“When will I ever use this in real life?” is always a common question from high school students. But a new partnership between Romeo Community Schools and Ford is providing new answers to that question through an innovative program that prepares students for next-generation careers in mobility and other high-tech industries.
Romeo is the first community in Michigan to adopt the Ford Next Generation Learning (NGL) program, which turns traditional secondary educational institutions into career academies. At Romeo High School, the program is called The Academies at Romeo.
All freshmen are enrolled in the Ninth Grade Academy, and explore career interests throughout their freshman year. Starting in 10th grade, they pick from three pathways: Health, Human, and Public Service; Design, Engineering, and Manufacturing; or Business, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation.
“The whole purpose of Ford NGL is learning academics through the lens of a career or interest,” says Ford NGL executive director Cheryl Carrier. She adds that the academies prioritize academic pathways that help meet the “workforce and economic needs of a region.”
In the case of Romeo Community Schools, Ford NGL worked with Macomb County’s Planning and Economic Development department to develop the various “pathways” that high school students can pursue through the academy model.
Rich Boggio, academy coach for Romeo Community Schools, says district officials sat down with representatives of the local auto industry to talk about what high school students need to succeed in that sector.
“One of their big requests is that they need kids who know how to code,” Boggio says. “It’s not so much about putting machines together but about troubleshooting, looking at the code, and reprogramming.”
Students at the Academies at Romeo can specialize in information technology and cybersecurity with the goal of filling talent gaps in “one of the fastest growing sectors in Macomb,” Boggio says.
“It’s important to get industry input in the classrooms, and having (experts) talking to teachers to guide our instruction,” Boggio says. “They can look at what we’re teaching and say, ‘That’s outdated and won’t help. Why don’t you look at this instead?'”
One local business that has collaborated on a variety of projects with the Academies at Romeo is the Romeo Engine Plant. The design, engineering, and manufacturing pathway is a natural fit with the plant, but plant manager Dee Skinner notes that manufacturing plants also need workers from other career pathways, such as finance or human resources. Art students from the Academies at Romeo created a diversity banner that was displayed throughout the plant, for instance.
A more in-depth project had students at the Academies at Romeo helping to solve a real-life problem with a tool cover used on the line for making 5.2-liter engines for the Mustang 350.
“It’s not part of the engine, but something we use to protect the engine while it’s going through the process, and the students helped us design it,” Skinner says.
Romeo Community Schools Superintendent Todd Robinson says the district had already had solid career technical education (CTE) offerings for a while. But those involved going to traditional courses at the high school for half the day and attending CTE training at the Romeo Engineering and Technology Center (RETC) for the other half of the day. The new academy model means career exploration is fully integrated into academic courses instead.
Because of the 90-minute classes and block scheduling involved in the academy model, students are also more prepared for college.
“One of the things we’re helping gear our kids up for is knowing what it feels like to have more of a university- or college-type class every other day,” Robinson says. “And they’re taking two additional classes every year, so by the time they finish a four-year high school career, they have the equivalent of courses for a whole (college) year.”
Jozef Modlinski went through the Ninth Grade Academy last year and chose the business pathway for the rest of his high school years. He says he and some of his classmates discussed whether block scheduling would make finding time for homework challenging, but so far he is in favor of the academy model.
“It sounds like it’s going to be really fun and different,” he says. “Not every high school is doing this.”
Modlinski says he likes the idea of doing project-based learning in teams and thinks learning to collaborate on projects will be useful later in life.
“Our teachers are part of our team and they want us to win also,” Modlinski says. “It’s so different than when we were in eighth grade. You can tell there’s a difference, to push us forward to achieve something, and I can see there’s really extra value to that.”
Carrier says that reaction is typical of what she is seeing in other locations where the Ford NGL program has been established. She says students are excited about working with employers and gaining insight into what a real-world workplace is actually like.
“They get solid feedback from employers about what they’re doing, what they should be studying, and what sorts of credentials might be important,” Carrier says. “Employers are coming to the table because they need a workforce pipeline, and they stay because they realize they’re making a difference in these students’ lives.”