Signature Academies: The Road to Scholarly Success

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This fall, aspiring engineers, artists and international business executives are getting an early start on their career paths. As the incoming freshman class hits the books to study traditional curriculum—the usual math, history and English classes—a small subset of ninth-graders are also enrolled in Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s (NMUSD) new signature academies program. With an emphasis placed on career-oriented disciplines, these academies at Newport Beach and Costa Mesa’s four public high schools allow students to take a series of successive, in-depth courses that further their educations in fields ranging from global studies to arts and multimedia.

On top of gaining career-ready skills, one of the program’s benefits, according to district officials, is the opportunity to hone in on deeper learning within a forum where teaching talent and community partnerships flourish.

“It’s a great idea to focus in on areas you can really highlight, strengthen and bring people together around,” says Dr. Kurt Suhr, district executive director of elementary education.

Newport Harbor High School (Photo by Jody Tiongco)
Newport Harbor High School (Photo by Jody Tiongco)


A Larger Vision

Six different academies spread across the district’s four high schools will usher in their first cohorts of ninth-graders this September. Costa Mesa High School is housing programs for arts and enhanced math, science and engineering, while Estancia High School is offering a track for engineering and design (with plans to open individual tracks for animation and biomedical studies next school year). Locally, Newport Harbor High School is beginning an academically rigorous International Baccalaureate program and Corona del Mar High School will have tracks for global studies and performing arts.

The balance of offerings across the schools is intentional; the district is aspiring for a model that allows for opportunities to be spread across student interests and the four geographic zones.

Each year, online applications will be accepted in the spring for a new class of incoming ninth-graders. Meanwhile, subject-specific courses and activities will ramp up for continuing academy students. District leaders are finalizing partnerships with local businesses, specifically highlighting Orange County’s robust engineering and medical landscape. Possibilities for other hands-on studies, such as an underwater robotics program partnership with USC or global studies programming with international travel, are also in the works.

For now, the new academies will have a dynamic impact on the options for high school students, but district leaders aim to eventually bridge the academies with supporting elementary and middle school programs. Dual-immersion language programs have begun in two district elementary schools, and relevant additions will be coming to elementary and middle schools down the road.

“As we move on, we hope to grow both up and down simultaneously,” explains Dr. Steve McLaughlin, NMUSD’s director of K-12 curriculum and staff development.

“An important piece to the whole process is refined work at the elementary level so that we’re doing our best to prepare students for a comprehensive curriculum,” Suhr adds.


A Growing Trend

While the signature academies are fresh to NMUSD, there has been an increasing number of career-focused high school programs across the United States since the 1970s. California, in particular, has seen a large growth since the 1980s, with several academies in Orange County cities including Santa Ana, Fullerton and Anaheim.

Originally created to improve dropout rates in vulnerable populations, California’s early career academies proved invaluable in helping fill necessary medical professions. As implementation has grown and focus areas have expanded, research has supported the positive outcome. The social and educational policy research organization MDRC has done the most definitive studies on career academies to date, consistently finding strengthened academic engagement, higher postsecondary employment and work hours, and greater earnings for students independent of their demographic or schooling backgrounds.

“It’s a trend that research shows works,” explains Dr. Gilberto Conchas, an associate professor at UC Irvine’s School of Education who has studied the career academy model in Oakland high schools.

In crafting the new signature academies, NMUSD officials didn’t look to one model in particular. Instead they saw the positive results of career academies as a whole, ensured they possessed the necessary components, then surveyed families, educators and local industries to create a customized format.

“It took a good year-and-a-half or two years’ worth of input,” McLaughlin says. “I think we’re doing something pretty unique in respect to the zone-wide academy approach at this scale throughout the district.”

As long as the NMUSD academies are implemented with rigorous quality standards and equal access across the entire student population, Conchas sees many strengths in the approach. From his own research, he finds that the power of such programs lies in their ability to create a bridge between aspiration and expectation.

“Aspiration is, ‘I hope to become a certain profession,’ whereas expectation is, ‘I will become a certain profession,’ ” he says. Conchas has seen academy students gain the necessary combination of information, knowledge, experience and support as they work toward college—requirements in reaching individual dream jobs.



Students can apply for any of Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s signature academies in spring 2016, for enrollment that fall. Only students living in the district attendance area may apply, with priority given to those within the boundaries for each school.


Newport Harbor High School: International Baccalaureate Academy

Corona del Mar High School: The Academy of Global Studies and the Performing Arts and Multimedia Academy

Estancia High School: Engineering and Design Academy

Costa Mesa High School: Academy of Creative Expression and Delta: A Math, Science and Engineering Gateway


—Written by Ryan Lewis


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