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Project Lead the Way academies point students toward college and careers

By Theresa Harrington
Monday, October 18th, 2010 at 8:28 pm in Concord, Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington.

Omar Pacheco, 17, of Pittsburg, left, and Laura Flores, 17, of Bay Point work together as they design a beverage container at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord on Oct. 5.

Omar Pacheco, 17, of Pittsburg, left, and Laura Flores, 17, of Bay Point work together as they design a beverage container at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord on Oct. 5.

By Theresa Harrington

Through career-oriented classes created by the nonprofit “Project Lead the Way” program, thousands of students throughout the country are acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to go onto college and land high-tech jobs after they graduate.

Here’s what’s going on nationally, as well as locally, according to Project Lead the Way:

There are approximately 3,500 schools and 500,000 students enrolled in various PLTW Engineering and Biotechnology programs in the United States.
o In California, more than 230 schools are participating in the program this year, up from 165 in 2009.
o The program also has university partners:
- Cal Poly Pomona, the first regional site, does outreach in the LA area and has offered summer training institutes for the last two years.
- San Jose State University, the second regional site in California, has chosen Project Lead the Way for its engineering curriculum.
- The national affiliate university for California is San Diego State University.

In the Mt. Diablo school district, Mt. Diablo and Clayton Valley high schools in Concord have added Project Lead The Way engineering courses this fall.

Antioch High School in East Contra Costa County has also launched the program, along with Richmond High in West Contra Costa County and California High in the San Ramon Valley district.

In addition, Oakland High and Dublin High in Alameda County are also integrating the project’s curriculum into their career academies.

John Korzick, the San Ramon Valley district’s Teacher of the Year, is the lead teacher in the PLTW academy.

“We do engineering and robots here,” said Korzick, a second-career teacher who previously worked as an engineer. “I’m passionate about finding kids who want to be engineers, but I know that every person that walks in here won’t beome an engineer because the education is rigorous. Students learn how to work as a team. It’s all project-based.”

At Mt. Diablo High, teachers have integrated the PLTW curriculum into the existing Architcture, Manufacturing, Construction and Engineering Academy (ACME). When I visited the class earlier this month, teachers and students were excited about the new curriculum, but frustrated that budget cuts had slowed their access to computers.

Statewide, Chevron has contributed $1.2 million to fund the program in 15 schools, said Janet Auer, the company’s community engagement specialist. The funding has helped pay April Treece, of the Contra Costa Economic Partnership, to build a network of PLTW schools in the East Bay. Treece is a former Mt. Diablo school board trustee who is passionate about creating career education programs in the county by building partnerships with local businesses.

Duane Crum, who coordinates PLTW in California, said during a PLTW meeting at Mt. Diablo High School that he was impressed by the 20-1 student-teacher ratio. The school has smaller class sizes than most others in the district because it receives funding from the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), which assists low-performing schools.

Academies are catching on in high schools because they give students a sense of belonging and direction. Teachers collaborate with each other and really get to know the students, which helps to prevent them from falling through the cracks.

Principal Kate McClatchy said the district wants to “scale up” career academies so they will be available to more students. Teacher Steve Seaman was excited about expanding the academy, but said he worried that he may not get to know every student personally.

He also expressed frustration about difficulties getting computers up and running for the program.

“It’s hard to get things rolling at this school,” he said.

Crum was also adamant that the school couldn’t meet the program’s objectives if it didn’t get the computers hooked up quickly.

“It’s critical,” he said emphatically.

McClatchy said district budget cuts slashed computer techs.

“Sometimes they’ll pay a weekend crew,” she said. “It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of personnel. We don’t want to pit one group against another.”

English teacher Stephanie Sliwinski and history teacher Jenna Diestler were both incredibly enthusiastic about the program. Diestler said students are much more engaged in her academy classes compared to nonacademy classes.

“It’s like night and day in terms of their attendance, attention and speed — how fast I can cover material,” she said.

Sliwinski agreed.

“There’s so much less accountability and so much less responsibility in non-ACME classes,” she said, noting that academy students are thinking about getting into college. “The academy kids feel that they’re part of something. I wish the other kids had something like that to plug into.”

Engineering academy teacher Ryan Leuschen said the PLTW program gives students a sense of urgency to learn the material.

“If you don’t have a sense of urgency, it sometimes seems like it doesn’t apply to you,” he said. “The urgency is to acquire the skills that are presented — to acquire engineering skills so that you can make yourself more valuable in society. You’re going to want a good job and getting these skills is going to get you ahead.”

For more information about Project Lead the Way, visit www.pltw.org.

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