It was 1968. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Our cities were ablaze. Our nation was in crisis. Youth found no relevance or reassurance that what they were doing in school could change their future. The dropout rate in some high schools was 50%. The nation was asking how it could address the educational needs of students; how to steer them away from the negative forces of urban unrest and how to give them hope for a future where they could be contributing productive citizens.
One answer came from a handful of business and community leaders in Philadelphia. Charles Bowser, Executive Director of the Urban Coalition and Deputy Mayor, brought together the CEO’s of the Philadelphia Electric Company and Bell of Pennsylvania to work on ideas that could save their city from the worst of the racial unrest that was so devastating to cities like Chicago and Detroit. In seeking ways to help, they focused on the future—the children. They formulated a plan to bring business into the schools in a model that would engage both the student and the business partner in meaningful ways. What they didn’t realize at the time was that they were creating one of the most successful education reform efforts in the country.
In 1969, the first Academy opened at Edison High School with thirty 10th grade students. Called the Academy of Applied Electrical Science, the program was set up as an independent not-for-profit corporation with its own Board of Directors. Over the years, more Academies opened as independent entities. In 1988 the individual Academy programs relinquished their status as separate, tax-exempt, non-profit organizations and merged into the Philadelphia Academies, Inc.
California came first to study the model, then New York, then Florida. Soon the career academy model was everywhere. Today with some 3,000 academies in operation nationwide, they have evolved into one of the nation’s most widely adopted reform initiatives to address the major problems associated with large comprehensive high schools, particularly those in urban districts where more than half of the students do not graduate on schedule.
The career academy model has been researched, studied and scrutinized and recently named as one of only three evidence-based, in-school models that work. And it all started in Philadelphia –not by a think tank of educators but by a handful of community leaders who loved their city and knew they could make a difference by helping its children.