By springtime, a lot of high school seniors are cruising to the end of school. Maceo Rucker-Shivers can't afford to join them.
His class work at Olympic High School's math/science school in Charlotte, N.C., and his after-school job at nearby Bosch Rexroth Corp. are preparing him for work as a machinist technician. His supervisors at the German company are watching to see whether his skills and work ethic justify paying his tuition at community college after graduation.
"You have to bring your A-game every day," Rucker-Shivers said.
His career-focused studies led him to discover a passion for building precision manufacturing equipment. "Machines excite me. They really do," he said, beaming.
Rucker-Shivers may represent the future of public education.
It's a future with closer links among K-12 schools, community colleges and private employers, influenced by the European apprenticeship model. It's one where the "college for all" mantra yields to a recognition that for many students, training for skilled jobs is more meaningful than a four-year degree. And it's one where promising students can start earning right away — sometimes while they're in high school — rather than taking on college debt.
"Pathways to Prosperity," a 2011 report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, spelled out the challenge: America's current approach to academics is not only failing the students who drop out of high school. Almost half the students who enroll in a four-year college leave without a diploma, the report notes. For minority and low-income students, even fewer finish college.
The recommended solution: Multiple pathways to adulthood, with employers playing a greater role in shaping those paths. In European vocational systems, the report says, employers and educators not only develop the next generation of workers; they also help young people transition to adulthood.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison is among those pushing this model. The 2013-14 CMS budget calls for creating career-tech hubs at traditional high schools and launching new magnets focused on internships and career skills. Olympic, a model for the school district, got a head start when it split into five career-themed academies in 2006. Business partnerships, career exploration and real-life projects were central to the new approach.
"All that testing stuff and all that rote memorization stuff is not going to help you in the real world," said career development coordinator Michael Realon. Before coming to Olympic to teach business, economics and math, he worked for trade associations, including the Charlotte Apparel Mart. He now acts as Olympic's liaison to the business community.
Realon (pronounced Ray-lon) says Olympic helps students explore career prospects, starting with an online assessment of their skills and interests, which gives them a list of their 20 best career "matches."
"We tell them it's like eHarmony. It's going to connect you to your soul-mate career that will make you happy," Realon said.
Rucker-Shivers knew he liked hands-on work, and he took part in one of Olympic's most high-profile projects: building Habitat for Humanity houses. He took classes in drafting, carpentry, wood shop and principles of engineering.
Three of Olympic's five small schools have career academies, with advisers from private industry helping educators create classes to prepare students for jobs. At the math/science school, which Rucker-Shivers attends, the themes are energy and engineering, with guidance coming from companies such as Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Siemens Energy.
Last summer, Rucker-Shivers landed a paid internship with Siemens, a German company. He worked three days a week, shadowing machinists and engineers, and spent two days studying mechatronics at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. It opened his eyes to a world of high-tech work.
"Siemens is three minutes from my house and I didn't know it existed," Rucker-Shivers said. "All these opportunities are here."
Siemens has a tradition of apprenticeship, paying young people for a combination of classroom work and on-the-job training. Those opportunities are generally offered to high school graduates, but a few high school students now get a chance.
Realon says students who get apprenticeships earn $9 to $10 an hour, including the time they spend finishing high school and attending CPCC.
Out of 10 summer interns, Rucker-Shivers says, five were offered apprenticeships. He wasn't among them. Another lesson learned: "You're not a kid anymore. You're not just there to do what you're told." You have to take initiative, he said, and solve problems to make the grade.