A theme-based academy is either a stand-alone school or a distinct academic program housed within a larger school that emphasizes and builds its academic program around specific academic disciplines, professional fields, or career paths. A few common examples include schools and education programs that focus on science and engineering, information and technology, architecture and design, business and finance, health and social services, education and child development, hospitality and tourism, or the fine and performing arts.
Theme-based academies are largely secondary institutions or programs (grades 9–12), although some may include lower grades or serve younger students. Theme-based academies may be called career academies or career-based academies—the most popular form of themed academy—but they are usually distinct from career and technical education schools.
In some cases, theme-based academies operate similarly to “early college high schools,” which allow students to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree after five or six years of study. When a theme-based academy is housed in an existing school, the students enrolled in these “schools within a school” typically take a separate core course of study and pursue distinct learning opportunities, but they may take some courses—such as health, physical education, or art—with the regular student population. The academy students will also participate in the larger school’s extracurricular, co-curricular, and athletic programs. Some theme-based academies offer four-year courses of study, while others offer only two years of themed-based study.
In both stand-alone schools and in themed-based programs that operate as extension of an existing high school, students typically follow a specialized academic program that integrates a specific academic or career theme into classes and coursework. For example, students may study science, technology, and engineering topics in their English, math, and social-studies courses. The course of study in such schools is typically designed to be both career and college preparatory—i.e., students receive an education that is comparable to, or that exceeds, the level of academic challenge found in more traditional college-preparatory high school programs.
Students may also pursue additional academic- or career-themed projects and learning experiences, both inside and outside the classroom, such as internships, apprenticeships, job-shadowing experiences, volunteer opportunities, or field trips to local businesses, museums, performances, or social programs (for a related discussion, see learning pathway). Students may earn academic credit for these outside-of-school experiences, which may be required to complete the program or graduate from the school. Students may also be taught or supervised by both teachers and outside mentors—such as local business leaders, scientists, artists, or other professionals—and in some cases companies, organizations, or foundations may sponsor or partner with a theme-based academy, or a network of academies, to help the schools with funding, mentors, or career-related learning opportunities and work experiences.
Several national or regional organizations—such as the National Career Academy Coalition, National Academy Foundation, and College and Career Academy Support Network—are involved in supporting, operating, or promoting career-themed academies.
When theme-based academies operate within an existing school, they are often considered a form of “small learning community” or learning pathway, as well as a strategy for introducing personalized learning into the educational experience of students. Advocates of smaller, theme-based academies argue that integrating personal interests, career exploration, preprofessional preparation, and on-the-job learning opportunities, as well as other aspirations-building experiences, can increase student enthusiasm for learning, particularly for students who may be struggling or disengaged in more traditionally structured high schools. Theme-based academies are also promoted as a way to increase graduation rates, college enrollments, or postgraduation work placements and employment rates.
Some educators argue that theme-based academies and career academies, if they are not properly structured and administered, can inadvertently become a de facto form of “tracking”—i.e., the grouping of students based on perceived ability, past academic performance, or other factors. Critics of tracking contend that such grouping practices can create inequities in educational quality, increase achievement gaps, or perpetuate class and socioeconomic divisions, among other negative outcomes. Proponents would counterargue, however, that theme-based academies are often specifically designed to counteract such negative outcomes.
Theme-based academies have also been criticized for not delivering promised or anticipated results, such as failing to increase graduation rates, college enrollments, or postgraduation employment rates. It is important to note, however, that even though theme-based academies may share the “academy” label, most schools and programs are unique institutions that reflect a wide variety of designs and different levels of educational quality. Consequently, learning experiences are often not comparable from one theme-based academy to the next, and varying educational results, as with any general school or program design, are to be expected.
In addition, theme-based academies, specifically those housed within existing schools, may be criticized because they are more “themed” in name than anything else. In other words, high schools may create an “arts academy” or “STEM academy” that is only minimally or superficially built around a specific academic or career theme. In these cases, the course of study and teaching practices used in the “theme-based academy” may vary relatively little from the content and teaching offered in the regular school program. Critics of such academies would likely argue that the “theme-based” label is misleading, since the learning experiences provided to students are not substantively different in content, instruction, or quality from the school’s regular course of study. On the opposite end of the spectrum are schools such as the Boston Arts Academy, for example, a public school in Massachusetts that integrates intensive arts-related content and instruction into every course and program.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.