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A military high school in Indianapolis? That’s one option IPS officials are pitching

Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems with their teacher.
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems with their teacher.
Shaina Cavazos

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders have an idea for improving the district’s struggling high schools: Turn them into career academies.

In an effort to better prepare students for life after high school — and better illustrate for them why school is important — the district is considering plans to convert each of its high schools to career-related academies.

That means each school would have one or more academies with focus areas such as information technology, teaching or the military.

Students would be able to choose high schools based on their academy focus or attend their neighborhood high school.

“What we know is that when students are more engaged in an area of interest, they are more focused and more motivated,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

The proposal for career-focused high schools was unveiled at a school board meeting in August, and it’s still in the early stages of planning. The idea ignited mixed responses from school board members, with some suggesting that it would push students down career paths too early and others arguing that it would prepare them for the high-demand fields that offer good jobs.

The career academies are reminiscent of earlier efforts at improvement: IPS converted its high schools to small, theme-based academies in 2005, with the help of several million dollars in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation but the strategy was abandoned just a few years later amid disappointing results.

Exactly which careers the academies would focus on has not yet been decided. Board members have called for more input from neighborhoods and school staff to decide where schools should focus on medicine, or engineering or sports or any other careers that teens might be considering.

Career academies, which combine academic education with training for a career field, have been around since 1970s. But they have gained renewed attention in recent years as schools attempt to improve graduation rates and steer students to well-paying jobs.

Ferebee has cited Nashville, which has won national praise for converting all of its high schools to career academies, as a potential model for Indianapolis. Nashville used a federal grant to help split its neighborhood high schools into smaller academies with specific career focuses.

Indianapolis leaders say that academies would be done in partnership with local businesses and universities, so that students could continue to higher education or careers when they graduate.

Board member Sam Odle said the academies could help prepare students for burgeoning industries that will be looking to hire more skilled workers in the future.

“We are linking our student’s education with what their career opportunities are going to be in the future,” he said. “K-12 education has got to be better connected with the job market and what’s going on.”

But the idea of career academies, which would integrate career and technical education into high schools across the district, raised concerns from school board member Kelly Bentley. She said the academies could push students into career training instead of focusing on a broad liberal arts education.

“We are asking kids to make decisions in 8th grade about what they want to do in their career,” she said. “High school should be about exploration of a lot of different things and not about deciding you are going to be a security officer.”

Bentley said she is waiting until a more detailed plan is developed to make her decision, but she is also concerned about the cost — in time and money — of rolling out a new approach to high school.

“We are asking staff and parents and community people to put in a lot of work on something,” she said. “I just don’t know how we financially support that.”

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