Pensacola Chamber Brings Career Academies to Northwest Florida

June 4, 2009
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Due to their long-standing interest in career and technical education, the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce played an instrumental role in the planning and creation of the West Florida High School of Advanced Technology. Founded in 2007, this high school has become a national model, thanks to its partnership with Ford's Partnership for Advanced Studies – Next Generation Learning Community (Ford PAS NGLC) program, which helps communities initiate and sustain successful high school career academy networks. 

Career academies are small learning communities which draw on career themes to bring real-world relevance to academic instruction. When successfully implemented, career academies improve attendance, grades, and graduation rates and help to ensure a smooth transition from high school to postsecondary educational institutions and the workplace.

Because of its role in the community, the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber became the "quarterback" for regional stakeholders in two different counties, enabling the Chamber to build a regional economic development plan. In doing so, the region completed a five-year master plan which serves as the overarching instrument to guide the Career Academy network. The plan includes the development of an inventory of existing career academies, including: current industry certifications, articulation status, and level of academic integration. It also includes an assessment piece to determine career academy effectiveness. And most importantly, the plan predicts the number of career academies needed for the next five years as the region grows in its target industries with current data on graduation and remediation rates to track its results.

To implement this plan, the region established three cross-county business advisory councils in information technology, engineering, and health care. These advisory councils guide the day-to-day work of providing resources, volunteers, and intern opportunities, and serve as a catalyst for the sharing of best practices. In order for teachers to relate curriculum to the real world, the councils create the opportunity for businesses to speak directly with education. This alignment, in partnership with the College of Professional Studies at the University of West Florida, enables career academy education in the region to be recognized as an asset to economic development.

According to Natalie Prim, vice president, Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, "a community cannot be successful in this initiative if it doesn't encourage and gain buy-in from key stakeholders. We found the dialogue between business and education needs time and confidence. What the Northwest Florida community found is, as long as there is a committed, 'core group' of four or five individuals, and the leadership remains strong, you can achieve your goals."