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Education Nation: Rural Arkansas Town Rethinks High School

Basketball playing robot built by students.
Photo by Jessica Golden for CNBC.com
Basketball playing robot built by students.

A group of students in a high school gym hovers over a remote controlled robot while it shoots basketballs from the free throw line with better precision than Dwight Howard. They built and programmed the robot themselves, and it won first prize in a global robotics competition.

In a classroom nearby, other students are studying leeches recently used in microsurgery to reattach a severed hand.

And down the hall, a third group of students is working on a team building exercise—competing against each other to build the tallest tower using nothing more than marshmallows and toothpicks. "We need to break these right here," says one student, as the exercise tests their communication skills and math. (Read More:Broken Education System To 'Destroy Everything' If Not Fixed: Langone)

You might think you've landed in a high-priced private high school, prepping teenagers for America's top colleges. Instead, this is a public high school in a small town in Northern Arkansas.

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.

'THIS IS WHERE WE SHOULD BE HEADING"

"When I first heard we're thinking about academies, I thought, 'Ok, is this the next big educational thing we will go through...and then not?" says teacher Kathy Gonten. "But when I saw the real makeup of it, I thought, 'This IS the next big thing. This is where we should be heading.'"

While more kids are scoring better and going to college, it's not clear they are coming back to work in the town of Mountain Home, population 12,454. Dana Brown admits they need to improve their post graduation job tracking. There's also been some concern that putting teenagers into academies limits their choices at a time when they should be exploring all options. "I don't think it limits them, I think it enhances what they already have," says math teacher Kathy Wham. "We're giving these kids opportunities already that other kids don't have until their third or fourth year of college."

Students in each academy are exposed to classes in the other career tracks, and they can change their minds. Thomas McLees vacillated between engineering and health services. "Instead of going to college and taking a major and not wanting to finish it, and having to switch and pay thousands of extra dollars, you will go to college knowing, 'Hey, I liked this, but I didn't want to do it,' so you can jump into something you know you are good at."

Mountain Home administrators and teachers also think they've better prepared the students for job interviews and public speaking. Rachael Arp is in the communications academy, where students have to make business presentations in the community. "I think it has definitely made me more confident."

The school boasts several examples of students who suddenly realize, through an internship or a mentor, what they're passionate about.

"I was just born to be there," says senior Megan Cantrell of the health services academy. Cantrell, raised by a single mom who is a probation officer, has chosen a very different career path for herself. "I want to go into anesthesiology." Why? "When I started going through medical classes, I was like, 'This is what I really want to do.'"

Sector Watch - Education and Training Services:

  • Corinthian Colleges Inc.
  • DeVry, Inc.
  • ITT Educational Services Inc.
  • Apollo Group Inc.
  • School Specialty Inc.
  • Scholastic Corp
  • Capella Education Company
  • Career Education Corp.
  • Strayer Education Inc
  • Education Management Corp

- By CNBC's Jane Wells
@janewells

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