In the modern world of public education, school districts across the country are abandoning the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching today’s children and developing instead multiple pathways for families and students to chose an education befitting their schedule, needs and interests.

Locally, Mobile and Baldwin counties have greatly expanded and differentiated the programs offered to students over the past decade, and with charter schools a new reality in Alabama, it’s likely that diversification will continue as traditional schools could be forced to further compete for dwindling public resources.

“We want to make sure we’re offering a very viable option for parents and students to choose Mobile County and to remain in the Mobile County Public School System, and I think the vast majority will,” MCPSS Superintendent Martha Peek explained. “That’s why in the coming months I will be singing, ‘We have school choices, come and see. Our doors are open.’”

Mobile County has offered options for students in the past, such as the district’s 25-year-old magnet program focusing on college prep, math, science and technology and the performing arts in six separate magnet schools.

Recently, the system has continued to expand on those options by creating 12 specialized academies at each of the district’s high schools and pioneering new programs, some of which are the first of their kind in the state.

Signature Academies and career technical education
Based on on their interests and career aspirations, MCPSS students can enroll in academies dedicated to a specific educational path or occupational interest in each of the system’s 12 high schools.

With specializations in industries including health care, aerospace and aviation, education, manufacturing, coastal studies, international studies, engineering and pre-law, students are offered diverse options. In addition, students are actually allowed to transfer out of their respective school zones to attend the academy that best suits their interests.

In 2014 alone, 354 students changed high schools in order to enroll in one of the district’s Signature Academies. In the prior year, there were only 100 transfers, which Peek said shows the programs are growing.

“Students are starting to realize that it’s a true choice,” she said. “We didn’t want this term ‘college and career ready’ to just be a buzzword, and our Signature Academies are a way to really focus in on the academic needs of every student.”

The focus on career paths as well as higher education is part of statewide trend that has been emphasized by the Alabama State Department of Education in recent years. Though MCPSS does have academies offering college credits, advanced placement courses and international studies, the majority focus on a specific career path.

According to Peek, Mobile County has even worked to partner with local industries and institutions of higher education to create relationships benefiting both students and local employers. The industry partners include Austal USA, Airbus, Bishop State Community College, Outokumpu and the University of South Alabama.

“Each one of the Signature Academies has a business, industry or higher education council that’s specific to that school’s program,” Peek said. “We really want their input on how to best prepare our students to go successfully into the next stage of life.”

Peek said professional partnerships offer anything from class visits and field trip opportunities to job shadowing, internships and real industry credentials that can qualify a student to start a competitive career right out of high school.

In one case, Peek said 12 Citronelle High School students were able to obtain paid summer internships with Outokumpu, the Finnish stainless steel company that purchased the ThyssenKrupp facility in 2012. Some of those were able to retain the summer internship beyond its sunset, and three graduating seniors were offered full-time jobs as a result of the program.

“The advantage of the Signature Academies is that they build that relationship,” Peek said. “The students get to learn what they’re doing, but it’s to the advantage of the business too because they get to train the students early.”

Similarly, Baldwin County Public Schools is offering “career and technical” academies at each of the district’s high schools. Each program provides students the opportunity to earn a nationally recognized credential, but unlike the structured academies in MCPSS, the programs in Baldwin County are offered as electives to students in grades 9-12.

According to figures provided by Career and Technical Education Director Julia Bryant, any student can enter the academy program after taking a Career Interest Inventory test in the 8th grade.

“Based on that interest, they should prepare a four-year plan to include career tech courses that may benefit the student to take while in high school, with the hope it will help the student achieve their career goal,” Bryant said.

More than 2,300 students at Foley High School and more than 1,300 at Gulf Shores High School studied subjects like business marketing, co-op coordination, JROTC, engineering, health science, family and consumer science, culinary arts, agriscience and fire science last year.

Students at the Gulf Shores High School Health Science Academy can earn certifications in CPR, EKG, EMT, first aid, blood pathogens and other aspects of health care. Other academies include Fairhope High School’s Fashion Academy and its Microsoft IT Academy.

“All of our high schools have at least one academy focusing on business, family and consumer sciences, agriculture, science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses or hospitality management and tourism,” Bryant said. “Last year we had 13,000 students participating in our career tech academies countywide.”

The system also offers career and technical academies at the South Baldwin Center for Technology in Robertsdale and the North Baldwin Center for Technology in Bay Minette. During the 2014-2015 school year, more than 2,000 students at the centers studied welding, fire science, automotive technology, building and construction, agriscience, cosmetology, health science and co-op coordination.

In Fairhope, the school system partnered with the Fairhope Airport Authority, Enterprise State Community College (ESCC) and Faulkner State Community College to offer the $2.7 million Aviation Academy at the Fairhope Airport, where students can “dual enroll” and take courses for college credit while they are still in high school.

The Aviation Academy, which began hosting students in January, is located on the grounds at the H.L. Sonny Callahan Airport on Baldwin County Road 32. In its first semester, the academy hosted 37 students studying welding, industrial mechanics and aviation mechanics.

Students who study aviation at the academy are dual enrolled through ESCC, while industrial maintenance and welding students are dual enrolled through Faulkner State.

“When students finish at the Aviation Academy, these students will be prepared to learn more advanced concepts like hydraulics and pneumatics,” Bryant said. “They would be able to prepare themselves for a career with an industrial corporation, which are high-paying, in-demand careers.”

Virtual schools
Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a law requiring each local school board to “offer students an online pathway for earning a high school diploma” — a mandate that left some systems scurrying to comply, but not Mobile and Baldwin counties.

Established in 2013, the Baldwin County Virtual School is housed on the Faulkner State campus in Fairhope as well and offers all Baldwin County students in grades 9-12 the option to take their high school classes online.

According to the system, the program best serves students whose parents travel for work or those who travel for competitions, but it’s also favored by students attempting to graduate early because of the flexibility it provides.

Last year, Mobile County established its own virtual program, the Envision Academy, which is the first fully virtual high school in the state, according to MCPSS officials. Unlike the Baldwin County Virtual School, which requires all tests be taken on campus in Fairhope, Envision is nearly entirely online with only quarterly testing done in person.

Envision’s principal Lynne Brown said in its first year the virtual school served 306 students in grades 6-12. Brown said there is no minimum grade requirement to enter the program, but each student does undergo an individual assessment in order to be accepted to and remain in the program.

Also unique to Mobile County, Evison is not limited to the school district’s geographical area and can serve students in surrounding areas as well, if they choose to enroll.

“Our students don’t have to be a straight-A student or even a straight-B student,” Brown said. “The most important characteristic is that you’re a motivated student and you’re mature enough to follow the guidelines for being an online learner.”

Brown said a big part of being an online learner is independence and self motivation, but students do go through the program with a learning partner  —  an adult, typically the child’s parent or guardian.

Similar to ACCESS classes, Envision students work online with teachers not employed with MCPSS, but Brown said local mentor teachers are also at the students’ disposal for face-to-face assistance. Students are required to log a minimum of 25 hours a week into the program, but the schedule allows students to set their own pace and define their own schedule.

Envision’s school year runs from August through July, but students adjust that according to their schedule.

“Some students have decided they want to follow the regular school schedule so they can be out of school when the other children are, but for some that doesn’t matter,” Brown said. “It really does give a lot of flexibility. Some students have even been able to work over the holidays. Our mentor teachers observe the regular schedule for MCPSS, but this past year, our online teachers were available.”  

Brown admitted Envision might not be the best option for every student, adding more than 40 students have exited the program in its first year. She also said students who think the program is easy are “often disappointed.”

For other students with a range of previous academic performance, Brown said the program has been successful, and that’s why she expects it to continue growing.

“As we saw the school develop more and more, we started to see the real benefit. It gave kids ownership,” Brown said. “We are looking for students who have a passion for learning and who really want to excel and want the option to accelerate their learning. But that flexibility can also benefit the student who does well when they’re given the opportunity to take their time and really absorb the information.”

Murphy University Center
In addition to the dual enrollment and advanced placement options MCPSS has historically offered, the school system recently launched a partnership with the University of Alabama’s Early College program that’s the first of its kind in Alabama and only the second in the nation.  

At Murphy High School (MHS), students are now able to take freshman level college courses as an official student of the University of Alabama  — a free program designed not only to match the rigor that comes with college courses but also the autonomy. With tuition covered through a state appropriation, students in the program only pay for their college textbooks.

Like the system’s Signature Academies, students can transfer from any high school in any school zone to enroll in the program, which is administered at the Murphy University Center on the MHS campus in midtown Mobile.

Gene Montgomery, dean of the Early College Program, said students enrolled can earn up to 30 hours of college credit in the three-year program, which is offered in grades 10-12. The program launched last spring, with 46 students enrolling in $40,000 worth of college courses.

Though Montgomery and other teachers will lend a hand occasionally, the program is designed to wean students off the high school environment and help them tackle the responsibility that comes with college enrollment.

“In high school, they’re accustomed to having a go-to person, but we can’t do anything at [the University of] Alabama,” Montgomery said. “That’s something that’s a little bit different, because we’re trying to do as much as possible, even right down to the scheduling. They have to schedule classes themselves and manage the drop/add dates, just like college.”

Montgomery said Murphy teachers and even the students’ parents are not allowed to know their grades because they’re protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act like all other coeds.

Unlike dual enrollment classes, students are taught by faculty at the University of Alabama who communicate online and through streaming lectures on campus. A lecture hall-style classroom and a student center have also been added to the Murphy University Center to mimic the college setting.

Students in the UA program get access to all the same perks on-campus students do, like the Writing Center, the university library and even student identification cards and the discounts that come with them. Unfortunately, they are not offered student tickets to the Crimson Tide’s football games.

Altogether, the program offers more than 30 courses for students to select, and also easily helps them know what classes to take in order to pursue certain majors at Alabama or at other universities. The cap is set at 30 credit hours because, according to Montgomery, students will lose their eligibility for freshman scholarships if they exceed 32 college hours and become classified as a sophomore.

In its first year, the program has already been moved under the umbrella of Murphy’s International Studies Signature Academy, which comprises International Baccalaureate and Center for International Studies programs that been offered for more than a decade.

That program teaches high-level advanced placement (AP) skills in addition to courses that focus on international cultural and religious studies. Like advance placement courses, those classes can be turned into college credits accepted at some universities.

“Murphy was so diverse that this was the perfect Signature Academy for us to have,” said Daniel Booth, Signature Academy coordinator at MHS. “Everything we have in the country is represented in our city, and that diversity is reflected here as well.”

Booth said combining the college credits possible through Murphy’s International Studies Academy, other AP courses and UA’s early college program has put some students on track to enter college as a junior while retaining access to freshman-level scholarships.

“We want them to earn as much college credit as they can here at Murphy,” Montgomery said. “They can still get those freshman college scholarships for four years, which can move into graduate school or cover part of a double major.”

Booth said the number of students allowed into the program each year will vary depending on the available funding, but she said funding for approximately 50 new students has already gotten the green light.  

To enroll in the early college program, students must be a current high school sophomore or junior, have a 3.0 cumulative grade point average and meet a benchmark score on the ACT Aspire assessment set by the school system. Based on UA’s guidelines, students must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA to remain in the program.

“This program is great for a number of reasons. Not only the cost savings, but if you look nationally, kids that can handle the first 15 hours of college tend to graduate on time,” Montgomery said. “The problems are always during the first year, and that’s what makes the retention rates so low. We need to do a better job addressing that on our end, because a lot of colleges are just in the money-making business.”

Eric Mann contributed to this report