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‘A Little Family’

Career Academy Provides Supports for Graduation and Beyond

Guadalupe Becerra admits that for most of high school she has been more interested in the social aspects than in the academics. But now, she says, it’s go time. The fifth-year senior has been pulling out all the stops to graduate, and has been making strides now that she’s in the school’s Career Academy.

There, Guadalupe can work through many online courses at her own pace. She blazes through English classes, which she says go easily for her. And she enjoys science.

“I’m not a big fan of math, though,” she said. “My brain just shuts down. But Mrs. Overbeek is a big help.”

Like her counterparts in the two classrooms that comprise Career Academy, Guadalupe gets help from math interventionist Cindy Overbeek; English teacher and academy adviser Kim Pfeiffer; and Angie Nowak, biology and chemistry teacher.

“It’s all personalized to what each student needs to help them graduate,” Nowak said, as she tried to juggle a visitor in between bites of lunch and collecting homecoming ticket money from a steady stream of students.

“We become like a little family, and that’s when they flourish,” she said. “They know we care about them, and they know we’re keeping an eye on them. If they went to six different hours with six different teachers who have 100 kids a day, it would be very difficult to make the connections we can make here.

“They have to be self-directed with this,” she added, “but if we stay on it together, it’s a lot easier for them to get caught up and they don’t feel as overwhelmed.”

Senior Guadalupe Becerra

Looking Beyond School

Students in Career Academy are not only playing catch-up with high school graduation requirements. More and more, they are putting their energies into the careers they plan to pursue.

The six-year-old academy is also about thinking long-term, considering what comes after graduation and the jobs students will need to support themselves financially. Many attend Kent Career Tech Center for training, certificatio

n or college credit in areas like culinary arts, health science, criminal justice and alternative energy.

It didn’t take Guadalupe long after she took part in the Tech Center’s Exploring Health Careers class to know “I want to be in scrubs.”

“Phlebotomy really caught my eye,” she said. “I loved that class so much. I’m scared of needles for myself, but I’m more than happy to poke other people.”

This school year, 99 Comstock Park High School students spend part of their days at the Tech Center, a number Principal Steve Gough calls “pretty typical for us.”

“When you put that with the high number of students who are dual enrolled and who are AP students, I think we can make an argument that we are serving a student population with a diverse set of academic needs,” Gough said.

Senior Jaden Burise

An Evolving Door

Career Academy replaced the district’s alternative high school, which closed at the end of the 2011-2012 school year because of budget issues and the need for improved performance, Gough said.

Currently, 24 10th- through 12th-grade students are enrolled in the academy full-time. Ten more are enrolled in what has evolved to be a hybrid option of online and traditional classroom attendance.

“Initially, Career Academy was meant to be a program within a program, off on its own,” Gough said. “But with the stress and anxiety in our culture affecting some students and their ability to remain in a traditional classroom, the academy’s smaller size is easier to for them to manage.”

No matter the makeup of each student’s day, the primary goal is keeping students on track to graduate, Gough said. Courses are graded, but pace and productivity are more important factors, he said.

“We also look at what I call the credit acquisition rate. (We ask), ‘Are they earning credit at the appropriate rate?’ We monitor that, and we also look at their MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) scores, because if you are going to accelerate credit acquisition, you have to make sure actual learning is taking place. My general assessment of the program is that we are meeting outcome goals.”

Jaden Burise’s first class in the morning is chemistry in a regular classroom. Then it’s off to the Tech Center for two hours of culinary arts. After that, he returns to school and heads to Career Academy to work online to finish a math credit and an English class.

It’s a busy daily routine for anyone, let alone a high school senior. Jaden said he tries to take the day one class at a time, considering each hour as a deadline in itself, rather than to become overwhelmed thinking about the big picture. That’s what tripped him up before being accepted at Career Academy in his junior year.

“This has helped me out so much,” he said. “Working at my own speed, it’s much easier for me to get my work done.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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