Transforming Akron Middle Schools Through a Nonprofit Lens
By Chris Miller, Communications & Community Investment Officer
This September, Akron Public Schools (APS) will welcome educators and administrators from all over the country to learn more about an innovative model it launched here in 2017: the College & Career Academies of Akron. The academies are composed of numerous career pathways – from business and health care to engineering and music – which students can explore with the goal of graduating employed, enrolled, enlisted or pursuing entrepreneurship. Many students are even earning industry credentials or college credit for their chosen fields while still in high school.
The fall event, called Akron in Action: A Ford NGL Experience, will showcase Akron's success with the academies, providing other districts with a high-level view of the systemic change taking place within Akron Public Schools, along with demonstrating the extensive and deep engagement of the business, nonprofit and philanthropic communities that make up this educational model. One of those engaged partners is Akron Community Foundation, which has been instrumental in the more recent transformation of Akron's middle schools to this College & Career Academies of Akron (CCAA) model.
"As a member of the Akron in Action Steering Committee, I have seen how transformational this model is and how collaborative our community has been to make this change for our students," said John Garofalo, vice president of community investment for Akron Community Foundation. "Akron in Action is our way to show districts from all over the U.S. what worked for us and how this model can transform a community."
There's a reason for interest from other school districts in the country: The academies model has led to higher graduation rates and industry credential attainment for APS, even amid the pandemic. And while the community foundation has supported the academies transformation from the beginning, it has made a focused commitment to be a critical partner in the transformation of Akron's middle schools.
A Blueprint for Student Success
"The vision to build college and career readiness into the entire K-12 framework at APS was in place since day one," said Rachel Tecca, assistant superintendent and chief of leadership and learning for Akron Public Schools. "We want students to be independent and envision a future for themselves. This requires a long runway of exploration, experiential learning and discovery."
"ACF, a long-term partner of Akron Public Schools, assumed the large role as community convener for our middle school academies," said Tecca. "When we think about the middle school CCAA experience, we want our students to find their passion and interests, and understand that it is important to be a contributing member of their communities. ACF has helped build the infrastructure to allow our students to explore the needs in their communities and the nonprofits that provide assistance for those needs."
To reinforce its commitment to the academies model, Akron Community Foundation funded the creation of a new position, the Middle School CCAA Partner Liaison. This led to the hiring of former APS employee Darlene Shuler, whose job involves meeting with area nonprofits to find partners for APS middle schools. Through these partnerships, students learn about giving their resources – like time, talent and treasure – to causes they care about, along with exploring possible career paths in nonprofits.
So far, 53 partnership agreements have been signed between APS and local nonprofit organizations.
"As the partner liaison, I wish I'd had an opportunity to learn about philanthropy during my middle and high school years," said Shuler, who works out of Akron Community Foundation's office. "What a game changer for the future of our students and families and the communities we live in."
Although her position is relatively new, Shuler's experience with the College & Career Academies traces back six years, when she was the program manager for College and Career Services. She also served as co-chair for APS College and Career Exploration Tactical Team, helping to design what is now the working model used by the school system.
"I'm extremely excited to be a part of this middle school transformation and see the transformation continue to grow and come full circle from six years ago," Shuler said. "Students having an opportunity to learn about nonprofit organizations, through the lens of community awareness and service learning, will have a lasting impact on their future career goals and how students see themselves supporting the community in which they live."
"Our partnership with ACF has made a huge impact in the middle school academies in a short amount of time," said Tecca. "We already have over 50 middle school partners. It's been outstanding."
Though the middle school partnerships with nonprofits are just starting, several agencies have already begun programming with the students, like ACCESS Inc., an Akron-based homeless shelter for women and children, which worked with students from Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts.
"In our first session, students participated in a roleplay activity in order to understand the firsthand perspective of people experiencing homelessness and looking for housing," said Jackie Hemsworth, executive director of ACCESS Inc. "Each student received an identity and had to search for a place to live. Every seven minutes constituted a new day, and after a couple of challenging days, some students sat on the floor and gave up. They said it was impossible. It was an enlightening experience that was well received."
"The experience was valuable for the students," Hemsworth said, adding, "It is important that middle school-age students interact with and learn about social issues, because we are all part of the community and contribute to its greater good. Students this age truly are interested and have a lot to contribute."
Along with connecting students to the community, "this is a great time to plant the seeds about careers in nonprofit work," she added.
Child Guidance & Family Solutions (CGFS) is in the pilot year of a program with Jennings CLC, said President & CEO Karen Talbott. "This year we have participated in several ways, including being part of the Exploring Clubs at Jennings, where our staff members provided hands-on education about their roles to middle school students," said Talbott. "The most exciting engagement we have had this year involved Jennings coming on site to our CGFS office in Akron to explore our unique building and learn about different careers within the mental health field." She said the program has done so well, they've had to divide the sixth-grade students into two separate days, each featuring 50 students.
"Many students don't think about what nonprofit organizations are, what they do, and why they do it," Talbott added. "This is an opportunity to share with them that nonprofit organizations are community-owned resources and operate solely for the benefit of the community's well-being."
But the learning doesn't just go one way. These nonprofits said they've learned a lot organizationally from these partnerships already. For ACCESS, "Working with students has helped us to expand our thinking around who is hearing our messaging and who makes an impact in our community," said Hemsworth. "We really believe that it is a multigenerational strategy that will help move our community forward in the right direction."
Talbott said this partnership can offer a way for agency staff to gain a fresh perspective. "Working in the mental health field can be challenging," she added.
"With this partnership, our staff members can reconnect with their passion for helping others through sharing with students the reasons they chose to work in this field and why they continue to love what they do. It is refreshing for them to revisit what ignited this passion from the beginning and remembering the good they are doing in helping serve others."
Creating Change Agents Among Students
While academics remain at the forefront of school priorities, the College & Career Academies model has produced peripheral benefits, such as building empathy and helping students understand the delicate issues that impact many people in our community, even their peers.
Another benefit is CCAA students are often easily identifiable by their remarkable professionalism. A recent example of this, said Tecca, is after conducting interviews for Rotary Club scholarships, one of the interviewers noted how well all 40 students could speak articulately about their pathways and their benefits.
"That's the kind of feedback I like to hear," Tecca added. "We also had a recent APS graduate speak at the March demonstration event. She detailed her experience with the College & Career Academies and how it helped her plan for a career after high school. She accepted a job at Akron Children's Hospital and currently receives full tuition reimbursement to pursue her degree while employed."
Talbott pointed to another possible benefit of CCAAs: students having more focus and direction. "Having a more clearly defined future direction is one of the goals encapsulated in APS' Portrait of a Graduate, and these career exploration opportunities pave the way for increased clarity once the students reach high school and beyond," she said.
This experience will help shape these young people in unique ways, said Shuler, the Middle School CCAA Partner Liaison.
"Not every student will want to work at a for-profit organization, but they see themselves as giving back to their community through service learning and being a change agent, and nonprofit organizations provide students with that knowledge and opportunity," she said. "And even if working for a nonprofit is not in their future, understanding the complexities of our community will hopefully have positive long-term effects for these students," said Garofalo. "We hope it will help instill in them the value of giving back."
Nonprofits interested in participating in the middle school academies can contact Darlene Shuler.