Pride Can Change the Trajectory of Young People

We know high school career academies engage students in learning, increase student attendance, teach employable skills, dramatically increase graduation rates, and prepare graduates for jobs. All these great changes in normal high school student behavior are revolutionary. However, it is essential to understand what is the central factor that creates this altered student behavior?

The explanation by most high school career academy supporters is the relevance of the curriculum. They mean the kids see their skills developing that are directly related to real jobs. The reality of being able to go to work has a visceral reaction in young people that is very different than school for school’s sake. This relevance factor gives students a substantive reason to come to high school every day and pay attention. This is the explanation for the excellent behaviors seen in career academy evaluations. In addition however, the relevance piece of high school career academies directly constructs pride in performing well in career technical education. Many high school students have never done well in school--period. The relevance piece gets students involved in learning, and also their success in the career academy improves the self-esteem of average and low achieving students. This is in contrast to typical high schools that tend to demean low and average achieving students. This contrast in the way schools treat their students could not be more important to understand the need for high school career academy reform.

I cannot imagine what years of low performance in school does to a child’s self esteem. Today’s high schools are the ultimate experience in putting young people down. It’s bad enough that other students put low and average achieving students down, but the reality is the institution joins in this diminution of young people’s self-esteem. Certainly, the bottom half of kids experience a horrible time in today’s high schools. Special education students receive the most abuse and labeling, even though many are actually above average in intelligence. The elitist college prep curriculum is targeted to the top 30 percent who go on to graduate from college. This elite 30 percent are the darlings of typical high schools. The remaining 70 percent do not perform well in algebra, geometry, chemistry, biology, or standardized tests. Frequently, their grade point averages are so low they cannot participate in sports or other school activities. High achieving students are brutal and creative in making fun of lower achieving students. For the average and low achieving students, the entire high school experience is one of surviving abuse.

This abusive environment in typical high schools is why career academies look so good in comparison in attendance and graduation rates. The big difference is the relevant curriculum that builds self-esteem that leads to personal pride in what they’ve learned in career technical education. This pride allows young people to look forward to life after high school to get a job. They are confident and proud of the skills they have learned in high school career technical education. They know they have the skills to get a good job. Even if they must relocate to get a job, they are confident in the skills that they have learned to be able to make that transition.

Therefore, ultimately the high school career academy builds pride that students wouldn’t otherwise have developed. This pride in accomplishment is what all high schools must learn to prioritize in their educational program. This is the best of multiple reasons to reform high schools around career academies. This student pride prevents crime, prostitution, gangs, drugs, and incarceration. This prevention of negative activities must become the preeminent mission that high schools must accomplish. Test scores are only one measure of success and truthfully, not a very good measure at that. We must take the leap to reform our high schools to build technical skills, soft skills and the pride that can alter the trajectory of millions of our youth from negative criminal activities to jobs and positive lives.

James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? available on

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Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Eucation or Incarceration? on
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