YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Orange County

Career Academies Boost Grads' Earnings, Study Says

Report says they get higher wages than their peers when they enter the workforce.

March 16, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

High school students who attend career academies -- small, specialized programs within larger schools that blend traditional academics with vocational learning -- earn higher incomes on average than their peers in other high schools, a national study released Monday reported.

As school administrators emphasize college preparation, the report's findings dispute the often-heard criticism that vocational programs deter students from pursuing college and push them toward low-paying jobs.

"It does not need to be an 'either-or' proposition" between academics and career-focused teaching, said James Kemple, the report's author. "We are seeing evidence that this choice need not be made."

Instead, the study -- which included a Santa Ana career academy -- found that students who attend academies are as likely to enter two- or four-year college programs as non-academy students, while the academies provide a significant earning boost to recent graduates in the labor market.

Kemple emphasized that the academies should not be viewed as a substitute for higher education since college graduates, over time, will earn more than those who attend only high school.

The eight-year study by MDRC, a nonpartisan education and social policy research group, followed more than 1,400 students on nine campuses throughout high school and the four years after their expected graduation.

The statistics reflected the experiences of students such as those at Valley High School's Global Academy of Finance in Santa Ana -- one of four California schools in the study.

Like other California academies, the Global Academy serves many students who face economic and learning challenges in pursuing high school diplomas.

Many of the estimated 2,500 career academies nationwide serve underprivileged communities. Functioning as an intimate school-within-a-school, each academy begins in either the ninth or 10th grade and usually enrolls 150 to 200 students.

Academy students maintain a regular academic course load while also taking classes in their program area. Internships, job shadowing and guest lectures from local industry leaders are built into the curriculum to prepare students for the workforce.

Santa Ana's Global Academy, for example, admits 50 sophomores each year. Like all 290 California academies, at least half of the enrollees come from low-income families or have poor academic records. In the program, they become versed in the principles of accounting, real estate, banking, insurance and investment finance.

Young men stand to gain the most from career academies, the national study found. After high school graduation, men who attended academies earned an average of $1,373 a month, which was $212 a month, or 18%, more than men who did not attend academies.

The impact is significant in light of a job market that offers fewer entry-level jobs, Kemple explained. Over the last 30 years, Kemple said, the earnings of young male graduates have dropped by 20%.

"This is a group that has had greater and greater trouble in the labor force," Kemple said. "And here is evidence of an intervention that really counters that trend."

Moreover, the study concluded that the earning gains were concentrated among students who were at risk of dropping out of high school when they entered an academy.

Tony Ramirez, a student at Global Academy, embodies those findings. The youngest of nine siblings, Ramirez was determined to be the first to go to college. The summer before his freshman year, however, one of Ramirez's brothers was paralyzed in a gang shooting. Barely passing his classes, Ramirez was on the verge of dropping out to help support his family, when the academy's director spoke in his English class.

"My goals had vanished," the 16-year-old said. "But the academy has got my attention. It's been like a family." This summer Ramirez is scheduled to intern as a Wells Fargo Bank teller and plans to attend either Cal State Fullerton or UC Irvine.

In contrast, the study found that the academies had a much smaller impact on young women's earning power, with women who graduated from an academy earning only $39 more per month than those who did not.

These findings, Kemple said, reflected fewer women entering the workforce, focusing instead on caring for children or earning college degrees.

Tania Barajas, one of Global's senior-year women, wasn't thinking about kids, but does have plans to stay out of the job market for a while as she studies to become a doctor. She may not want to enter the business sector, but does not regret her decision to attend the academy.

"They don't tell you what to do with your life," she said, "but they help give you a lot of choices. It is up to you what you do with it."

Los Angeles Times Articles