Making It Happen

How Career Academies Can Build College and Career Exploration Programs

By Mary Visher, Jacklyn Willard, Stephanie Safran

Preparing high school students for both college and career is a goal that few can disagree with. But while much attention has focused on how to prepare students academically for life after high school, less has been directed at the nonacademic skills and knowledge that students need to succeed in college and the workplace. Schools are expected to teach these skills and knowledge, but they are rarely given the support, guidance, and tools needed to do so.

Career academies — small schools within schools that are organized by a career theme — are particularly well positioned to provide these “21st-century skills.” Indeed, work-based learning experiences, such as internships, are a central, possibly an instrumental, component of the career academy model. Yet even career academies struggle to make college and career exploration and awareness-building curricula a central part of every student’s experience. With a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education, MDRC and its project partner Bloom Associates piloted a program to help academies build college and career exploration programs. Called “Exploring Career and College Options (ECCO),” the program consists of a series of one-hour in-class lessons, visits to local work sites and college campuses, and a six-week internship with a concurrent weekly seminar that is offered in the summer before or during the senior year. If the program is fully implemented, by the time students graduate from an ECCO career academy, they will have received up to 44 lessons, participated in at least two visits to work sites and two to college campuses, and completed a six-week compensated internship.

This report summarizes findings from a three-year study of 18 academies in three states — California, Florida, and Georgia — that implemented ECCO from 2009 through 2012.

Key Findings

  • ECCO significantly improved the capacity of career academies to offer college and career exploration curricula and activities. Academies with little or no existing capacity were able to launch all the components of the ECCO program within the first year.
  • As a consequence of this increased capacity, students in ECCO academies participated in career and college exploration activities at substantially higher rates than students who were enrolled in the same academies before ECCO was implemented.
  • The ECCO academies were successful in placing into internships most of the students who were interested in and available for them. The internship component of the academy model is often viewed as the most challenging aspect of implementation. Surprisingly, when students did not participate in the internship program, they more likely opted out of it, rather than what has commonly been cited as the reason for low take-up rates — that not enough employers choose to host interns. The students’ reasons for opting out of an internship included mandatory summer school and already having a summer job lined up.

MDRC is partnering with The California Center for College and Career ("ConnectEd") in Berkeley, California, to provide districts and academies access to the ECCO materials and to professional development.

Visher, Mary, Jacklyn Altuna Willard, and Stephanie Safran. 2013. Making It Happen. New York: MDRC.