THE FIFTH RECOMMENDATION IN ACTE'S high school reform position statement is to create incentives for students to pursue the core curriculum in an interest-based context. Many students are bored and disengaged with today's schools--they don't see the relevance of the school curriculum to their current or future lives.
Many of the nation's leading high school reform models highlight the value of using an interest-based context or real-world application, including High Schools That Work, American Diploma Project, Talent Development High Schools, and organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, High School Alliance, and National Governors' Association.
From across the school reform spectrum, there is ample evidence that connecting rigorous academic expectations with the relevance of an interest-based curriculum can help connect students to learning in powerful ways. Career and technical education (CTE) has long been a leader in ensuring relevant, integrated curricular opportunities for students. Career Clusters, career academies, magnet schools, tech prep and other CTE models provide interest-based programs that increase motivation and learning for all students, regardless of their unique goals for the future.
Increasing Opportunities for Students
Four years ago, the course offerings at Lake Travis Independent School District (ISD) were extremely limited. The high school was operating on an accelerated block schedule due to funding constraints, with only three courses in the spring and three in the fall. This left almost no room for the inclusion of interest-based courses, including CTE. While a few introductory courses were offered in areas like agriculture or business, students were missing the opportunity to explore relevant, interest-based areas in depth.
In discussing changes, the school's leadership team talked about things that were important to the community. Lake Travis ISD wanted a comprehensive academic program that fit the needs of all students. Reform efforts were aided by a change in the Texas school funding system that freed up more resources for the school district and allowed them to finance an alternating block schedule that provided students with eight class periods each year.
Jill Siler, director of secondary academic services, says, "In essence, we wanted to create a comprehensive program that not only provided a rigorous academic program in the core area but also provided students with an opportunity to pursue an area of study in depth." The high school created six "Institutes of Study" in the areas of advanced sciences and medicine; business, finance and marketing; veterinary and agricultural science; humanities, technology and communications; math, engineering and architecture; and fine arts.
Each Institute consists of a foundational course of study in which all students take rigorous academics, a career exploration emphasis, postsecondary preparation, including everything from site visits to job shadowing, internships, articulated credit, work-based learning, and certifications, and a selective course of study that encourages students to enroll in advanced placement and dual credit programs. While students are encouraged to choose an Institute and pursue an area of study in depth, the coursework is open enrollment.
The reform efforts at Lake Travis ISD received incredibly positive reaction from students and parents. Siler adds, "The curriculum became very relevant and useful, and stakeholders could see that we were preparing students for real-life experiences." About one-third of the 1,700 students in the school now take three or more credits in a coherent, articulated sequence.
Partnering with Business and Industry
In 2006, Siemens Building Technologies was looking for a school district to model best practices in high school engineering programs. With highly recognized post-secondary engineering programs at Austin Community College and the University of Texas, Lake Travis ISD was in a prime location to participate. …