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Connecting the classroom to promising health careers

January 20, 2015 at 6:25 PM EST
Students at Oakland’s Life Academy are getting a head start on health science careers by integrating academics with career-based training and a workplace environment. The high school, which serves low-income and minority students, also has the city’s second highest rate of graduates who go on to college. The NewsHour’s April Brown reports on making the benefits of learning clear to students.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: One of the perpetual challenges facing educators is finding way to make school relevant in the lives of students.

A school in Oakland, California, has found success by designing lessons making those links much closer between the classroom and the working world.

The NewsHour’s April Brown reports as part of our American Graduate project. It’s a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

WOMAN: Because there’s a lot of fluid involved in giving birth.

APRIL BROWN: This is probably not the kind of lesson you would expect high school students to be getting, learning side by side with emergency medical technicians in training about how to deliver a baby.

WOMAN: Hopefully, we deliver one shoulder first. And baby is all the way out, OK?

APRIL BROWN: Administering CPR, the best way to apply a tourniquet, and how to check a patient’s blood pressure.

Getting a grasp on the basics of the medical profession is a large part of the curriculum at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, a sixth-through-12th grade public school in East Oakland, one of the poorest sections in the city.

PRESTON THOMAS, Principal, Life Academy of Health and Bioscience: Ninety-one percent of our kids are LCFF, or free and reduced lunch, all students of color. And most of them, most of their families have been educated up to about sixth grade.

APRIL BROWN: Preston Thomas is the principal at Life Academy, which was founded in 2001 with the goal of preparing low-income and minority students for health science careers. The school uses an educational approach often found in more affluent districts known as linked learning.

The model integrates academics with career-based training and a workplace environment.

PRESTON THOMAS: We have kids that go to every major hospital in Oakland, and they are starting to take some of the real-world practical skills that they are learning on the internships, but also the things that we’re talking about in class, and they are starting to synthesize that into the vision that they see for themselves.

APRIL BROWN: The nearly 500 students here pick one of three career pathways: medicine, mental health or biotechnology. Many of them, including Jorge Ruiz, complete a two-and-a-half-year internship with Children’s Hospital in Oakland, rotating through different departments and taking field trips to places like fast response, where they learned about what happens during childbirth.

Ruiz, a senior, is already using his training outside the classroom, helping his mom take care of his two sisters.

JORGE RUIZ, Life Academy of Health and Bioscience: My two older sisters are both disabled. My oldest, her name is Stephanie (ph). She has cerebral palsy. And then my second older sister, Liliana (ph), has cerebral palsy quadriplegia. She feeds through a G-tube. And so then that kind of piqued a small interest.

APRIL BROWN: In addition to the linked learning approach, Life Academy also created a student-centered learning environment, which means the school work is collaborative, challenging, relevant, and connected to real-life situations.

SUNEAL KOLLURI, Teacher, Life Academy of Health and Bioscience: These are the Social Security, driver’s license and a work permit. Cool.

APRIL BROWN: This year, Suneal Kolluri 12th grade government class is discussing police interactions in minority communities and President Obama’s executive action on immigration. Those are issues that affect many of his students, including Ruiz, whose father was deported to Mexico.

JORGE RUIZ: When he was deported, I never really had a chance to say goodbye. It happened in the morning when he was going off to work. And then the story is that some people pulled over, and then they took him.

SUNEAL KOLLURI: When you engage kids in what’s happening now, it’s so much more real and so much more alive and it makes them so much more excited about politics in a way that talking about something three years ago that I developed in my third year of teaching won’t.

APRIL BROWN: But it’s the school’s primary focus on health careers that struck a personal chord with junior Andrea Sigala.

ANDREA SIGALA, Life Academy of Health and Bioscience: My mom, she is an alcoholic, and she’s been an alcoholic for her whole life. And she’s been hospitalized. And I would love to help people who struggle with that, too.

APRIL BROWN: Even though studies have shown linked learning and student-centered learning can improve achievement, the challenges of everyday life can sometimes be too difficult to deal with.

That’s why the teachers here also serve as advisers who stay with students through their whole career at Life Academy, helping them overcome both educational and personal obstacles.

Annie Hatch teaches humanities and English and is Andrea Sigala’s adviser.

ANDREA SIGALA: Every time she sees me, like, if I look sad or anything, she asks me what’s wrong. And I can — I know I can count on her and tell her anything and she won’t like go tell anybody else.

ANNIE HATCH, Teacher, Life Academy of Health and Bioscience: I just think this a place where she’s felt comfortable expressing her struggles, and also I think she feels really supported by her classmates and her teachers.

APRIL BROWN: Students like Sigala were admitted to Life Academy through an open enrollment lottery, and like other Oakland schools, its financial support comes largely from district funds.

However, results here have been remarkable, in a city where only half of African-American and Latino students graduate from high school and even fewer enroll in college.

DIANE FRIEDLAENDER, Stanford University: Students are being prepared for college and career together. So, in the past, we have had two tracks. You can be college prep or you can be career. And that was auto shop or home ec or things like that. But now we’re talking about really preparing kids for professional careers where the two are integrated.

APRIL BROWN: Diane Friedlaender is a senior researcher at Stanford University. She recently oversaw a study on Life Academy. The report showed that among Oakland’s public high schools, Life Academy has the second highest rate of graduates who go on to attend four-year universities.

That, Friedlaender believes, is because the school makes the benefits of learning clear to students, even though all the options in a regular school, like sports and many electives, aren’t offered here. That was originally a concern for Sigala.

ANDREA SIGALA: I do miss that. Like, I used to be in theater. I used to love acting. But now that I know what I want to do, I know that I want to be a doctor or somewhere in the medical field, I don’t miss it as much.

APRIL BROWN: The Stanford report also notes two other elements that have helped students succeed here: engaging parents and building partnerships within the community. Life Academy holds weekly meetings for parents to get updates on how their kids are doing and it has several health and biotech businesses in Oakland now participating, providing both internships and career counseling to students.

Shanta Ramdeholl manages the student internship program at Children’s Hospital, and she believes her program is also working to grow a more diverse work force of local caregivers.

SHANTA RAMDEHOLL, Children’s Hospital: If we don’t do it, it’s a missed opportunity.

Just imagine for doctors who go on to medical school, what these kids are doing today, it takes two years in medical school before they would start — to start shadowing medical providers or doing certain things that these students are doing today. So it opens up a new world for them.

APRIL BROWN: But Stanford’s Diane Friedlaender warns against trying to create exact replicas, because it’s taken years to get buy-in from everyone involved.

DIANE FRIEDLAENDER: Those core ideas can definitely and should definitely be replicated in other places, but to take it as a kind of cookie-cutter model and put it down in another site won’t — won’t work. There won’t be ownership. It won’t be connected to that community.

APRIL BROWN: But in East Oakland, principal Thomas has found these opportunities are motivating kids to continue their education, so they can get the jobs they really want.

PRESTON THOMAS: We really want students and families to have the opportunity to attend college, and not just, you have qualified for it, but that you could really succeed at it and make it through those four years of college, which are really rigorous and really challenging for students that don’t have — they don’t have any frameworks for understanding what college is going to be like because they are the first.

APRIL BROWN: Thus far, California has nine districts across the state using linked learning. And the city of Oakland recently approved a measure that will help create more linked learning opportunities in its schools over the next 10 years.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m April Brown in Oakland, California.

This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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