Reimagining High School
A UM-Dearborn alumna is leading a bold experiment that recasts high school as career prep.
What Heyam Alcodray (’80 B.B.A.) is trying to do at Dearborn’s Fordson High School manages to feel both radical and comfortable. It’s radical in the sense that the new kind of high school experience the Fordson principal and UM-Dearborn alumna is creating dares to redefine the basic goals of secondary education. On the other hand, there’s a common-sense appeal to much of what she says. Like many effective reformers, she has a knack for sussing out the fundamental parts of an issue. For Alcodray, even a decade of extreme experimentation in education has often failed to confront an important question about high school — namely, what actually is the point?
The image of a principal who questions the very purpose of high school risks painting Alcodray as the laid-back adult who’s trying to score cool points with the kids by echoing their common gripe. But Alcodray, who’s also a doctoral candidate in UM-Dearborn’s Ed.D. program, is serious by nature and means the question literally. She seems particularly troubled by students who other principals might hold up as success stories: The ones who simply make it to the finish line. To her, a diploma is not nearly enough. “I remember my first graduation day as principal at Fordson. I was walking around, chatting with students, saying, ‘Congratulations, guys!’ And this one particular group of students said to me: ‘Thanks. But we really have no idea what we’re supposed to do now.’ The reality is, graduation day can be a stressful time for students. I’ve seen it,” said Alcodray. It’s the day, she added, when it hits home that the next move is theirs.
Alcodray’s anecdote demonstrates that one way to frame the question of what kids should be doing in high school is to ask what they should aim for after it. The latter is a complex issue in itself. Alcodray is skeptical of placing the emphasis on graduation because a high school diploma is no longer a reliable ticket to a lasting career with a comfortable income and hasn’t been for some time. She also finds the educational paradigm that has seemed to replace it — that high school should be preparing every student to go to college — is inadequate. For starters, she said the rising cost of higher ed is putting college out of reach for many working families. (At Fordson, more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.) Many students and educators are also seeing viable career options in skilled trades and manufacturing.
Given these new realities, Alcodray argues that high schools can’t afford to be focused exclusively on college prep or graduation rates. Rather, their core purpose should be to adequately prepare students for what’s next. And what’s next should be defined in terms of the spectrum of real opportunities that are likely to greet students post-graduation day.
What that looks like in practice at Fordson is still a work in progress. Since Alcodray took over in 2016, they’ve put enough pieces in place to see that it’s a more focused, economically responsive version of high school than the one many of us remember. Ninth grade is arguably the most radically refocused year, a time where 14-year-olds are asked to think seriously about what they’d like to do with their lives. (Alcodray said eighth grade would be even better.) She described its core purpose not in terms of the achievement of particular math, language arts or science benchmarks but as “career exploration.” Students’ freshman year is peppered with field trips to employers and area universities so they can experience what the current world of work and college looks like. It’s also the time when they start to chart out a path for their other three years, primarily by taking tests that clarify their interests and aptitudes. When the two don’t align, there are real-talk sessions with counselors to reconcile the two. If a student wants to be a doctor, for example, but struggles with science, a counselor will make sure the student knows that either science needs to be prioritized or different career options need to be considered. Every one of Fordson’s 2,700 students get this kind of individualized attention throughout their student careers.
Each subsequent year takes students closer to their chosen target, almost as if they’re completing a college major. A kid who’s aiming to study at a four-year university might fill his or her junior- and senior-year schedule with AP or dual-enrollment courses. A student on a career-focused track might concentrate instead on electives tailored for entering a skilled trade program. But teachers and administrators have taken special care not to separate the college- and career-bound students. As at the university level, subject areas are the main distinctions. At Fordson, curriculum is organized into four “academies” — any of which can accommodate a college- or career-focused student. The health sciences academy, for example, is filled with kids who want to be doctors but also future dental hygienists. Likewise, the engineering academy’s course list features both AP calculus and shop. And notably, shop class at Fordson starts with the sounds of a geometry lecture, not power tools.
A variety of extracurriculars supplement the core curriculum. Career days and speeches from recent graduates are frequent in all grades. There’s a personal finance course. Juniors and seniors do mock job interviews with real employers. Teachers are also asked to do employer visits so their knowledge of the region’s economic opportunities isn’t just theoretical. Alcodray said there are even plans to start a summer teacher internship program, which could further strengthen the school’s relationships with area employers — and supplement teacher incomes.
Strategy in Sync
The hope, of course, is this greater focus on life after high school can lead to better outcomes for students when they’re young adults. Alcodray believes it may still be several years before they have some real data on whether that’s happening; her first group of “academies” students won’t graduate until next year. But she’s already seeing some evidence that this version of high school is getting some buy-in. To keep the curriculum in sync with the real economy, teachers and administrators consult regularly with more than 120 area businesses and nonprofit partners. Some of those businesses have started recruiting Fordson students while they’re still in high school — often with the promise of jobs and employer-paid training or college tuition. Fordson is also starting to get inquiries from other schools about how their big curriculum experiment is going.
Kids and their families are starting to see the advantages too. Alcodray said a common stereotype of the early generation American population her school mainly serves is that parents all want their kids to be “doctors, lawyers or pharmacists.” There is some truth to that, she admitted. But the message of solid jobs that don’t require a traditional four-year degree seems to be slowly getting through. Many of the career-related courses are now serving more students than ever. Some have a waiting list.
Such metrics complement the graduation-day conversations with students Alcodray uses to informally gauge whether things are heading in the right direction. If she and the school are doing everything they can, then every student will have a clear answer about what college they’ve gotten into, what trade they’re apprenticing in or at least a specific plan for what’s next.
The trick to being a good principal is to think of “every student like they’re your own kid,” said Alcodray. If you do that, she added, you fight harder for them as individuals. You don’t lose track of them from year to year. You push the teachers to be their best, as a parent would. It’s a nice sentiment, no doubt repeated by many principals. But by all indications, Alcodray is following through.
How UM-Dearborn Is Shaping the Fordson Experiment
UM-Dearborn’s Dean of the College of Education, Health, and Human Services, Ann Lampkin-Williams, is advising on the Fordson curriculum redesign, with a focus on ensuring kids are prepared for the speed and intensity of college. She sees big potential in the new approach, in part because it mirrors the rigorous college prep models that have become standard in well-resourced school districts — with the added benefit of a career prep path. The progressive curriculum, in which students are building toward a four-year goal, could also help ease another regional education problem. Schools of choice policies have made frequent school changes more common for metro Detroit students, which educators say can have adverse impacts on both students and classrooms. The model at Fordson, she said, could incentivize parents to stick with the same school for their child’s entire high school career.
Lampkin-Williams said tightening the relationship with Fordson’s students also has potential direct benefits for UM-Dearborn.
“Many are future first-generation college students. They’re coming from working-class backgrounds, and they’re right in our backyard,” Lampkin-Williams said. “That describes much of our enrollment population. So if we can become a player in the educational lives of these students while they’re still in high school, it’s inevitable that more of them will start dreaming about college. I think they’ll also start dreaming about doing it right here at UM-Dearborn.”