South Charlotte

Academy will open next year

Development is under way for East Mecklenburg High School's new Academy of Engineering, which will take its first group of freshmen in 2011-12.

The career academy will be a small school-within-a-school learning community that will equip high school students with the science and math skills to study engineering in college.

Students enter the academy as freshmen, and teachers will communicate and coordinate their lesson plans. For example, what students focus on in math would relate to what they study in science.

"Kids can walk from one class to another ... and everything is tied together," said Principal Rick Parker. "It's really cool for our students to be a part of that learning environment."

There are nearly a dozen career academies in high schools throughout the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system, including International Business and Communication Studies at Olympic, Business and Finance at Garinger and Biotechnology, Health and Public Administration at Olympic.

"It's been proven and it's working," said Penny Ratchford, director of East Meck's Academy of Engineering.

To be eligible for a career academy, the nonprofit National Academy Foundation, which has been around for 40 years, must decide the facility can house the program and meet specific diversity requirements. One of the goals for East Meck's academy is to increase the number of minority and female engineers.

Unlike the CMS magnet programs, in which anyone in the system can apply and open spots are filled via lottery, the new academy will be available only to students who live in the East Meck zone.

East Meck will not hire additional teachers for the program.

After East Meck was approved for the academy, Ratchford, who works for CMS at the district level, came on board to help the administration with its planning year. They're currently working to develop a mission, vision and advisory board of community partners.

In the same way International Baccalaureate programs require community service hours, Academy of Engineering students' course study will be supplemented by at least one paid internship. The Academy of Engineering's community partners have agreed to help students get internships or do job-shadowing. The partners also might come in to facilitate a classroom lesson.

The community partners "are a big piece of what we do," said Ratchford.

Only incoming freshmen can enter the program, but sophomores, juniors and seniors will be able to take courses in the Academy as electives.

East Meck recently received $7,000 in start-up funding from the AT&T Foundation, through the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. The AT&T Foundation also has offered East Meck scholarship opportunities and career preparatory materials.

Parker said he's anticipating 50 or 60 students in the 2011-12 program, and as word gets out he's hoping for at least that many freshmen the following year.

"It's a great opportunity for our students," said Parker. "To provide another diploma track, another avenue for kids to explore to help them increase our graduation rate and give them something to go to school (for), something to excel in - I think that's the key."