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A Continuum of Services


How three local leaders in education and their organizations are working together to improve outcomes

Three business people in suits pose for photo
Pictured (from left): Marquita Mitchell, executive director of Project Learn; Derran Wimer, executive director of Summit Education Initiative; and Rachel Tecca, director of the Akron Public Schools' College & Career Academies.

Atop Akron's North Hill, in one of the school district's oldest buildings, a new and innovative education model is taking root. High school students at Akron Public Schools' North Community Learning Center – in a neighborhood represented by 26 languages and 14 different countries – are taking the first step toward careers in biomedical science, health care, early childhood education, marketing and software development, among other fields.

Over the next few years, Akron Public Schools will convert all of its high schools to College & Career Academies, offering students the ability to choose from more than 50 specialized career tracks with the goal of them leaving "enrolled, employed or enlisted."

Also known as the Ford Next Generation Learning model, the academy model takes a collaborative, community-driven approach, bringing in partners from the local business, nonprofit and education sectors to prepare students for career success in the 21st century. The model has already been incredibly successful in cities like Nashville, leading to substantial increases in graduation and retention rates, as well as a stronger talent pipeline for jobs.

"The biggest payoff is we're making sure kids have a competitive advantage when they leave Akron Public Schools with a high school diploma," said Rachel Tecca, director of the College & Career Academies.

But getting students to that diploma is just one milestone along a continuum of educational success.

Working Back to the Cradle

Known nationwide as the Cradle to Career Continuum, there are six specific milestones a student needs to meet during their educational career to better their chances of future success. These milestones range from reading at grade level by third grade to being prepared for high school math in eighth grade.

But due to the multitude of local agencies, organizations and schools that impact the continuum, collecting, organizing and sharing that data has proven to be a monumental task.

Enter Summit Education Initiative. Established in 1996, SEI has spent the majority of the past decade centralizing local data pertaining to the continuum.

Most importantly, SEI has put this data to use in a scientific and impactful way. Some of the discoveries they made were found by piecing together disparate data sets, like using third-grade reading data to predict eighth-grade math success, said Derran Wimer, executive director of SEI.

The organization began working back from these milestones, leading researchers to Kindergarten Readiness Scores, and then later to preschool and the importance of early learning.

A Transition Skills Summary was created in conjunction with Summit County's First Things First Initiative, of which Akron Community Foundation is a founding partner. The summary offers a snapshot of a child's readiness for kindergarten, measuring 16 skills a preschooler needs to have learned to be successful in school.

These indicators have been on target, says Wimer. "We can ensure that all of the kids in programs aligned with SEI have these 16 skills, then turn it over to the kindergarten teachers. If you don't have these pre-academic skills, you're in trouble already," he explained.

SEI has also formed Readiness Coalitions in each district to share its data with local early education providers, as well as interested community members and parents.

"We're trying to do three things: empower the kids, strengthen the adults and staff members that work with the kids, and strengthen the parents and community that support the kids," said Wimer.

Admittedly, 51 percent of children still are not enrolled in preschool, Wimer says. It's a figure that has not changed significantly over the past five years, so challenges still lie ahead.

One of those challenges is to change the culture at home. Ideally, a child's education begins with parents or caregivers, so SEI is working with strategic partners like Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority to help parents of infants become their child's first and most important teacher.

Meanwhile, toward the other end of the continuum, Akron Public Schools has started a freshman academy at its remaining high schools to prepare ninth-graders for the College & Career Academies they'll attend in grades 10 through 12.

Second Chances

The Cradle to Career Continuum, though ideal, is not always a straight path. Often, life events alter a person's education or career plans.

That's where Project Learn steps in. Stationed at Akron-Summit County Public Library's Main Library in downtown Akron, the nonprofit helps adults earn a high school equivalency diploma, teaches English as a second language, and offers citizenship programs for immigrants and refugees.

"We don't want folks to get to the adult level and not have the educational skills they need to be successful in society," said Executive Director Marquita Mitchell.

Each year Project Learn serves approximately 1,300 students from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some have struggled with addiction and dropped out of high school, while others are gifted students looking to test out of high school, so they can advance to college.

In addition, the agency also sees a growing number of refugees and immigrants who are trying to adapt to the job landscape in a new country.

"We had one individual who was a pediatric surgeon in his own country, but he needed to pass the boards here," recounts Mitchell. "All he wanted to do was get into one of the hospitals. He didn't care if it was a janitor's position, because he knew if he at least got in the door and was working with us to improve his language, he could take care of the rest."

Mitchell said this scenario is more common than one may think, adding that Project Learn teaches a health care English class for resettled residents with medical backgrounds.

Project Learn also encourages students to think about the next step in their journey – like attending college – since many mistakenly feel their education ends after receiving their high school equivalency.

"They don't see themselves as worthy of these opportunities, but if you get your high school equivalency, you have the same playing field as anyone else," Mitchell said.

The success stories motivate Mitchell in her work. She recalls one student who brought his skateboard to graduation as a symbol of his perseverance for riding it to class every day – a nearly two-hour trip – for six months.

"There was another student who, when I was teaching a few years back, had a photo of his family on his desk every day," says Mitchell. "I said, 'Your family must be proud of you,' and he replied, 'No, Miss Mitchell, quite the opposite.' It threw me off guard. He said, 'I chose alcohol and drugs over my family. This was the last time I've seen them.' While he was here, he got clean and helped some other students overcome their addictions."

After graduating, he reunited with his family, she adds.

An Ongoing Approach

While there is positive momentum in the local education arena, attainment does continue to pose a challenge. According to a community assessment commissioned by Akron Community Foundation, about half of the adults in Akron over age 25 have no education beyond a high school diploma.

But with dozens of community partners working together toward common goals, the needle is beginning to move.

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