Something remarkable has happened in the Antioch Unified School District over the last four years. A new educational model has taken hold in high schools and left Superintendent Don Gill marveling at what he's observed.

"We see kids participating and more engaged," he said. "They come to school more often. They get higher grades. They don't get involved in disciplinary problems."

Antioch's linked learning academies -- focused on career themes such as health care, engineering and law -- represent the next generation of education reform. Students select a career path, study relevant subjects with like-minded peers and learn not only from teachers but industry professionals.

This innovation was kick-started five years ago with a $3.5 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation, but its success owes largely to the vision shared by Gill and Robin Schmitt, the district's executive director of programs and interventions.

"It doesn't cost a lot more money to do this," Gill said, "but you have to redistribute the resources you have."

You also need the cooperation of the business community, which is where April Treece of the nonprofit Contra Costa Economic Partnership comes in. She helps coordinate industry participation that includes everything from guest speakers, field trips and mentoring to joint projects.

About 50 percent of Antioch's students are enrolled in pathway academies -- others study traditional subjects -- and more sign up each year. Pathway students take core classes in English, math, history, social science and science, but they also study a technical field and enjoy real-world experiences designed to prepare them for college or a career.

Antioch High offers pathways in engineering; leadership and public service; media and technology; and environmental studies. Deer Valley has performing arts; law and justice; academic challenge and enrichment; and business technology. Dozier-Libbey is all medical. New students list their top three choices, and a lottery determines where they are placed.

"The further students get into the academies, the deeper they go," Gill said, "because they're focusing their efforts on something they feel passionate about."

Law and justice students have listened to attorneys explain legal briefs on pending cases and then watched judges hear arguments. They've observed police detectives investigate fictitious crime scenes set up on campus.

Engineering students have worked with Caltrans officials to build scale-model bridges.

Medical students are "assigned" diseases and required to prescribe treatments. And they participate in an emergency-room experience, where they wear scrubs and wash up before "surgery."

"They do laparoscopic surgery, using medical apparatus to remove Skittles from the abdomen of a mannequin," Schmitt said. "The whole time, the doctors and staff are interacting with them."

So if Skittles are lodged in your stomach, now you know where to turn.

The big idea behind this modest plan is to let students choose programs that best meet their interests and needs.

Gill tells of a youngster who lacked direction in middle school before his parents enrolled him at Dozier-Libbey. He went on to become state president of the Health Occupation Students of America and earn a scholarship to Stanford University and became the first in his family to go to college.

"I knew this would be a powerful reform strategy," Gill said, "but it's exceeded every expectation I had."

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.