Julie Critz, school superintendent, and Doug Houska, business leader
Innovative Minnesota approach
preparing high school students for careers
A Civic Caucus
Focus on Human Capital
Interview July 31, 2015
Tom Abeles, John Adams, Steve Anderson, Dave Broden (vice chair),
Pat Davies, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dana Schroeder
(associate director), Clarence Shallbetter. By phone: Julie Critz,
Doug Houska, Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper (associate director), Dan
Loritz (chair), Paul Ostrow.
Julie Critz, school
superintendent, and Doug Houska, business leader, describe a
pioneering approach in Alexandria, MN, to give all high school
students more knowledge about, and practical experience in, future
All Alexandria students in grades 10-12
enroll in one of three academies, (1) engineering, manufacturing,
technologies and natural resources (2) business, communications and
entrepreneurship, and (3) health sciences and human services.
Students in grade 9 enroll in freshman academy and may take classes
in each of the other three to help them select the academy they'd
like to join in the 10th grade.
Central to the Alexandria approach is
intimate cooperation between the school district and the community's
Julie Critz is
superintendent of the Alexandria, Minn., Public Schools, effective
July 1, 2015. Between July 2007 and July 2015, Critz served as
assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in Alexandria. In
that position, she provided oversight and development of district
curriculum, the student assessment program and staff development
opportunities. She has been with the Alexandria schools since 2001.
She was instrumental in leading the
district in two successful building bond referendums and has been a
catalyst in building business partnerships for the Academies of
Alexandria, the school district's new high school small learning
communities program. Additionally, she has been a key player in
facilitating and implementing the district's community-based
strategic planning initiative.
Critz has worked in K-12 education for 32
years: as a teacher, elementary and secondary principal, and
district administrator. She received her bachelor's degree in
elementary education from the University of Minnesota-Morris; her
master's degree in elementary education from the University of
Minnesota-Twin Cities; and a sixth-year certificate in educational
administration from St. Cloud State University.
Doug Houska is senior lender at Bremer
Bank in Alexandria and was formerly with Bremer in Fergus Falls. He
chairs the Alexandria Academy Champion Committee, which is organized
to support the Academies of Alexandria at Alexandria Area High
School. The committee works to ensure that each Academy reaches the
highest possible level. Houska is affiliated with the Business,
Communication & Entrepreneurship Academy.
He received his bachelor's degree from the
University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
The Civic Caucus has
released two recent statements on human capital: one in September 2014
laying out the human-capital challenges facing the state today and
in coming years and a follow-up paper in
offering recommendations for maintaining a high-quality workforce in
Minnesota. Al Sholts of Alexandria Industries and Laura Urban of
Alexandria Technical and Community College discussed the new
Alexandria Area High School's academy model during their June 19, 2015,
interview with the Civic Caucus.
The Caucus interviewed Julie Critz and Doug Houska to learn more
about the Academies of Alexandria: what they are, how they were
created and the difference the new model makes for students, faculty
and the community.
A new high school approach in Alexandria was envisioned when the
community supported the passage of a bond referendum to build a new
high school to replace the existing, aging Jefferson High School
Julie Critz, superintendent of the
Alexandria School District, said discussion around changing our
delivery model stemmed from changes in student engagement which make
teaching and learning more difficult, especially in a time when
students are more digital and need a different level of engagement
in the classroom. Additional discussion about ensuring college and
career readiness, and workforce development issues supported a new
approach as well.
"We talked about the fact that this gives
us the perfect opportunity to do things differently," she said. "If
we're going to build a new building, let's not just build a new
version of Jefferson High School. It certainly served its purpose
over the years, but we have a chance to do better."
Critz said the school district met with
students, teachers, families and community members. "We started
brainstorming about what the high school would look like if we could
design it in the perfect way," she said. That started people talking
small learning communities and moving away
from the traditional model of high schools, which usually are very
departmentalized by subject areas.
The industrial-tech classes were held in
the very back of the old high school and carried a certain
stereotype with students and parents, she said. The people in
manufacturing businesses knew the community needed to break down
Since it's difficult to plan for needs
five years out, the new building design needed to be flexible and
adaptable. Critz said the community wanted a more collaborative
design process and a design that would create places for teachers to
work more collaboratively in teams, rather than staying in their own
classrooms. "We feel the traditional separate classrooms have
allowed siloed education," she said. Under that model, the teacher
delivers content and the students then move on to another teacher
for the next period.
The personalization of teaching and the
concept of teaching the whole child have not historically been big
parts of high school. That's been more an elementary concept,
Critz said. "But in high school, too, we need every child to be
successful and engaged and enjoying what they're doing," she said.
Kids tend to be disconnected and question why they have to learn
something they feel they'll never use in their lives. "They need to
know why they're learning things like higher level math skills and
identify what the connections are to real life," she said.
Critz said the community started with the
new high school model by recognizing that high school education
needed to have more real-life applications and that career and
technical education still needed to be a big part of things, but
that we could go beyond that.
When the school district and the community
designed the academy model, the foundational piece was small
learning communities. Critz noted there are
1. Freshman Academy, which
includes all ninth graders, roughly 300 students. It's very
exploratory and the students have a chance to take classes in each
of the other three academies. By the end of their freshman year, the
students are ready to choose which of the three upper-grade
academies they'd like to join as they start their sophomore year.
Communication & Entrepreneurship Academy.
Sciences & Human Services Academy
Critz noted that each of the three
upper-grade academies includes about 300 students, with
approximately 100 students each from 10th, 11th and 12th grades.
She said a collective group of teachers
are the core teachers in each academy: math, science, social studies
and English. That group of teachers keeps the students in each
academy from 10th grade through 12th grade. Those teachers are
collectively responsible for the success
of their students, with greater accountability for the 100 seniors
in each academy to graduate well prepared for college and career,
Planning for the new high school started
with the concept of small learning communities, which morphed into
small learning communities with a career focus. Critz said the
concept evolved through community discussion, workforce development
information from the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission
and a visit to the Academies of Nashville, a career-academy model in
the Metro Nashville Public School District.
Doug Houska, senior lender at Bremer Bank
of Alexandria, was one of six Alexandria community leaders who
visited the Nashville Academies. "It was really eye-opening," Houska
said. "The engagement of the students was just incredible." Students
gave the visitors a tour of three schools, he said, in which they
saw kids in a business class putting together a product to sell in
the school, a health care classroom that looked like a miniature
hospital and a student-run restaurant in the lunchroom.
"From a business perspective," Houska
said, "we walked away saying, 'This is exactly what our kids need.'"
"We saw business engagement in Nashville
that we'd never seen before," Critz said. "Their business people
were all in. The Nashville Schools had a different catalyst for
starting the new academy model than we did. Their schools were
failing and business people recognized that if the district's
education didn't improve, their businesses would fail." The
businesses were very involved in the planning for the Nashville
Alexandria's economic vitality depends on
its businesses, which thrive when there is a quality workforce.
Critz said the situation in Alexandria was different from Nashville.
The Alexandria schools weren't failing, she said, but business and
education leaders recognized the importance of working together to
ensure a quality workforce.
"It has to be a partnership," she said.
"We have to work together. Our business folks are key leaders. They
came forward with money we didn't ask for to send the Chamber of
Commerce director and other key decision-makers in the community to
Nashville. What we have in terms of the support from the community
here is absolutely incredible, like nothing I've ever seen before."
Houska agreed. "When we came back from
Nashville, everybody was all in," he said.
As an example, he said, when the academy
advisory group thought the school district needed $12,000 or $13,000
to pay for summer externships for teachers, the business leaders
instead decided to raise $30,000, which happened in two to three
days. "The community and the business partners are definitely
involved in Alexandria," he said.
Several other Minnesota school districts
have at least one academy in their schools. Critz said Mahtomedi
has an academy model in manufacturing. St. Peter and some other
school districts are dabbling in the academy model, she said, but
Alexandria is the first to have wall-to-wall academies, where all
students are in an academy. Since it opened, the high school has
given 50 to 60 tours to other school boards, school staff and
In response to a question, Critz said the
Alexandria district did not have to get permission from the
Minnesota Department of Education to move ahead with the academy
model because they are continuing to meet all requirements for
curriculum, academic standards and assessment.
Students in Alexandria can change their
minds during their sophomore year and switch to a different academy
at the end of the year. "When students are making their decision
about which academy to choose, they almost always know what they
don't want," Critz said. She said very few students chose to
change academies at the end of this first year. She pointed out that
students can take electives from academies other than the one in
which they are enrolled.
Also, she said, courses to meet state
graduation standards are placed in all the academies, so students
can switch to another academy without falling behind on meeting
those standards. The standards might be applied differently in
courses in the engineering academy than in the health sciences
academy, but all the courses meet state graduation standards.
She noted that in eighth grade students
take the EXPLORE test, an interest inventory.
The test is intended to
help students plan their high school courses, prepare for the ACT
test or choose a career direction.
Research has shown that results of that
test have a very high correlation to what kids do when they leave
high school, she said.
Critz said there are no academies in the
district's middle school, but a focus area for the coming school
years is to offer more career classes in middle school to help kids
start thinking about the academy model.
The academies are preparing students for
both two-year and four-year postsecondary programs. Critz said
there are two-year and four-year career pathways in each of the
academies. She noted that Alexandria graduates would have the skills
to work in an industry while they work on their postsecondary
In addition to the Alexandria Academy
Champion Committee, there are business partnerships and
opportunities for teacher business externships in each of the
academies. Houska said there is a business partnership leader
for each academy and business people work with the high school's
teachers. In addition, he said, there are summer externships for
teachers where they go into businesses and learn how they can
include in the curriculum real-life situations from what businesses
in the community are actually doing. There are externships in
manufacturing and at the hospital and the nursing homes.
According to Critz, 12 staff members
participated in externships in summer 2014 and five participated
this summer. The school's business partners have raised the funds to
pay teachers an hourly stipend for their time during the
"The businesses and the teachers get along
really well," Houska said.
Critz added that through a program known
as the Freshman Advisory Network (FAN), each ninth-grade student has
a mentorship with someone in the business community, with about four
students working with one mentor. "The goal is for all students to
have someone in the community they know cares about them, whom they
can call on for advice or for a recommendation," she said.
There are not enough workers to fill
business needs in the Alexandria area.
Critz noted that in Douglas County, where
Alexandria is located, the current unemployment rate is
approximately three percent, resulting in a workforce shortage. She
said some businesses in the area are running only two shifts,
instead of three, and others are turning away contracts, because
there are not enough workers to fill their vacant positions. So the
business community wants Alexandria graduates to stay in the area.
She said it's the school district's
obligation to prepare students for jobs wherever they might go:
Alexandria, the larger United States or global positions in another
country. But she said the district is measuring success in some ways
by looking over time at the number of Alexandria grads who take
positions in Alexandria businesses. "Our business leaders are paying
attention to those numbers," she said. They'll be comparing the
numbers from the past with the numbers for students graduating from
the academy model.
"For many kids, it's good for them to go
away for awhile," Critz said. "But we want them to come back and
raise their families in the Alexandria area." She said the district
tries to keep track of its graduates. "We believe the academies will
have a positive impact on the workforce in the Alexandria area," she
We know that not all high school graduates
that go onto postsecondary education complete their program.
Critz said another measure of the success of the academy model is
whether a greater number of graduates complete their postsecondary
education. "We want them to be successful, whether they choose a
career or postsecondary education right out of high school," she
Houska asserted that postsecondary
students will find the path to what they want to do more quickly if
they've gone through the academies. Critz commented that if students
don't discover what they want to do by going through the academies,
they might discover what they don't want to do, so they don't
do that in college.
Changing an educational institution can be
a slow-going process, but Alexandria's move to the academy model
went more quickly than anyone anticipated. An interviewer
commented that he was "in awe" of how quickly Alexandria was able to
move to the academy model. Critz said moving to a new educational
model can be slow because it involves training issues for the staff,
writing new curriculum, and changing the mindset of parents and the
business community about what high school should look like.
"But getting buy-in from the beginning was
very important for us," Critz said. "Where we landed with our
academy model was far better than what I expected. To move to where
we are right now in such a short time was not anything I could have
predicted. It was like turning the aircraft carrier a whole lot
faster than we would have predicted."
She said the school board was willing to
take a risk on the academy model, once the planning group assured
members that the curriculum would stay rigorous and relevant and the
core content and state standards would stay in place. "We guaranteed
that nothing would be lost," she said.
"I think it was the perfect storm," Critz
said. The community had the opportunity to build a new high school
and also provided private donations for the public high school.
Business leaders approached other business people and community
members to ask for donations. All totaled, the amount raised through
a capital campaign, donations, miscellaneous grants and other
revenue equaled $5.15 million, which helped to reduce the cost of
the $73 million project.
Changing to the academy model pushed the
school's teachers harder than they'd been pushed in 30 years.
"The school is a highly technology-rich environment," Critz said,
"which is another component of change for the staff. Every student
has a digital device and it's a challenge for teachers to use that
"Some of our best veteran teachers said at
the end of the year that they felt like first-year teachers," she
continued. "They were running like crazy to keep up with the amount
of change. But I don't think there's any one of them who would say
they aren't thrilled with the change. You have to dig in and get the
work done and they've done it and been very positive about it. The
community's been positive. All of those things came together and
allowed us to make a really, really transformative change that would
normally have taken much longer to make."
The academy approach requires more
teachers, which created a financial challenge that the District
needed to work through
Critz said the new high school has a
four-period day, rather than the traditional six-period day at the
old school. The school made the move to four periods to allow
students to have enough time to apply their learning to real-world
situations and to allow them to participate in project-based
learning. But, she said, having a four-period day requires more
teachers than a six-period day.
The new high school design allows for the
new kind of learning in the academy model. Critz said there are
learning labs in every area: a business lab, a digital art studio, a
TV studio, the school store, a manufacturing lab with virtual
welders and highly technical, state-of-the-art equipment, and a
culinary arts lab that looks like a food prep area in a restaurant.
"While kids are in the school environment, they have a chance to see
what real life will be like if they work in various industries," she
said. Those were some of the things that made the community buy into
the model and helped teachers move forward, as well.
The Area Learning Center (ALC) is
available for kids who've lost credits. Critz said some students
attending the ALC came back to the high school when they saw that a
different learning environment was available.
Alexandria students can take college
courses through the state's Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO)
program. Critz said the number of students leaving the high
school to take college classes on a postsecondary campus has
remained fairly stable.
Alexandria Technical and Community College
is a close partner of the high school, she said. Representatives of
the college serve on the school's advisory board and a college
faculty member will come to the high school starting this fall to
team-teach the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) class with a high
school teacher. Students in the class get college credit. The school
district received a grant to pay the salary of the college teacher
and the district pays the salary of the district teacher.
The school district has a number of
concurrent enrollment classes, Critz said, as well as advanced
placement classes, so there are many opportunities for students to
earn college credit. She said the goal is for all students to have a
certificate or college credit before they leave high school. CNA
will be the first certificate and the school will be adding others
in each of the academies.
There are more opportunities and greater
participation in extra-curricular activities under the academy
model. In the new school, Houska said the robotics team has much
better facilities and traditional clubs, like math and debate, are
continuing. The number of students involved in DECA, a
business-oriented club, has tripled over the past year, supported by
the business academy. He said the new school has a nicer gym than
many colleges. "We wanted all students to feel a sense of
belonging," Critz added. "If there are five kids interested in
anything, they can form a club and we'll find a teacher to work with
Because the students in Alexandria are 96
percent white, the district does not have a racial achievement gap.
But there is a gap, Critz said, around special education and
around low-income students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Alexandria has had an increase in open
enrollment since the new high school opened. Critz said there
have been five new open enrollees from other districts. And seven
students who had been open enrolled in other districts re-enrolled
in Alexandria. Some home-school students and some students who've
been attending alternative schools are enrolling in the new high
school. She said some people who work in other communities are
choosing to move their families to Alexandria because of the
schools. And employers have said that some new hires have accepted
job offers in the community rather than somewhere else so they can
move to Alexandria and enroll their children in the schools there.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,