How Akron invites business to power career prep success

Giving up some authority is key to building strong relationships with local businesses, says a superintendent noted for creating successful career academies.
By: | July 13, 2021
Creating Akron Public Schools' required district leaders to share some authority with business leaders who partnered in the program.Creating Akron Public Schools' required district leaders to share some authority with business leaders who partnered in the program.

Giving up some control is key to building strong relationships with local businesses, says a superintendent noted for creating successful career academies.

Superintendent David James launched the College & Career Academies of Akron in 2017 to give students a more accurate perspective on the world of work and to help them better define their career interests.

“A lot of our kids didn’t have a realistic view or even know how to approach the world of work,” says James, who is leaving Akron Public Schools to become Columbus City Public Schools’ deputy superintendent for operations.

“Now, our programs allow teachers to connect academic content to real-world experiences and they give kids a chance to get out into the community and see the work it has to offer,” James says.

Ford Next Generation Learning, a branch of the automobile manufacturer, was the first big partner in establishing Akron’s career academies.

Today, more than 300 companies, including Goodyear and Bridgestone, local banks and healthcare providers, and mom-and-pop businesses are involved in mentoring and training students, James says.

“Business leaders are saying to us that they really aren’t interested in whether students passed a standardized test,” he says. “They’re more interested in having them show up for work on time and contribute to the team.”

Building these relationships starts with a willingness to invite business partners into the district’s decision-making process.

James and the district’s partners have, for instance, overcome questions of liability that once limited students’ opportunities to shadow professionals in the workplace. The district has also maintained a business advisory council for several years.

More recently, the districts launched a middle school program designed to get students thinking about their potential career interests and help them learn about the opportunities in the Akron region.

“In education, we used to act like an island unto ourselves that didn’t have to worry about the external world,” James says. “But that external world impacts class every day, whether kids are worrying about where their next meal will come from or other situations happening in the community.”

Sharing challenges openly

A cohort of healthcare-focused juniors, known as Viking Scholars, are getting paying summer jobs during which they are paired with mentors at Akron Children’s Hospital.

Students and teachers are getting hands-on experience in clinical work and all other aspects of hospital administration, such as accounting, food service and maintenance, says Bernett Williams, Akron Children’s vice president of external affairs.

Support for education in the community has evolved to the point where business and community-based organizations have been invited to the table with Akron Public School leaders in ways that benefit both sides, Williams says.

“The district has done a really excellent job of tying the two together,” Williams says. “The district shares in decision-making and is willing to share their challenges.”