International trade may not always be the topic of discussion that teenagers are passionate about these days. At one local high school, however, it’s not only a part of the curriculum, but a subject that has motivated students toward a pathway to a college degree and a future career.
Despite the threat of ongoing funding challenges at public schools across the state, Polytechnic High School’s magnet program called the Pacific Rim Academy, which first issued its charter in 1989, remains one of about 500 California partnership academies partially funded by state grants to provide smaller learning communities for high-school students.
The four-year program focuses on smaller class sizes, critical languages such as Japanese and Chinese, college-prep academics and career courses in international trade. The academy’s activities involve leadership training, starting up small companies and developing international-business plans.
For students like Nicole Sun, 16, the academy has assisted in transitioning from English language learning courses, making a résumé and working on an internship. Sun, who plans to go to a four-year college, said she has interests in marine biology and law enforcement, but is also open to going into business. “We have a port in a city, which is really cool,” she said.
Other academies in Long Beach include Jordan High School’s Aspirations in Medical Services Academy (AMSA) and its Architecture, Construction and Engineering Academy (ACE). Such academies are part of the rapidly growing field of Linked Learning, a new approach to education that “provides students with strong academics connected to real-world experience.”
School districts locally and across California are now closely watching such programs as recently passed state legislation aims to “evolve” the Academic Performance Index (API) to include more indicators of college and career readiness as a complement to standardized-test scores for measuring school-success rates.
Take for instance a recent debate among 11th-grade students. In front of a room full of peers, 16-year-old Alexus Asher defends why global powers, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the United Nations, should be able to “rule the world” some day. “It’s not always going to be fair,” she declares. “Somebody is going to get less and somebody is going to get more … it just depends on who you’re trading with.”
On the other side, 16-year-old Mari Molen-Radcliffe shoots back that the WTO fails to help undeveloped countries and only focuses on eliminating tariffs without taking into account human rights. “The WTO is the international organization whose primary purpose is to open up trade for the benefit of all, but they don’t benefit all,” she says.
The discussion was a practice run for the students who participated in a world trade conference and summit at the school’s library on Dec. 3, gearing up for debates in the spring semester that will involve cash prizes. “This is a good format for you to be able to answer questions on your feet [and] to be able to come up with a good argument,” explains Libby Huff, who teaches the class.
Although Poly High School receives more than 600 applications each year, Huff said the school is only able to accept about 70 students into the program. “There is definitely an interest … to be in an academy that prepares students for business and a global environment,” she said.
The program is particularly fitting in Long Beach, considered the “International City” and home to the second busiest seaport in the country. In fact, Huff said the academy was instrumental in developing the Port of Long Beach’s internship program about five years ago. She said, just last year, the Port hired more than 30 high-school students as interns and many students have continued on into careers. “Once they graduate, it’s a little harder to keep track of them, but we have had many students who have come back and said, ‘Yes, I work in some capacity at the Port or international business or in some other industry,’” Huff said.
The internships not only keep students actively involved in their education, but also directly connect them with what employers are looking for in today’s labor market, she added. “What employers are looking for isn’t necessarily a skill set … what they’re really looking for is somebody who is ready to work, shows up on time, knows how to get along in a team environment and can hit the ground running,” Huff said. “And that’s really the skill sets we are focused on here.”
Hilary McLean, deputy director of Linked Learning Alliance, a statewide association that promotes combining rigorous academics with challenging career-focused education, said the Long Beach Unified School District has committed to take the Linked Learning approach district-wide. “Long Beach is a real shining example,” she said. “Their implementation of Linked Learning is really highly regarded, and their student-success rate is really impressive.”
A report released last year by the Career Academy Support Network at the University of California, Berkeley that reviewed test scores, attendance and graduation rates of academies from 2009-2010 found that 95 percent of seniors attending such academies go on to graduate, compared with 85 percent of students statewide. The study also found that 57 percent of graduates from such academies fulfilled the courses required for admission to University of California or California State University systems, compared to 36 percent of graduates statewide.
In addition, even though 50 percent of students enrolled in the academies enter the program as “at-risk students,” they perform better than students at other California high schools, according to the report.
McLean said such academies are becoming more of the norm at high schools across California, particularly after recently enacted legislation known as SB 1458, which aims to change the state’s API to better measure a school’s ability to prepare students for college and career pathways. She said the California State Department of Education and public school advisory committees are currently coming up with recommendations about how the API should evolve.
“There’s been a whole evolution of our educational system, and 15 years ago, we didn’t even have standardized tests,” McLean said. “We’ve built in accountability with statewide tests … and had a vision that it would expand and evolve to include other factors that were reliable and valid … Unfortunately, we stalled out there for a variety of reasons … We’re at a place now where there’s really exciting work happening to look at this anew.”