Hamilton County Schools launches Polytechnic Academy to help prepare students for the workforce

By Kendi Anderson, Chattanooga Times Free Press, December 12th, 2016

For some Hamilton County students, it’s become normal to study “The Crucible” and learn how to write maintenance reports during the same English class.

It’s also routine to solve math equations in a classroom and, minutes later, walk across the clean tile floor of the Volkswagen Academy and build a robot.

That’s because the 26 high school juniors enrolled in Hamilton County’s Mechatronics Akademie, based at Chattanooga’s VW assembly plant, are mixing academic courses and industry training.

Students will graduate from the two-year program with a high school diploma and about 40 post-secondary credit hours, putting them on track to earn an associate’s degree within a year. Soon they could be earning more than $40,000 a year working for an advanced manufacturer like VW.

The program’s success and the supply of good-paying jobs requiring a certificate or technical degree is leading Hamilton County Schools to partner with Chattanooga State Community College to expand the program, allowing 100 junior-level students from across the county to attend the new Polytechnic Academy on the college’s campus.

Those students will enroll in one of four programs: mechatronics, chemical, construction or computer information technology. Another batch of about 25 juniors will enter the Mechatronics Akademie at VW, bringing the number of to about 50.

“The traditional school environment isn’t what all students need,” said Caleb Bagby, a teacher at the Mechatronics Akademie. “Some kids need to have a more hands-on education.”

Students enrolled in the Mechatronics Akademie are making significant academic gains, which Bagby credits to their being more engaged and the amount of one-on-one support they receive.

Twenty-two of the 26 students in the program have raised their grade point averages. Just three started the year with GPAs above 3.5; now 13 students have met that target. And attendance is at 98 percent.

“Students say coming to schools is now more like coming to work,” Bagby said. “And they like that. They take it seriously.”

The students come from East Hamilton School, Tyner Academy, Ooltewah High School and Central High School, but the Polytechnic Academy will be open to any juniors enrolled in a Hamilton County school.

Enrollment requirements don’t depend on a student’s GPA. Bagby said that is important, because some students who struggle in a traditional school environment may thrive in these programs. He said students are given priority based on their interest in the fields, willingness to work hard and previous career or technical education courses they’ve taken.

The college credits students come with a price tag. Tuition and books at the Polytechnic Academy are estimated to cost juniors $2,492 and seniors $5,150.

Hamilton County school board members say this is a great opportunity for the business community to invest in education by covering those fees, as they don’t want cost to block any student from participating.

School officials also hope the state will stop requiring a high school diploma as a prerequisite for the Tennessee Promise scholarship, which foots the bill for two years of community college. That might allow students to use the scholarship to offset the cost of the Polytechnic Academy.

Mechatronics Akademie student Brooke Williams said the decision to move from Tyner Academy last year was not easy. She loved her friends and wasn’t sure if she wanted to give up her last two years walking the halls of a traditional high school.

“But I realized it’s worth it in the long run,” said Williams, who wants to be a computer engineer. “This is all helping me with what I want to do.”

Williams said when she graduates she’ll be making $15 an hour doing what she enjoys, and will soon have an associate’s degree.

Students in the program and Polytechnic Academy stay linked to their home schools, where they can participate in school programs and athletics. Many Mechatronics Akademie students, including Williams, go back to their schools for football games and are looking forward to prom.

Haden Sowder said being in the Mechatronics Akadmie makes school more enjoyable. Sowder is known as the class overachiever — he finished building a robot in two days, when many of his classmates needed a week to do the work.

“I’d never built a robot, but I’m used to working with my hands,” he said. “This is a good fit for me.”

Teacher Debra Weiss said it’s exciting to be a part of the launch of something like this, and she welcomes the opportunity for more students to have a similar experience through the Polytechnic Academy.

Weiss said she’s getting a bit spoiled as a teacher, as she gets to teach subjects such as graphing in three variables and then watch as her students see how it is applied at the VW plant.

“They get to see math in real life,” she said. “You can’t beat it.”