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Creating authentic experiences to excite students about career paths

A conversation with Tim Jones

Among its many contributions, the education system plays an important role in preparing students for the labor market. For many students, practical applications and tangible experiences with employers help enhance their learning in ways that translate to their future careers. Career and technical education (CTE) is one of the ways that the education system aims to help students gain access to employers and exposure to potential career paths. Research shows that exposure to CTE programs can improve education and labor market outcomes, especially for lower-income males.

In a recent conversation, we learned that CTE experiences happen on a continuum, with some students exposed to only a class or two in their traditional high school, while others experience full immersion in a career-oriented curriculum. Davis Aerospace and Maritime High School (Davis A&M) is on the full-immersion side of that spectrum. It opened in 2017 and is one of a number of schools in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District that focuses on a specific discipline or set of career paths.

The focus areas for Davis A&M are the industries in its name and also the skills associated with those industries. The school curriculum is designed to benefit from practical applications in those fields to create lessons in core subject areas that appeal to students. The school also benefits from strong ties to the industries that enable its internships and career opportunities. The school is new, so its long-term outcomes are yet to be seen. Nonetheless, the curriculum stands out as an innovative and replicable model.

The success of Davis A&M is owed as much to how it engages its students as it is to how the school leverages the resources of partner organizations. The main partner to the school is nonprofit organization Argonaut, founded by helicopter pilot and boat captain Drew Ferguson. Argonaut provides expertise, equipment, and industry connections to the students through a formal partnership managed by the public school system. To understand more about how this partnership works, I spoke with Tim Jones, the founding principal of Davis Aerospace and Maritime High School.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed. Listen to an extended version of this conversation.

Davis A&M responds to several needs in Cleveland

Dionissi Aliprantis

Tell me a little bit about Davis A&M. How did the idea for the high school start?

Tim Jones

There are two airports here; the Cleveland airport system is the largest employer in the city. Many of the workers in aerospace and other industries are aging. Very soon, and it's happening already, those industries expect a shortage. And so there's some interest in the industries to support the school and help us get it off the ground because of the need for employees.

And then there was an interest in the school because it matched the portfolio approach in which kids could get excited about math and science if they're studying boats and building propellers and testing airplane airfoils. So the approach in Davis has always been finding compelling contexts for kids to be exploring whether that be specific to the theme aerospace, maritime, or really the third pillar now is engineering. We have a very strong engineering program; it's where the beginnings of our CTE, career technical education, program lie.

Dionissi Aliprantis

I'm curious about the students that you serve. What students get into Davis A&M?

Tim Jones

I'll tell you a little bit about my students. Davis A&M is a public school, part of the public school district in Cleveland. Well, Cleveland has the highest child poverty rate in the country. Our kids typically do not come from means; 100% of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Most of our students do not come with the resources that a kid of the surrounding suburbs may take advantage of. So they also don't come to us really with any knowledge or real experience in these areas. They're not spending summers on their uncle's boat and they're not flying all over the country going on vacations. And they don't have a ton of experience in the airport.

But we do have kids that think it's cool. They envision themselves being pilots, they think fixing engines would be awesome. They think that boats are cool. They love to design them and build them and drive them and operate them.

Dionissi Aliprantis

What kinds of needs do you see Davis A&M meeting?

Tim Jones

I also see us as a springboard, if you will, working with local companies and local industry to provide a handoff so that they have employees as the ones that they currently have start to retire. Or as startups come and businesses expand and, best-case scenario, people aren't retiring, but we're still growing companies and growing industry in Cleveland and improving our local economy because of the hard work that my students are doing as young adults.

Partnering deeply brings students rewards

Dionissi Aliprantis

You have these partnerships with local businesses that seem pretty unique to me. I'd like to hear about how you make that happen and why it seems to me that it's a little bit more than just the businesses writing a check. They seem to be a little bit more invested.

Tim Jones

The success of our school and the approach of our school is made possible through a set of partnerships that really far surpasses anything I've seen at any other school.  I opened the school alongside a nonprofit Argonaut (previously known as PHASTAR) and Argonaut has a number of full-time employees who work at the school to support the school and support the model. And they work with our engineering teachers and our maritime teachers to plan curriculum. And our aviation teachers learning how to fly through our partnership with Argonaut. They do professional development for the rest of our teachers and they own an expanding fleet of boats. Having Argonaut be able to step up and support these families with employment opportunities for their kids to keep them engaged in school was huge. They're our primary partner.

In addition, we partner through Argonaut with United Airlines.  United Airlines reached out to us a couple years because one of our students, her name was Sid Marie Flowers.  She was our first student to fly an airplane solo and she did it down in Tuskegee, Alabama.  Our school is named after Benjamin O. Davis, the famous Tuskegee Airmen and World War II general, who was from Cleveland. And so having her do that solo flight down in Tuskegee, it was really meaningful for our community, for the local chapter of Tuskegee Airmen here anyway. United Airlines found out about that and they reached out because United Airlines has their own initiative trying to expand their pilots.  They have a new flight school that they're opening in Arizona and they're looking to support schools with aviation programs, so it was a perfect match.

So again, when many schools, thematic or not, are supported by organizations, this means they might get a check for $5,000 or $50,000 or more periodically. But my goal when talking to organizations about partnering with our school is not just to get a check.  The reason is because I'm trying to build sustainability. And I also know that what I can do with that money as a principal is much less impactful than what that company could do with that investment of time or their own resources. I'm not United Airlines. My kids could come to me and I could spend $50,000 on something, but if they went to work for United Airlines and had an internship with them, it's a much more authentic experience.

And they're putting these experiences on their college applications. I'm a principal, I'm not an aviator. If I'm trying to make an authentic experience for my kids, I'm not going to take them in planes myself. So I have to be tapped into these organizations.  A school also can't buy a boat. A school can't own a boat with taxpayer money, it's too big of a liability. I don't have the expertise to maintain it, but Argonaut does. And they own airplanes and have a flight school embedded in their program.  With their expertise and their relationships with industry, they facilitate all these opportunities for the kids.

So talking with United Airlines, they said “How can we support your school?”  And we proposed four ways:  that they support our flight training program, that they support us with internships for kids, that they support us in our engineering program, and then we asked them if they would put one of their executives on the Argonaut board to help us ensure that the direction of the school and our partnership with Argonaut was relevant to industry needs.

How to make public-private partnerships work for schools

Dionissi Aliprantis

So United Airlines with Davis A&M, it seems like this is just hand in glove.  I'm wondering about other companies and other groups or non-profits that are thinking about trying to support public schools.  How should they be approaching that? Do you have any lessons from your experience?

Tim Jones

A key part of our relationship with United Airlines that others might want to replicate is the agreement that money is not just a donation.  They get something in return. 

When they support our flight training program, they get something in return, pilots.  When they support our internship program, our seniors go down to the United Airlines hangar at Hopkins Airport each afternoon, and work in their storage department and learn how to manage an inventory and learn how to track spare parts and learn when the landing gear on the 737 is repaired. They're not doing critical work, because they are 737s, but the kids are right there seeing what it's like. And the best of our kids have relationships as a result and are potential employees right there for United Airlines.

So when a company asks us, "Hey, how can we help?" What we try to do is say, well, I'll take a check if you want to write one, don't get me wrong.

Dionissi Aliprantis

There's nothing wrong with that.

Tim Jones

Right. But I'd like to take it further and find a way where this relationship can be mutually beneficial.

And we want to make sure that our kids are competitive on day one when they get there.  I think having those authentic experiences with those organizations is really the way to help. Don't write the check.  Invite the kids into your company, provide a mentor, teach them, help the students or help a teacher design a project that's a simplified version of what your company does, something like that.

Dionissi Aliprantis

I'm wondering how much the actual employers themselves can help with giving students real world experience and how much that is about being intentional on the part of the schools and education systems?

Tim Jones

Running a school with traditional programs is complicated enough. And so we were lucky here at Davis because when the school opened five years ago, leveraging these partnerships was part of the model from the beginning.  I put my efforts into those partnerships.  We don't have a football team and we don't have an orchestra or band. So that's where my priorities lie. 

I think districts and schools have inertia.  They already have programs and they have limited resources. So sometimes taking on a new initiative or implementing some new program on top of everything else can be daunting.

One thing that's really working for me is that I have Argonaut.   Argonaut is a primary partner and provides some resources directly, but they also facilitate a whole slew of other sub partnerships, if you will. So when United reaches out, I have Argonaut manage that relationship. And when they're deciding what the internship program should be, Argonaut can facilitate that. I'm lucky I have that relationship with that group.

If there were some grants or structures in place to get other nonprofits built that could help schools in a similar way with a similar mission, I think that would be great.  Argonaut is an organization fully designed to support a public school by leveraging access to some private resources. It's not a charter school.  They don't run the entire school, I run the school. They provide the resources for the experiences that I need.

Dionissi Aliprantis

Are you aware of that kind of arrangement happening anywhere else?

Tim Jones

No. And that's what I'm saying is that this is a unique setup, but it's also not impossible to replicate. Charter organizations support schools. It's just they're a charter because the funding is allocated in a structure that makes it a charter. It's a similar set up in a sense is that it's an outside organization that has funding from somewhere that's supporting a school, but the work itself might not be that different so to speak. Another option could be a department within the district, maybe a district that's large enough has a partnerships department that has a few employees that help.  In that case the resources could be allocated to the district.  Or they could be allocated directly to the organization, the way that resources are allocated to Argonaut through their fundraising, and the way that the support organization gets its resources to help follows a model that's more like mine.

What I think is working at my school is that Argonaut knows and will help me design the school from the ground up.  They know what my priorities are.  They're not fitting it into the structure that works for the 10 schools that they support. They're creating the structure that's going to work for the model of my school, which needs support in aviation, maritime and engineering. I would say if there was an art school or a school with a different focus or a magnet school, if you will, that was going to leverage a community partner like that or create a community partnership like that, having that partner fully dedicated to that school, know that school inside and out, that would be the way to go.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the participants and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Tim Jones

Founding Principal
Davis Aerospace and Maritime High School

Tim Jones is the Founding Principal of Davis Aerospace and Maritime High School, a college prep school that is part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Davis students receive a STEM education with practicality built-in, with coursework designed around hands-on applications. Davis students engineer, build, and operate boats. They design, fix, and fly airplanes. All of this is made possible through partnership with Argonaut, a non-profit organization who helped open the school, and with companies like United Airlines and the Port of Cleveland who provide real-world connections and internships, and who see Davis graduates as their future employees. Mr. Jones also helped to open a STEM school in the Bronx and has a master’s degree from Columbia University.

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