School profile: Strathmore's Harmony Magnet Academy focuses on engineering, the arts

The Fresno BeeMarch 26, 2014 

Harmony Magnet Academy, a school of 500 in the shadow of the Sequoia National Forest, is easy to spot among the dusty roads and orange groves.

Situated at the edge of sleepy Strathmore in Tulare County, the high-tech school that specializes in engineering and performing arts is a portrait of modernity: carports roofed with solar panels flank the school building that's painted a bright white with a turquoise trim; inside, engineering classrooms house laser cutters and other state-of-the-art tools.

The magnet school serves students from several small rural communities — where generations of farm laborers call home — and the Porterville area, where agriculture giants like Foster Farms have set up processing plants.

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The school's focus on engineering and the arts helps widen students' horizons, said Cindy Brown, student pathways director for Porterville Unified School District.

"We want to grow and give students … opportunities to dream bigger and have more potential to think about opportunities in college and careers than maybe what their father or grandfather or uncle did," she said.

Unlike most comprehensive high schools, where students pick and choose among a set of core classes and electives, every Harmony student is enrolled in one of the two career technical education pathways.

It's called "wall-to-wall" — education-speak for saying each student is on a track that includes both career and academic classes. Students in engineering classes take math and science courses with other engineering students, while those in drama and dance take their academic classes together.

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The concept was developed through the Linked Learning movement, a career academy model that's being adopted by districts across the Valley. School administrators say it's also in line with the state's new and more rigorous Common Core math and English standards, which are intended to better prepare students for careers and higher education.

"It's about equity and access to education for everybody," said Principal Jeff Brown, who is married to Cindy Brown. "The point is, we can do both. You don't have to exclude one over the other."

Harmony was established in 2008 after Porterville Unified won a $14 million small schools grant that helped cover the cost of the building and grounds. Since then, Porterville has expanded its career pathways program to its other high schools — Porterville High now offers business and health sciences tracks, while other schools have programs in areas like agricultural technology and environmental science.

Not every student is enrolled in a career path, but Cindy Brown said 66% of Porterville high school students now choose to enroll in one, up from 29% just four years ago.

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That's a good thing, she said, because career track students tend to do better academically than their peers. Harmony, for example, has a 97% graduation rate. About 95% of those students go on to a two- or four-year college, Jeff Brown said. Porterville's average graduation rate is 85%.

When asked why they picked Harmony, the school's teens say they're learning more than they would in a comprehensive high school.

In an introduction to engineering design class, where students use laser engravers to design bookmarks and other tools to create candy dispensers, 17-year-old Foster McBride manipulated a computer-controlled robot he programmed to pick up a toy car.

The high school junior said he considered another school closer to his Porterville home, but "immediately" changed his mind when he learned about Harmony's programs.

"If I want to go somewhere in my life, this is the place that's going to take me there," he said.

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LIST OF PROGRAMS: High school ROPs, community college CTEs

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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