ANTIOCH -- At Antioch High School's Academy for Engineering and Designing a Green Environment, or EDGE, the three R's of education -- reading, writing and arithmetic -- have been updated. In their place stand relationship, relevance and rigor, three R's that represent a new pathway for high school education, one created to ensure that students leave high school both college- and career-ready.

The curriculum for the four-year program includes engineering-themed electives, along with specialized core academic coursework aligned with the theme. Students have opportunities for field trips, job shadows and internships, as well as the use of state-of-the-art technology to complete cross-curriculum projects. Integral to the program is community involvement from parents, mentors and local businesses.

"Four years ago, the Antioch Unified School District was looking into career pathways as a strategy for high school reform because high schools across the country are being faced with increasing dropout rates," said Louie Rocha, Antioch High School principal. As a result, the district applied for, and received, a grant from ConnectEd for Link Learning, a model that links education with business partners.

The engineering academy is helmed by David Johnstone, one of the vice principals at the high school and the lead administrator who helped put the program together.

With EDGE, the district now has four academies from which students can choose, including the Dozier-Libbey Medical School, Deer Valley High School's Law Academy and Delta Academy for the Performing Arts.

"The goal is that upon completion of their senior year, each student is adequately prepared to apply to a four-year school or to directly enter into a career with a meaningful wage," Rocha said.

The process for attending an academy begins in the second half of eighth grade, when students and their parents have opportunities to attend presentations by each of the Learning Link academies. Students can apply for one or more by completing an application. The selection is by lottery; it's open to all district students without pretesting or GPA requirements.

"The district's goal is that within five years, 50 percent or more of its high school students will be enrolled in a Learning Link academy," Rocha said. "In every one of these academies, attendance has increased above the general student body, GPA and test scores on high-stake exams have been higher, and there's been less discipline."

The overall success of the academy approach leads back to the three R's: relationships, relevance and rigor. Students learn in smaller communities and have the same core teachers, leading to closer relationships within the academy. Relevance comes in as students understand that what they're learning will apply throughout their four years and beyond; and the nature of the engineering courses and related academics creates rigor.

Beginning the second semester of its first year, EDGE has 120 freshman students whose teachers have undergone training specific to the curriculum and received certification. Kevin Jones is lead teacher, responsible for coordinating curriculum as integrated units and serving as primary contact for anything related to the academy.

He's teaching four sections of Principles of Engineering, an introductory course that explores various engineering fields and teaches specific themes necessary for problem-solving. "We are teaching how engineers work to improve our environment and we're giving students work-ready skills, the skills they will need when they go into the workplace," Jones said.

The engineering curriculum is based on project-based learning; currently students are working on bridge designs in teams of four. Each team submits a proposal and timeline, creates a model and presents it as part of a competition for the best design.

Luigi Galvan, 14, who selected the academy program because his father is an engineer for AT&T, is interested in both structural and biomedical engineering. "Right now we're trying to build a bridge for the Dow wetlands," he said. "We have to build a model and write a persuasive essay on why our bridge is the best one."

He's satisfied with the program, for both its academics and life skills. "It helps prepare us for the future when we're working so we learn to cooperate with others in a job," Galvan said.

Megan Pato, 14, gives EDGE five stars. She wants to be an engineer or designer, following the career path of her father, a civil engineer. "The program is going really good," she said. "I've learned a lot of new formulas, we're building a bridge, we've done presentations for Chevron, and the teachers are really good."

Jones credits smaller grouping and a core group of teachers with increasing parent involvement. "I've had more parent involvement here than I've had in the 22 years I've been teaching," he said. "We're solving problems at the lowest level when there's a problem, and parents are offering assistance when they have ideas or think they can help."

The academy is learning as it goes, recognizing potential changes for the future.

"For what we've been able to do so far this year, I think we have done well," Jones said.