With the launch of its first eight 865 Academies, Knox County aims to bridge the school-to-work gap.
Central High School student Justus Hayes speaks Thursday while Superintendent Jon Rysewyk and County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, second and third from left, look on.
Eight Knox County high schools will restructure their offerings this fall under the banner of the district’s new 865 Academies.
Students will choose an academy pathway at the end of their freshman year.
In each school, this year’s freshmen will choose among two to four career pathways that will have different electives and work-related opportunities.
Superintendent Jon Rysewyk, County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and a host of local notables announced the eight academies Thursday morning in an event at Central High School in Fountain City.
“It’s really our attempt to reimagine high school,” Rysewyk said, standing at a lectern set up in Central’s auto body shop. “We can't do high school like we did high school 30 years ago. We understand that if we want to keep a workforce here in Knoxville … we’ve got to prepare students. School systems are uniquely positioned to do that.”
Thursday’s announcement was the result of several years of discussions among school and community leaders, which was assisted by Ford Motor Co.’s Next Generation Learning initiative. The goal is to help students develop a more concrete sense of their options in the post-secondary world, including chances for job shadowing and work experience in fields that interest them.
Rysewyk said students should graduate ready for one of the “three E’s”: enrollment (in college or trade school), employment, or enlistment (in the military). And he suggested a fourth E as well: “We’re also trying to do that all with an entrepreneurial mindset,” he said. “Because we know that’s kind of the future of business.”
Eight of the county’s 15 high schools were selected for the first 865 Academies cohort: Austin-East Magnet, Bearden, Central, Farragut, Fulton, Hardin Valley, Karns and L&N STEM Academy.
Ninth-graders at each of those schools have spent this year preparing for their coming choices. Central High School Principal Andrew Brown told the crowd assembled Thursday that he is already seeing benefits from that work in terms of student engagement.
“Our attendance is improved,” he said. “Our discipline in the freshman class, which usually leads the school, is currently at the semester break down about 40 percent. We’re already seeing great gains in academics.”
The academies announced for the eight schools in most cases draw on existing programs and strengths in the buildings and the communities they serve. There is a fair amount of overlap, with many schools having pathways that include STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), health sciences and business. You can see the full list here.
Students will be able to change their chosen pathway once after their initial selection. (Changing more than that would make it difficult to take the necessary classes before graduation.) Of course, all students will still have to meet state requirements for graduation, including four credits each of math and English and three credits each of science and social studies.
Central senior Justus Hayes was among the students who served on an advisory committee for the 865 Academies. He’s an entrepreneur himself, having launched his own clothing line, Blended, two years ago. (You can find it at blendedbyjustus.com.)
“I love creating, bringing new apparel and things to our generation,” Hayes told the crowd. “I’m so excited to be a part of the 865 Academies today. It has been my honor to help build and show my support for something that will impact our current and future generations.”
Although it will arrive too late for him, Hayes’ interests would have fit in well with one of Central’s three designated paths, an Academy of Business and Design.
Gordon Heins, president of the building materials company AG Heins, praised the school system for working closely with local employers in designing the academy programs.
“As an employer, we want students to come to us looking for good paying jobs that they're prepared, that they have the tools (for),” Heins said. “In turn, we want to come into the schools. I’ll go to any school and speak to anybody.”
The district is seeking workplace partners — if you’re interested, you can fill out a form here.
Although the school system and individual schools have long worked in various ways with local industries, Lauren Longmire, director of regional enhancement for the Knoxville Chamber, said those efforts have never been as closely coordinated as the work that has gone into the 865 Academies.
“I’ve been at the Chamber for 11 years now, and seeing how collaborative everyone, every stakeholder in Knox County, has been on behalf of our students is really incredible,” she said. “Because this initiative isn't just for business. It's for our parents, it's for our students, it’s for our community as a whole.”
Jacobs, who has championed technical and trades training in particular during his tenure as county mayor, said the effort would help the county prepare the often-talked-about workforce of the future.
“This is wonderful to see a really intentional strategic effort to in some ways customize the student experience, that they get the tools and the skills that they need to excel in areas that they're either naturally drawn to things that they love,” he said. “And sometimes in some cases find out the things that they don't like as well, which can almost be just as important.”
As the first eight academies launch this fall, Rysewyk said the next two are preparing to begin the process at Carter and South-Doyle high schools.
Longmire said the Chamber’s long-term hope is that students not only graduate prepared for life after high school but also build local connections along the way that will make Knox County seem like an attractive place for them to stay or return to for their careers.
“We want our youth to stay here in Knoxville and be able to find a job with a thriving wage, and something that they love,” she said.