Bucks school's makeover aims to give students a head start on careers

The stylish new internet café coming to lower Bucks County this fall — boasting a brightly colored carpet with geometric design and sleek workstations with multiple outlets to plug in devices — won’t be open to the general public. It’s part of a radical makeover in the way kids in Bensalem High School will learn and look forward to future careers.

“Doesn’t it look like Starbucks?” asked Kathy Leon, Bensalem’s assistant superintendent, showing off one highlight of a $78 million renovation project that took five years to carry out. “That’s what the kids are used to.”

But it’s the academic transformation of the 1,800-student Bensalem High that has officials even more excited than its dramatic physical overhaul. The start of classes this month will mark the launch of a career academies program that will allow high schoolers to focus on fields such as health care, science and technology, business, or arts and communications.

It’s one of the first times that the career academies model – which was invented locally at Philadelphia Academies in the late 1960s and then became a nationwide movement – has been tried in the Philadelphia suburbs. But officials in the predominantly working-class community on the city’s northeastern border say the model – which has been credited with improving graduation rates as well as measures of future success – is a good fit for Bensalem.

“We’re looking to give them the opportunity to deal with real-world problems,” said Jason Bowman, director of curriculum and instruction, citing evidence that teens in career-oriented high school academies not only show more enthusiasm for their classroom work but emerge better prepared for college or entering the workforce.

At least one area district is working to follow soon in Bensalem’s footsteps. Springfield High School in Delaware County is developing five academy programs, while there is already a successful academies program at Souderton Area High School in Montgomery County.

Connie Majka, director of school operations at Philadelphia Academies Inc. and founder and vice president of the National Career Academy Coalition, predicted the trend will continue in more high schools, not just in in their traditional urban base but in suburban and rural districts.

“A lot of people equate academies with the old vocational education, but nothing could be further from the truth,” Majka said. “The academy is a hybrid — it takes academics and infuses it with a career theme. You can have a law academy and have all the academic subjects but use that theme to teach throughout. So a biology class can have a forensics theme — not to turn out a bunch of lawyers but to keep them engaged in school.”

That was the thinking when Charles Bowser, the late civil rights activist, launched the first Philadelphia Academy as an electrical engineering program at Edison High School in 1969, aimed at preventing dropouts. Today, Philadelphia Academies runs whole-school academies at Roxborough and Abraham Lincoln High Schools and smaller “pocket academies” within nine other city schools.

Nationally, Majka said, there are hundreds of successful academies, with a large concentration in California and perhaps the most powerful example in Nashville, where officials struggling with high absenteeism turned things around after converting all city’s high schools to academies about 15 years ago.

In Springfield, Jeffrey Zweiback, the director of teaching and learning for secondary schools, said one of the drivers for its new academies is helping teens not only get to college but finish on time. Currently, only two-thirds of Springfield grads earn a college diploma in six years.

“If you have a better sense of what you want to do and where you want to go…you may eliminate both the financial burden and indecision” that causes struggle in college, he explained.

Bensalem officials began looking into launching the Academy Pathways program about five years ago, as it surveyed other districts for ideas on how to better prepare students for college or careers. With a state academic score of 68.6 — 70 is considered a cutoff for meeting achievement and growth standards — and nearly half of its students economically disadvantaged, the school was ready for a radical makeover.

A healthy number of Bensalem grads now go on to higher education – about 85 percent – but Bowman saidm “If you can give more relevance to education, I think students will take more of an interest in it.”

The initiative coincided with a debate over the physical future of Bensalem High, with officials deciding that the extensive renovation was a better option than spending $120 million on a new school. The overhaul allowed officials to reconfigure the interior with bright central meeting areas surrounded by glass-walled classrooms, banks of computers, and special features like a dance studio and a music room with 16 electric pianos linked to Mac computers.

“We listened to a lot of the kids who came back and they said they weren’t prepared for how much freedom they have in college,” said Leon of the school’s open feel, as she showed off the internet café, the sprawling new cafeteria, and the science and technology lab inside the former gym with a hydroponic growing area, robotics section, and array of 3-D printers, lasers, and other devices.  After a three-year renovation, the official dedication is Sept. 17.

Students “are really excited to use the new facility and to have the academies help them in whatever career they want to go into,” said Kasey MacAdams, 17, a rising senior who was at the school last week for band rehearsal. She’s a violinist who wants to be a music therapist and who thinks students will benefit by having a more “individualized education” to guide them in the future.

Melissa Adams, whose son Kyle is going into 11th grade, said her son plans to study in the business academy. “It focuses them and better prepares them for college,” Adams said.

All ninth graders will attend a Freshman Academy. Starting in 10th grade, students can focus on learning “strands” in the four upper-class academies — STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), Health and Human Services, Business and Entrepreneurial, and Visual, Performing and Communication Arts — or bypass the academies for a more traditional program. The strands, consisting of four courses apiece, home in on career topics like hotel and restaurant management, criminal justice, engineering, journalism, and music performance.

The ultimate goal of the learning strands is “to be able to take a world problem, like we’re losing area for growing food. We still have hunger issues. What are you going to use to [solve] that?” said principal Bill Ferrera. “We’re not there yet, but that’s what this program allows us to do.”