In the burgeoning suburb of Olathe, Kan.,20 miles south of Kansas City, the state’s second-largest school district is becoming a showcase for career-based, hands-on learning that transcends traditional ideas of career technical education (CTE).
Roughly 2,000 of Olathe Unified School District’s 8,000 high school students are enrolled in OUSD’s rigorous 21st Century High School Programs. Using the general CTE concept of 16 “career clusters” as an organizational model, administrators have spent the past decade identifying and developing opportunities for immersion in a range of career paths that are relevant to local students.
Teens fascinated by the animal health field are doing research at an animal health institute on the new Olathe branch campus of Kansas State University. Students adept at electronic communications recently broadcast a state football championship. Students excited by biotechnology, aerospace engineering and additional fields are all pursuing such studies in depth, while sharing the same school buildings as the majority of students who are on more traditional educational paths.
Paving for Pathways
It was with great intentions that all of these two-year and four-year interest-based programs were spread among OUSD’s four high-achieving, comprehensive high schools, says Gretchen Sherk, director of general administration and high school programs. “We wanted the 21st Century Programs to be a part of what’s happening in the high schools,” she explains. “It’s a hodgepodge, but it blends together very nicely.”
The process of reinventing the district’s secondary experience began in the years of planning that preceded the opening of Olathe’s fourth high school, in 2003. (Enrollment has been growing nonstop ever since the district was established in 1965.) “We combined ideas from the magnet school concept, the school-to-career initiative, and information we received from our community through focus groups that included a number of stakeholders, including business and industry, higher ed, patrons, parents and students,” Sherk says. “We didn’t need a solution to a problem. It’s always been a strong district.
We just wanted to allow more opportunities for our students. We wanted to be open to the changing workforce and the changing world and economy.”
Sherk continues: “In terms of outcomes, whether we’re looking at graduation rates, ACT scores, or the number of AP courses taken, across the board, students in those 21st Century Programs have been at least at district average or above in all measures.”
Following Their Bliss
Choosing a career in 9th grade isn’t for everyone, emphasizes OUSD Superintendent Marlin Berry. “But you always have some students who know exactly what they think their career is going to be,” he says. “So they get a chance to focus on that.”
Berry says that careful preparation is key: “We do a lot of work ahead of time, in middle schools, with our counselors, and in parents’ nights, exploration nights, open houses ... so students entering a 21st Century High School Program are very much aware of expectations.”
Students who try the 21st Century Program and discover that certain fields are not right for them can withdraw, switch to a traditional educational path, and still be on track for a timely graduation. In the meantime, they will have gained valuable self-understanding in the years before college. “It plays out both ways,” Berry says. “In the process of exploring an industry field, they will still have acquired basic skills of researching, writing and exploring that will pay off no matter what they go into.”
Olathe (Kan.) Unified School District 233
- Superintendent: Marlin Berry, 5 years
- Students: 28,288
- Staff: 4,292
- Studetns qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches: 26%
- Students with limited English proficiency: 8%
- Per-pupil expenditure: $8,195
- Web site: www.olathe.k12.ks.us
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer in Fair Oaks, Calif.