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Sometimes, students need a little nudge – and some freedom – to finally understand how to succeed in school.

That was the case for one teenager in Hamilton County, Tennessee. She was encouraged to enroll in a program that allowed her to take classes at her own pace. She had a 1.6 GPA when she entered the program last fall, in her junior year of high school. Then she made honor roll for the first time in her life.

“She has worked her tail off,” said David Cowan, director of career and technical education at the Hamilton County Department of Education.

This student flourished at the Mechatronics Akademie, a modern iteration of career and technical education for high school students. Created through a partnership between the local department of education, the Volkswagen Chattanooga factory and Chattanooga State Community College, it uses online and in-person instruction in an out-of-school setting to prepare students who might not pursue higher education after high school. But this isn’t the easy way out. The students are tackling tough courses, such as advanced math, and classes that qualify them for college credits and job certifications.

“Our kids have risen to the expectation,” said Cowan. “We thought they would, but you never count your chickens before they hatch.”

“We think it’s filling up new ground. It’s changing the way we think about the high school experience.”

The 26 students, from four local public high schools, report to school at the Volkswagen plant, a major new employer in the region. (The program, which started in August, is expected to grow to include more students and other employment tracks.) Students spend the morning in “lab time,” a flexible period during which they are taking courses, such as algebra or trigonometry, through the Edgenuity platform on a computer.

They aren’t left to go it alone with a computer. There’s a teacher there. The computers simply allow students to work at different paces or on different courses. This was important, because the program accepted students from all levels. Some had low grades. Others were already on the honor roll.

In the afternoon they work in a hands-on setting at the Volkswagen plant. Students also take courses offered by the Volkswagen academy. About 70 percent of the day is spent in real-life, hands-on learning. One of the recent highlights: learning to drive a forklift. These courses give them skills that will make them more marketable after high school if they choose to seek employment rather than going to college.

Students can also take dual-enrollment courses to earn college credit during the flexible time dedicated each day to academics.

“We think it’s filling up new ground,” Cowan said. “It’s changing the way we think about the high school experience.”

Preparing these students so they are on the right path is of critical importance for this region. A recent report suggested that some 15,000 jobs are filled by outsiders because local people do not have the required skills to do the work.

“There has been a resurgence in opportunities in the manufacturing sector,” Cowan said, “a lot of it driven [starting] eight years ago, when Volkswagen came to town and built a multi-million-dollar facility.”

Cowan hopes they can expand the program to cover other careers, too. With the help of technology, and a willingness to give teachers and students flexibility to study at their own level and their own pace, this could be one solution to helping students find pathways to good jobs.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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