This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa or Facebook.com/TheresaHarringtonBANG.
Students at DeAnza High in El Sobrante got to strut their stuff Tuesday, when state Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, visited the campus.
Student "ambassadors" led the legislators, press and business reps through the school to see classes that help prepare students for college and careers. Each student must choose between three "academies," focusing on health, law or technology.
In the health academy, teacher Kenyetta Haynes explained the importance of strong communication skills to students. Student Romina Pelaez, 16, of Richmond, told me these skills will serve students well throughout their lives.
The senior wants to major in psychology in college, then become a neurologist. Last summer, Romina said she had an internship in a dental office where she did filing and prepped the room for patients.
Internships are a hallmark of "linked learning" programs that connect what is being taught in the classroom with the real world, making the learning relevant to students and motivating them to explore a variety of career options. Steinberg and other officials visited the campus to generate community and business interest in competitive grants through a $250 million Career Pathways Trust set aside in the state budget to fund similar linked learning programs statewide.
Health academy student Brandy Phillips, 17, said she thinks it's a good idea to offer career-oriented classes to more students so they can receive the same kinds of opportunities she and her classmates have had.
"Once they get into an area, they will find a calling in it," she said. "I want to be a nurse practitioner because I feel like I have good communication skills and it's something I would be good at. It wouldn't be 'work' because it would be something I'd be happy to do every day."
Brandy said the academy also offers students the opportunity to become certified nursing assistants through the Contra Costa Community College District, and begin working while still in high school.
Some health academy students are studying diabetes in an integrated curriculum that even includes their Spanish class, linking coursework so they can see connections in their community. Similarly, law academy students visit courtrooms to see justice in action, said Judge Judy Johnson, who works with the program.
"In an academic framework, we bring it home to them when they see a defendant in court being arraigned and told what the charges are against them," she said. "Or sometimes they've seen people taken away and incarcerated for a crime they've been convicted of committing."
Law academy senior Michael Reyes, 17, of El Sobrante, said he is learning valuable life skills such as public speaking, collaborating with partners and backing up arguments with facts. He plans to major in criminology and dreams of becoming a district attorney.
"I think the law academy really set me up to pick my profession," he said. "We had a mentor program with 25 local lawyers and judges. I feel like I got a head start on my college career."
Technology academy students build robots and participate in robotics competitions. The school also offers Advanced Placement courses, said Principal Bob Evans.
"You can't give up on any kid," he said. "Every one of our kids is going to be successful in some way."
Yet, many DeAnza students must overcome challenges to stay focused on schoolwork, Evans said. Sixty percent are bussed in, many from the often violent Iron Triangle neighborhood in Richmond. Some have parents in jail or don't have enough food for dinner.
"Most of our kids have lived in multiple homes and don't know where their next home is going to be," he said. "This is a safe haven for them. We have to look at every student individually and think: 'How can I support them?'"
DeAnza High is in the West Contra Costa school district. Other East Bay districts with linked learning programs are Antioch, Mt. Diablo and Pittsburg in Contra Costa County, and Oakland and San Lorenzo in Alameda County.
More information about linked learning is available at http://linkedlearning.org.