Education Rankings)
Principal Brown says Mountain Home has thrived in this new format because of community support. Businesses like Baxter Healthcare and Wells Fargo , along with other local professionals, come in regularly to mentor students. At the same time, students do internships, and teachers participate in what are called "externships"--pairing them with businesses to learn what kind of job applicants are needed.
"We bring real life applications for things out in the community to the kids, things they wouldn't have the opportunity to see if we were a regular, traditional high school," says medical professions teacher Alecia Czanstkowski.
Still, it was a learning curve for teachers.