There's a group of students at Tokay High School who know what they want and how to get there.
Stop by Jamie Anaforian's second period child development class and ask the students what they want to be when they grow up. You'll be met with a rousing chorus of confident voices shouting a range of ideas, from child psychologist, ultrasound technician, pediatrician and registered nurse to counselor, elementary school teacher, SWAT team member and family and child photographer.
Most have an idea of where they want to go to college, and what major they'll choose.
Oh, and they're only 15 years old.
They are part of a California Partnership Academy, a small learning community in which a group of teachers sticks with a cohort of students for three years of high school. Each academy is focused on a particular career path or industry, such as working with children, agriculture, medicine or performing arts. The students take the same core classes, usually English, history and science, and one career-oriented class each year.
Aside from coordinated schedules, the significant feature of these academies is their budget. Each receives about $70,000 to $80,000 a year to go on field trips, buy special industry-related equipment and do hands-on activities in the classroom and beyond.
Bill Atterberry, principal of Lincoln Technical Academy and supervisor of Lodi Unified School District's nine high school academies, said academies work because they provide a relevant, hands-on experience for students.
"It's not about whether you're going to be a teacher," he said. "The skills are transferable."
Those skills are helping academy students graduate at a significantly higher rate than the state average. At the end of the 2009-10 school year, 95 percent of academy seniors graduated, compared to 85 percent statewide, according to a report by the Career Academy Support Network at University of California, Berkeley.
And more of those graduates leave high school ready to enter a four-year college. Fifty-seven percent of CPA graduates fulfill California State University and University of California entrance requirements, compare to 36 percent statewide.
In Lodi Unified School District, Lodi High School is home to Apple Academy, geared toward students who want to be teachers, Since then, Ag Academy cropped up at the same school. Tokay High started Children Centered Careers and Occupational Opportunities, which they call C3O2 for short. Bear Creek High School is home to the Green Technology Academy, which has both an engineering and automotive division. And Ronald E. McNair High offers a Health Careers Academy.
According to the original bill, a fully funded academy with at least 90 students receives $81,000. Due to budget cuts, Apple Academy director Tammy Boschee sees about $68,000 a year. Other academies report similar numbers. The funding varies based on enrollment numbers.
One unique aspect of the grant is the district and industry partnership requirement.
While there's no direct cash exchange, academy directors estimate costs like class-size reduction, textbook and classroom supplies, training, and time spent by school staff working with the academy. That total equals the amount the state provides.
The same matching process takes place for local industry partners, such as teachers who let Apple students work in their classrooms, or doctors who take time to meet with health academy students.
Anaforian uses her budget to take her students on field trips to colleges, local day care centers, and one overnight trip per year per grade. As part of the career connection, most academy students volunteer to work with kids in the community, in classrooms or kids' events at Micke Grove Zoo.
"They don't all do their homework, but they love to volunteer," she said.
Students get their first taste of academy life during their freshman year, when they sit through presentations on whichever program is offered at their school.
To get in, there's an application, a recommendation form filled out by a parent or guardian and at least one teacher, and an interview in January of the applicant's freshman year. If a student seems interested and shows promise, they're in.
Matthew Stanley's grades were horrible his freshman year, he said. But one teacher vouched for him on his application and he got into Apple with some of his best friends. When his friends dropped out of the academy as sophomores, Stanley quickly made new friends in the group he spent four hours a day with.
"These people didn't quit on the program," said the junior, looking around room 93 on Tuesday morning.
Sophomore Jamie Martinez wanted to get involved in Apple when she noticed the small playground on campus and saw older students walking home each weekend with electronic baby dolls in tow.
Sophomores in the both child-relayed academies take home the dolls for one weekend. Juniors work shifts in the on-campus day care in the spring. Seniors tutor younger students or work alongside a teacher in classes on-campus or off.
Most academies see a drop in numbers over the years. Students' interest may fade, or they find that the program simply doesn't suit them. By the time a student is an academy senior, you know they're serious.
At Tokay, Christina Torres was on the fence at the end of her sophomore year. Poor grades from freshman year were trailing behind her, and she wasn't too excited about being with the same people all day.
"Now I'm looking into what I really want to do," she said.
"I've known all these guys since freshman year," said Chris Grenz, who said he makes the extra effort in his ag classes because they are more relevant to him. He plans to follow in his father's footsteps and grow winegrapes.
Other students agree.
"You go into something you want to do before you leave high school. It appeals to your interests," said Jessica Teresi.
Callie Garret is a former Apple student who has come full circle to teach health and driver's education at Lodi High. The teachers she once considered role models are now her mentors, supporters and colleagues.
"I try to have the same relationship with my students that my Apple teachers had with me," said Garret, who graduated in 2003. "Once you're in Apple, you're always in Apple."
Boschee sees two elements of academies that make the difference: They're small learning communities with dedicated teachers who volunteered for the position, and there's dedicated funding year after year.
Boschee coordinates with three other Apple teachers at Lodi High to make the assigned reading connect with the time period students are studying in history. For example, they might read "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald during a unit on the 1920s.
"More kids would be involved in school if they had an academy," said Boschee.
Academy directors see themselves as parents, to a certain extent. They follow grades closely, both within and outside of academy courses. When they notice a kid's attendance is scattered, or their grades have slipped, phone calls home and stern talkings-to are common.
"They're not like other teachers who just teach you what you need to know. (Boschee) actually gets to know you as a person," said junior Cynthia Arredondo, a junior in the Apple Academy.
Brent Newport, director of the Ag Academy, sees a tighter connection among his academy students.
"Instead of one of 2,000, you're one of 80," he said.
What would it take to bring more students into small learning communities? Teachers say it could be done with creative scheduling, energetic teachers and a group of students with a common interest.
"It's a matter of dedication," said Anaforian. "Aside from field trips, you could do everything we do with no money."
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.