Businesses in Massachusetts across the nation face a growing shortage of workers qualified to fill jobs. This so-called “skills gap” leaves many manufacturing, health care, information technology, and other companies struggling to find workers. Atlantis Charter School in Fall River, Massachusetts is on a mission to change that.
“Too many students today are leaving high school not knowing or being able to do what’s expected of them–either in college or, especially, in our technologically evolving workplace. Atlantis is using its autonomy as a charter school to create a new academic approach that will prepare students for 21st century jobs,” said Robert Beatty, executive director at Atlantis Charter School.
Atlantis’ solution to the problem: an innovative Career Academy program designed to connect students to real-world job opportunities. The progressive learning model is now a hallmark of the high school experience at Atlantis.
“There is a lot of hiring going on, and a lot of open positions that aren’t being filled because we lack a workforce commensurate with what’s required for the jobs that are available,” said Michael Lauro, associate executive director at Atlantis. “Our academies promote economic development by creating a pipeline of employees, and providing students with a path to career success.”
The academies were strategically developed based on input from area colleges, local businesses, and other community leaders. Atlantis held a series of workshops to explore what skills were most in-demand and decided to focus the academies on five main career areas, including:
- Business and Entrepreneurship
- STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math)
- Arts, Culture & Design
- Teacher Development
- Health, Med-Tech & Sports Medicine
These academies now exist side-by-side with a traditional college preparatory curriculum, as well as honors and advanced placement programs. Juniors and seniors attend academy classes as part of their regular school day, but in block schedules inspired by universities. Students learn key knowledge and skills from adjunct teaching staff who have experience in the marketplace.
The first year in the academy is dedicated to teaching students the fundamentals, to build foundational skills. In the second year, students gain real-world exposure to their chosen field through internships and field trips.
“Real-life and hands-on experience is invaluable for high school students,” said Diane Richard, Atlantis’ director of nursing who also leads the Health, Med-Tech, Sport Medicine Academy. “It not only gives them a leg up by allowing them to network and build relationships with members of the health care community early on, it also helps them confirm that it’s really a field they want to pursue–before making their commitment to college.”
The academies’ approach to education tends to be more technologically advanced than most high school programs. For example, students in the Health, Med-Tech & Sports Academy practice checking vital signs, speaking with patients and learning how to diagnose and handle various ailments through the use of a SimMan–a life-sized robotic mannequin that is hooked up to real-life monitors in a replica hospital bed.
“This is the type of technology top colleges and universities are using to train medical school students, and our kids get to use it in 11th and 12th grade,” said Richard. “It’s great because it really gives them a sense of what it’s like to be a nurse or a doctor. They get to practice as if they were working with real patients, and experience checking blood pressure, heart rates, and oxygen levels, etc.”
Technology is also the heart of Atlantis’ S.T.E.M Academy, which was developed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Matt Kressy, founding director of MIT’s Integrated Design and Management program, serves as an academic advisor and helped identify the equipment needed for the classroom, which includes several 3D printers that students can experiment with. They also learn ‘design thinking’ and work with computer-aided design software to develop product prototypes.
“The idea is to inspire students to think creatively and explore a variety of tools, techniques and methodologies that can be used in modern manufacturing plans, and to help solve complex challenges that today’s organizations face. At the same time, we are teaching these teenagers how to become effective entrepreneurs using solid business practice,” said Kressy.
Richard Larson, the lead of another MIT program called BLOSSOMS, helped launch the Teacher Development Academy where aspiring teachers are exposed to cutting edge tools and techniques for engaging students in complex topics that are difficult to teach. Other higher education and industry partners include UMass, Harvard, St. Anne’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital Division of Sports Medicine and Raytheon.
“Robotics is a growing field and Raytheon is here on the South Coast. The idea is that our students could wind up working there while living here in Fall River and growing their families,” said Beatty.
But the skills and experience students at Atlantis are getting can really serve them anywhere. What’s more, the model this forward-looking charter school has created is one that can be easily shared, duplicated or adapted across other schools in Massachusetts and beyond.