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Nashville study tour 2017

In a busy classroom filled with the noise of students excitedly explaining their projects, I meet two young women who exemplify the transformational change that the Career Academies of Nashville can deliver.

Both of them spent the first year of High School, at the age of 14, in the Freshman Academy. Alongside the core classes you would expect in areas like maths, English, science and social studies, this year offered them two or three periods a week of intensive preparation for their future career. They learned study skills like developing an argument and putting together a presentation. They spent time researching different careers, visiting career fairs and speaking to older students about their experiences.

All of this put them in a really strong position to choose their Career Academy, the professional area that would provide the context for the remaining three years of their High School experience. They both chose the Academy of Law, which covers all aspects of the justice system from barristers to police officers. 

Over those three years, careers focused sessions every other day bring these career paths to life. In the school’s mock courtroom, employer partners from the Attorney General’s office help them to recreate trials with their peers playing witnesses and attorneys. One of their teachers, who spent time as an FBI agent, shows them the importance of preserving and recording evidence at a crime scene. 

Behind the scenes, their teachers collaborate, helping to design immersive cross-curricular projects that help them to further develop their skills. The school’s student-run branch of the Credit Union is ‘held up’ and the students from the Academy of Law have to work together to negotiate with the perpetrators, save the hostages, secure the crime scene, build a dossier of evidence and bring the case to trial. Meanwhile they are filmed by their peers in the Academy of Digital Media who will go on to make a documentary about the ‘siege’, while others from the Academy of Medicine stand ready to assess and treat any ‘casualties’. 

Their Career Academy provides a lens for their core lessons too. In their English class they read and critique In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, not just as language students but from the point of view of budding Crime Scene Investigators, piecing together the clues from the text. 

Built in alongside this are structured employer experiences in every year of High School, from careers fairs, to job shadowing, to internships and a capstone project in their final year. All delivered by employers who have signed contracts to deliver a certain number of volunteer hours to develop the talents of young people in the city and introduce them to their sector. 

Both students chose this High School because they felt the Career Academy model could give then a head start in the world of work. The first proudly tells me that the experience has confirmed her desire to be a police officer and given her skills and contacts that will put her way ahead of her peers in the selection process. The second has decided to pursue a career in a different field but still feels absolutely that the real world relevance and employer contacts have helped get her ready for work in whatever path she chooses. This is one of the beautiful things about the model – it’s not about boxing in young people’s ambitions to a particular career path, but rather about using real life examples to create relevance, engagement and transferable skills. Young people never need to ask the question ‘when would I use this in the real world’ because the answer is always abundantly clear. 

The experience of these two young women is replicated thousands of times every year in High Schools across Nashville, with graduation rates soaring by more than 23% over the decade that the Academies have existed. It was a privilege to take with me on this study visit colleagues from schools and businesses in the North East and in Nottingham as we look to create a Next Generation Learning model in the UK inspired by the legacy of Nashville’s educational transformation. 

Olly Newton, Edge’s Director of Policy and Research, visited Nashville in September 2017 with representatives from City and Guilds, the CBI, British Gypsum, the North East LEP, Trent Academies Group, Excelsior Academy, Churchill Community College and Norham High School.