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In West Philly, Career Academies Drive Success

Simon Hauger, West Philadelphia High School, Pennsylvania

Story posted December, 2007

• Top honors multiple times at the Tour de Sol (a prestigious national green car competition)
• Increased numbers of college-bound students

West Philadelphia High School doesn't look like a place on the cutting edge of automotive technology "It's a true inner city high school," says teacher Simon Hauger. "Many of my students come from extraordinarily challenging social circumstances." But a groundbreaking career and technical education program has given students reasons to stay focused, including the opportunity to be part of a car-building competition that's trumped college students and automakers alike.

More than 80 percent of West Philadelphia's overwhelmingly African American student population comes from disadvantaged backgrounds. Four in ten don't graduate, prompting school officials to find hands-on, relevant ways to reach at-risk students.

The Philadelphia school district partnered with the nonprofit Philadelphia Academies, which has created nearly a dozen career academies at the city's high schools. Operating as schools within schools, the academies work with area businesses to blend college prep and vocational education around careers ranging from electronics and the environment to business technology and tourism.

In 1997, West Philadelphia High's Academy of Applied Automotive and Mechanical Science began a yearlong after-school project with an audacious goal: building an electric car. After their retrofitted battery-powered Saturn won a competition in 2002, the group turned its attention to creating an environmentally friendly hybrid that would be both fast and cool. Their answer was the K-1 Attack, a ground up construction based on K1 Engineering's body and frame, with a Volkswagen TDI engine that gets more than 60 miles to the gallon and accelerates from zero to 60 miles per hour in four seconds.

As the annual competitions grow nearer, a core group of 10 to 20 students work at nights and on weekends. "We have had some high school dropouts," Hauger says. "We have had a number who have been removed for disciplinary reasons, and they end up with us." "Most academy students, he adds, "are urban, inner-city kids who are trying to get an education."

WestPhil1web.jpgAt the heart of the car competition-and the academy's other hands-on classes-is a rigorous science and math curriculum, including applied mathematics, physics, and electronics. "They're figuring out these things because they need to and they're invested," Hauger says. "If the kids replace your brakes, they either work or they don't. You don't get a C in brakes-you get an A or an F."

For several years running, West Philadelphia's cars have won top honors in the Tour de Sol, a national green car competition, defeating not only teams from colleges and universities, but also production vehicles from Toyota and Honda. Students also demonstrate their cars at the Philadelphia Auto Show each year, allowing them to apply communications skills.

The career academies have an equally impressive success rate: Nearly 90 percent of students graduating from the system are still either in college or working 18 months later, and the West Philadelphia academy turns out higher numbers of college-bound students than the school as a whole.

As a new take on vocational education, career academies are focused on academic rigor, not specific career paths. For that reason, they attract students of all ability levels and interests. "The purpose is not to send those kids off into a small, specific career, but to use that career to teach through the subjects so they are engaged," says Philadelphia Academies' Connie Majka.

Partnerships with businesses pay off for both students and the school. After the K-1 Attack's Tour de Sol win, Maaco founder Tony Martino offered both hands-on help and an apprenticeship program with the automotive-painting company. "There is a crisis in the industry for good technicians," Tony Martino says. "We're dedicated to the program, and it will hopefully help them, but it will help us and the industry, too.

Further details about this story can be found in our sources:

LFA's interview with teacher Simon Hauger of West Philadelphia High School, December 2007 (listen above, 14 minutes)

Ginny Phillips, for Edutopia, "Auto Motive: Teens Build Award-Winning Electric Cars", July 2007

CBS News, "Kids Build Soybean-Fueled Car", February 2006

Video Links:
NBC 10

DieselBlog, April 2007

For additional information, please contact:
Simon Hauger
Teacher, West Philadelphia High School
(215) 920- 8503

Photos from Treehugger.com and CBS News