Creation of a STEM-Focused Charter High School at Santa Fe College
Community colleges are uniquely situated to address the nation’s need for a highly innovative, adaptable, and skilled workforce. At the federal and state levels, funding is available for design and delivery of workforce-building programs combining academic excellence, technical training, and practical experience.
Santa Fe College (SF) in Gainesville, Florida, has received a state grant to create a STEM-focused charter high school. The charter school will provide students with the tools needed to be successful in the 21st century workforce. SF’s vision is to ensure that each charter school student has access to an authentic, innovative, and individualized education, one that will help students to recognize their potential and reach their goals. Through the charter school’s four academic tracks, students will graduate from high school, earn industry certifications, and complete Associate in Science (A.S.) degrees—all at no cost to themselves or their families.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the addition of more than a million new STEM jobs over the next decade, representing almost 11 percent growth (Logan et al., 2021). LaForest, Gherasoiu, White, and Efstathaidis (2020) note that,
There are over 28 million middle skill level jobs requiring a two-year degree or vocational training that go unfilled every year due to the lack of qualified workers . . . with the majority of the higher paying jobs [found] in the STEM fields.
According to the Computing Technology Industry Association, Florida is set to outpace national growth in the information technology sector (CompTIA, 2021). Furthermore, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reports that Florida will outpace national growth in the health care sector (Online Staff, 2019).
The inspiration for the charter school is the well-known and successful P-TECH model. The school’s educational program will provide a more modernized educational pathway than the traditional high school track. According to P-TECH (n.d.),
The unique culture of a P-TECH school is built upon high expectations for students and a belief that all students can earn their college degree. Students see themselves as “college students” and “on a career pathway” from the moment they begin 9th grade. The model integrates high school and college coursework, enabling students to begin college courses as soon as they are ready. Students also participate in a range of workplace opportunities that include mentoring, site visits and paid internships — all designed to support students’ academic and professional growth.
SF has strong industry partners to provide workplace opportunities that will give students insight into the relevance of their studies as well as practical experience. Many local businesses employ Santa Fe College A.S. degree graduates in the charter school’s pathways: Biotechnology Laboratory Technology, Surgical Technology, Computer Information Technology, and Information Technology Security. Meeting alumni of these programs while in the workplace will serve to encourage students along their journey.
The charter school will enroll students in grades 9-12 who qualify to attend a public school in the service district. The school will have an open admissions policy and will be available to any rising 9th grader who applies by the application deadline. The charter school, like SF itself, will be open access. If the number of applications exceeds the capacity of the school in terms of program, class, grade level, or building, all applicants will have an equal chance of being admitted through a random lottery process.
SF aspires to attract families to the charter school who reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of its community, who understand the value of industry certifications and workforce degrees, and who are committed to supporting the school’s mission. For its first year of operation in 2023-2024, the charter school will accept rising freshmen only. Over each of the subsequent three years, the previous year’s cohort will advance one grade level while a new class of rising freshmen is accepted. By the fourth year of operation, the charter school will serve students in all four high school grade levels.
The charter school will support students through their Florida public high school graduation requirements while also affording them the opportunity to earn their A.S. degree in one of the designated health sciences and information technology education pathways, plus a minimum of two industry certifications. Students will follow mandated state standards while in high school-level coursework at the charter school; they will take high school reading, writing, and mathematics until they demonstrate college readiness in the subject through a placement test. They will then have the opportunity to enroll in college coursework through Santa Fe’s High School Dual Enrollment program. This will allow for completion of high school graduation requirements at a faster pace and selection of college courses that satisfy prerequisites for their chosen A.S. pathway. The goal is to have all students in their desired A.S. pathway no later than their senior year of high school.
Newly accepted students will attend a one-week summer bridge program prior to the start of the school year. This will allow them to begin building connections with school staff and with their classmates. It will also expose them to project-based learning, which will be an integral part of their schooling, and team-building activities that support development of peer-to-peer bonds within the cohort. Students will move forward as a cohort through their high school coursework. Because they may show college readiness in different core subjects at different times, some students may begin college coursework earlier than others. However, SF hopes that students will continue to rely on other members of their cohort even after the first two years due to the meaningful connections they have made. To facilitate connection, students will be supported by dedicated charter school staff and programming, participate in school-sponsored extracurricular activities and clubs, plan and enjoy their own events (e.g., prom), and otherwise share a rich high school experience.
The charter school will provide a highly collaborative environment for students, one where they feel comfortable pushing themselves, taking risks, and asking for help from classmates as well as faculty and staff. Through project-based learning and hands-on activities, the academic program will be closely tied to the school mission of providing students with the tools needed to be successful both in the classroom and in the workforce. Formative assessment will be used to discover and close skills gaps, with special emphasis on employing a growth mindset for effective learning. Scaffolding practices (i.e., individualized learning plans, regular data conversations with administration and teachers, and regular meetings with guidance counselor and mentors) will be put in place for all students.
Staff will meet regularly to review student achievement data, assess each student’s progress on the path to success, and determine areas requiring supplemental support. All school staff will be aware of each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses, and each student will develop a plan in conjunction with staff to both nurture strengths and address challenges.
Many charter school students will graduate simultaneously from the charter high school with a diploma and Santa Fe College with an A.S. in one of the four pathways. Those who graduate from the high school before completing requirements for their associate’s degree will be able to continue their college coursework at no cost by participating in SF Achieve, a Santa Fe College scholarship program that picks up where financial aid leaves off.
Strategic marketing of the charter school will be necessary to build diverse cohorts. Outreach will be used to acquaint students and families with High School Dual Enrollment and similar programs, the use of High School Dual Enrollment within the charter school, the charter school’s four pathways, careers aligned with the four pathways, and postsecondary programs in general. The college will proactively take steps to ensure that all students in the region, particularly those from historically underserved groups or schools, have equitable access to information about the opportunity the charter school represents.
SF anticipates that charter school students will have different preferences beyond their high school graduations. Some will take their industry certifications, A.S. degrees, and practical experience straight into the workforce. Others may choose to continue their college coursework instead of working or in addition to working. Well before the first charter school graduation, SF will complete an analysis of existing academic on-ramps for charter school graduates. New or strengthened on-ramps may be advisable, both for charter school graduates who continue their college coursework immediately and for those who pause to work exclusively for a while before returning to college. And since charter school graduates will have credentials in high-demand fields, many will undoubtably continue their college coursework part time while working full time. Options for part-time completion of programs aligned with charter school graduates’ further educational goals will be optimized, hopefully in collaboration with local businesses likely to employ them.
CompTIA. (2021). Cyberstates 2021: The definitive guide to the U.S. tech industry and tech workforce. https://www.cyberstates.org/pdf/CompTIA_Cyberstates_2021.pdf
LaForest, R. K., & Gherasoiu, I., & White, D., & Efstathaidis, H. (2020, March). P-TECH: A new model for an integrated engineering technology education [Paper presentation]. 2016 St. Lawrence Section Meeting, Ithaca, NY. https://strategy.asee.org/33840
Logan, G., Pischke, K., & Guerdan, R. (2022, January). 2021 top markets for STEM job growth. Site Selection Magazine. https://siteselection.com/issues/2022/jan/2021-top-markets-for-stem-job-growth.cfm
Online Staff. (2019, March 25). Florida’s job outlook: Demand for healthcare professionals grows. The Boca Raton Tribune. https://www.bocaratontribune.com/bocaratonnews/2019/03/floridas-job-outlook-demand-healthcare-professionals-grows
P-TECH. (n.d.). The model: a seamless program for students. https://www.ptech.org/how-it-works/the-model
Lisa Armour is Interim Provost and Vice President, Academic Affairs, and Jennifer Homard is Academic Chair, High School Dual Enrollment, at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida.
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.