Secaucus’s school academies, four-year programs that offer rigorous, intensive courses to prepare students for specific careers, are under scrutiny, as a debate continues among Board of Education members and school administrators over whether to keep or eliminate them.
Director of Secondary Education, Linda Diemer proposed phasing out the school academies during the May 9 Secaucus school board meeting. She believes the academies limit students’ curriculum options and only reach a small percentage of students. She arrived at this conclusion, which has been met with some degree of controversy, after conducting an assessment of the entire program. The Media and Communications Academy was specifically mentioned as having low enrollment and few graduates.
Those who want to keep the academies believe an intensely focused course of study, rather than a diverse curriculum, offers students the best chance of entering a good college or finding a good job.
“Academy is designed more for a college type schedule.” – Linda Diemer
“It is wonderful to get academy on your transcript. That is great, but at the same time what are colleges looking for?” said Diemer. “They are looking for well-rounded students…Isn’t that what we want for our students at the high school level?”
Pursuing a career track
The school district offers academies at the high school level in Science and Math, Media and Communications, and Future Teacher development, which are four-year programs that offer rigorous, intensive courses to prepare students for specific careers.
Students in the Media and Communications Academy, for example, learn filmmaking and broadcasting skills. They put together and air daily video broadcasts of the school announcements. They were recently recognized for a press video they filmed about a new attraction at Six Flags Great Adventure and were invited back to film and cover an event with professional media crews.
Debra Gerbasio, who also teaches English, leads the Media and Communications Academy classes at the high school. She said in an interview that she began teaching the academy courses six years ago around the time that it was first introduced.
“The academies are smaller learning environments,” said Gerbasio. She said that the elective courses teach students to use software and tools that media professionals use such as Final Cut Pro. “The students can walk right out of high school and get a production assistant job.”
She said that students that have been through the program have gone on to study film, television, and communications at the college level. Gerbasio noted that students have been successful in getting in to the Montclair media communications program, for example, because they were able to build up an impressive portfolio as a result of the academy training.
Is scheduling too strict?
During the school board meeting, Diemer said that the academy scheduling is too restrictive and sets students on one track that prevents them from taking a diverse set of courses.
“We want our students at the high school level to be able to try various things,” said Diemer.
“Academy is designed more for a college type schedule.” Many colleges operate on a semester schedule and offer more class time.
Diemer said that the academies were originally started when the school had a different type of scheduling. Last year the school district switched to a modified block schedule that allows students to rotate through a schedule labeled Day One through Day Six.
“How can we take this and give our students a little bit more flexibility if possible and take away all that stringency?” said Diemer. “You are very restricted as to what you can take. Why would we want to do that to students?”
“Why can’t we have balance?” said school board trustee Dora Marra. “How does a freshman or sophomore in high school know what they want to do?” She is in favor of phasing out the program.
In addition to limited choices in scheduling, she said that students in the media academy don’t have enough time for class because of the time it takes to set up their equipment. Gerbasio said that students have 56 minutes in the high school class period. At Rutgers College, for the Fall 2012 semester, Introduction to Film meets for an hour and a half while a video course meets for three hours.
“It is a little bit tough for video production,” said Gerbasio. “They know they have to hurry up and set it up.”
Specialization versus versatility
Some parents don’t see the academy as limiting and want their children on a career track, including school board president Jack McStowe. He said he supports giving students “another avenue to pursue” in regard to their academics.
“You give children every opportunity to obtain what they want to obtain,” said McStowe, saying that he spoke from firsthand experience. His son is in the Media and Communications Academy.
“My son is a well-rounded student,” said McStowe. “They have the classes that they need. They are trained in editing, introduction to filming, and they know the whole process.”
He said that his son has been able to pursue other interests.
“I’m not in favor of phasing it out at all,” said McStowe. “If you go back 20 years…they did away with woodshop and mechanical shop because someone had the same thought.”
Enrollment and graduation numbers
Diemer said that the graduation numbers for the Media and Communications Academy were low and that overall the academies reached a small percentage of students. Gerbasio said that there were 20 students currently enrolled in the Media Academy.
Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Randina, who was impressed that the school district had academies when she first arrived in 2008, wants to get students started on a career track at a younger age.
“At the middle school we have a cycle going for our media studies because that is going to engender the interest that wasn’t coming from our middle school,” said Randina.
During the board meeting, she advocated for a “cycle” program in math, science and future teachers at the middle school level to increase academy enrollment at the high school level. She also advocated that teachers solicit students to join the academy classes when enrollment is low.
Marra said that the board hopes Gerbasio will get more kids in the classroom next year. McStowe said that no one has approached him with other ideas to address the issue.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at email@example.com.