What West Fargo Students Should Expect in the Next Few Years: The Academy Model

What West Fargo Students Should Expect in the Next Few Years: The Academy Model

Siena Newland, Staff Writer

For the past few years, our school district has been developing a plan to implement academies within the West Fargo High Schools. This is an academic model designed to create smaller learning communities with students who have similar interests. It also allows students to explore career paths in their teen years without having to spend money and time after high school while still figuring things out. In 2018, our district and the four other districts in North Dakota met with the ND Department of Public Instruction and KnowledgeWorks to create an action plan for academies, which is a model that will lead to personalized learning that prepares students for life in the best way possible. Even if a student is not planning to attend college, the academies adhere to the choice-ready framework of North Dakota, meaning that academies help develop skills for anyone’s next step after high school. Assistant principal Dr. Samson comments, “The basis of it is to try to get students into positions where they really want to look at what they’re going to be doing after high school.”  

The academies task force at West Fargo High School is made up of Principals Bachmeier and Samson, Mrs. Sue Jordahl, Mr. Adam Palczewski, and Mr. Brad Mackowick. Last year they collaborated with a consultant, Dr. Jay Steele of Steele Dynamics, to formulate a plan of action. His main concern with the academy model at WFHS was the physical structure of our building. As of now, the action plan for WFHS is that over the next three years our educators will focus on research, site visits of schools that already have academies in place, and professional development to prepare for the model’s implementation. Horace high school is pioneering the academies in our district and our school will observe and learn from them. In the 2024-25 school year, the goal is to start freshmen and sophomores into the academy model at WFHS. In 2025-26 juniors will be added, then finally in the 2026-27 school year, the seniors are joining the academy model. Although, the number of grades that will start the first year is uncertain at this point. Bachmeier comments, “We have a lot of teachers that work with freshmen and sophomores and juniors, so it would be tricky for those teachers to have some of their students be a part of it but not others.”  

Overall, the reason for the transition to academies is to help students prepare for what they want to do after high school. For upperclassmen, opportunities arise for internships and job or workplace experiences. With block scheduling being added next year, students have more time that they can use to go to their internships when academies are put into place. Dr. Samson remarks, “For instance, I’ve had experiences with students in the past that have done job shadowing. They were dead set on being a nurse, realized they can’t give a shot, and they shut that down.” This is why experiencing a career before a student goes into it can be greatly beneficial for them. Because the internships will be connected to classes, the idea is that students will be able to earn credit for them. “I hope the focus of the academy model is getting kids into more job shadows and more internships so that they can actually see if it’s something they want to keep on pursuing.” Mackowick comments.  

The academies WFHS is planning on having are Health and Human Services; Design, Engineering, and Technical Sciences; and Business, Marketing, and Communications. While these are the ones planned for now, other academies might be up for discussion. “We kind of want to start on the smaller side, make sure that we’re doing things well and then there could possibly be other academies added,” Dr. Samson says According to the WFPS Academies of West Fargo page, those three academies were chosen over others because they reflect the high-demand jobs in our metro area. Bachmeier explains, “I think the hope is to have multiple different pathways students could choose from.” There are many career paths encompassed in each academy to provide students with some variety to explore. Academies are not necessarily permanent though. Students can switch their academy if they end up changing their minds. The idea is that students who are interested in a certain academy will have a variety of things to try within that academy while the skills they learn will help them get jobs in the area. However, you are not limited to the classes in your academy. If a student really wants to take a certain class that is not in their academy, they can learn outside of their academy for that class. Some classes don’t belong to any specific academy either. These exist as global electives, meaning no matter what academy you belong to, you can take those classes. Fine arts, world languages, and physical education are included in the global electives.   

From the teacher’s perspective, the academy model provokes some predicted benefits. Mackowick says, “I think the biggest advantage is small communities inside of a large school. Students will have more of that community feel.” This helps students feel more involved and gives them a sense of belonging. Interdisciplinary opportunities are another big advantage. Teachers of the fine arts electives will be able to interact with other academies and engage in interdisciplinary actions in their own ways. Jordahl says, “If the CTE guys are building something that makes a lot of noise, then I might take out the piece Ruckus. If I know that the German teachers are working on a certain time period, I might pick a Bach piece.” Teachers of core classes will be able to interact with each other to create projects and connect ideas between classes. Palczewski says, “Mathematics can fit into pretty much any interdisciplinary activity you want.” For example, math skills fit into, “physics, CTE classes, and even logic and reasoning skills for English.” Mackowick says he is excited to see what kinds of interdisciplinary opportunities will come with the addition of academies. “I can’t wait to maybe work with a math teacher and just see what kind of math they’re learning in math class and apply it to what I’m doing in engineering, or robotics, or even in woodworking,” he says. Applying skills from class to class shows students how they can be applied in other activities and real life. Students who take advantage of the model and use its benefits of it to aid their learning will get a lot more out of high school than they could have before. “Advantages in education are mostly based on how a student chooses to use them.” Palczewski comments.   

There are also some issues with the academy model for our school. Bachmeier inquires, “How do you make a new program work in a school that was designed in the 80s?” Renovations are being planned to make it easier to have academies at WFHS. “We really have to plan the physical spaces of the building to work with the academies. Just on the personal side, that’s one of the more difficult things with our building because we’re not necessarily designed in an academy system,” Dr. Samson explains. “We do have four academic wings, and obviously on the academic side we have the PE wing with that as well, so our building is big enough to work with this, we would just have to maybe do some switching around on how things look.” The renovations and the creation of team centers will hopefully encourage collaborative learning. Some alterations must be made to the physical space of the school for the model to be the most efficient and comfortable it can be for staff and students. Jordahl brought up her concern with kids choosing what their career track so early in their lives. “I really don’t know how early you can expect kids to make those choices and how early those choices need to be the choice. I truly believe that kids change their minds, I mean we change our minds in college, so to expect kids to choose in high school is, I think, a little bit unrealistic.”  

There are still some uncertainties when it comes to the specifics of classes and relationships between academies, but it is still a few years away. As we get closer to the years of implementation, we will get a better idea of how everything will work, things will get sorted out, and a clearer and more official plan will be established.