Career exploration plays major role at Detroit’s Martin Luther King High School

Two people wearing science lab gear stand in a classroom at a table with a whiteboard in the background.
Teacher Shedrick Ward, right, shows his science class how to dissect a cow’s eyeball during a lesson on March 14, 2024. Ward’s classes are part of the Mathematics, Science and Technology program at Martin Luther King Senior High School. (Quinn Banks for BridgeDetroit)

In Shedrick Ward’s science class Thursday morning, all eyes were on the eyeballs.

Four students hunched over the long table in front of them, each of them holding a cow’s eyeball in their gloved hands as they snipped off the fatty tissue surrounding it with a pair of scissors.

“We have talked about vision and sight, knowing that there’s two differences between them,” Ward said to the class. “You use your eyes for sight, you use your brain for vision. We want them to understand that they have to have a vision of themselves for tomorrow, just as they need sight in order to do the dissection today.”

Dissections are one of many things students are learning about anatomy in the science academy at Martin Luther King Senior High School in Detroit. The academy is a partnership between the school and NAF, an education nonprofit aimed at addressing students’ economic and social disparities by creating career pathways in high schools across the country.

The organization has 619 academies across 34 states and two territories. In Detroit Public Schools Community District, NAF operates 30 academies in 20 high schools such as Southeastern, Osborn and Cody. The academies focus on pathways in growing industries – engineering, health sciences, finance, hospitality and tourism, and information technology. At King, the school offers three specialized programs: Mathematics, Science and Technology, the Center for International Studies and Commerce, and College Preparatory Liberal Arts.

Sue Carnell, deputy superintendent for the Michigan Department of Education, and NAF CEO Lisa Dughi toured the learning academies at King and Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men last Thursday.

Dughi said she visited the two schools to get an inside look into some of the academies so that NAF can continue to replicate the initiative at other schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

“One of the things that we see so clearly in this is that this is truly changing how differently students are thinking about their futures and they get these real-world experiences while they’re in high school,” she said. “And so, getting to see that in action really does change for us how we think about it and how we make sure that we’re continuing to provide those opportunities for students.”

Ward, who has been teaching for 50 years, said he continues to remain in the classroom because it’s important to have people like himself who love their craft involved with youth.

“I thought, if I walk away, there is no replacement,” he said. “There is no one, doing at this level, integrating all the sciences…the real world does not have a separate partition for each of these content areas. It’s just science. It’s just problem-solving.”

One of the students handling the eyeballs was K’Lynn Clemons. This is the first year the 11th grader has been a part of the health sciences academy. Clemons, 16, said Ward is different from other science teachers she’s had.

“Any other science class I had we never did anything that Dr. Ward does, so it’s a nice experience,” she said.

Finding their path

King Principal Damian Perry said kids can begin exploring careers in the ninth grade, where they can try out each of the school’s pathways driving the first semester. By the second semester, students should select which pathway they want to study. Then for the next three years, students’ electives will focus on those pathways.

Perry said this year will mark the first graduating for kids in the learning academies.

As a 1994 King alumnus, Perry said he’s glad kids have more exposure to careers than he did when he was a student.

“Allowing kids to see firsthand experiences instead of just reading a book … are just priceless. That is the value of CTE (career and technical education). It also excites the students because this is what they want to do. So what better way to demonstrate that by ‘This what I like to do, this what I’m passionate about.’”

Meanwhile, Carnell said the school visits allowed her to see the passion students have to explore careers that may become a part of their futures.

“I really liked the mentorship that I saw of people wrapping their arms around those students, giving them wraparound support, to help them see their potential to move forward,” she said. “That was amazing.”

Beyond the game

The tour also included looking at King’s M3 pathway, which focuses on sports management, medicine, and marketing. Dan Wolford, the lead teacher for the pathway, said the program offers students a chance to explore careers in the sports industry beyond being an athlete. The school has been able to form partnerships with Detroit City FC, the Detroit Tigers, and University of Michigan’s School of Kinesiology and School of Information.

In addition, the sports pathway offers a mentorship program with the Detroit Pistons called Beyond the Baseline. Over five months, students are mentored by Pistons staff where they learn about careers in sports management and professional development, Wolford said. Interns were also responsible for creating an event with a $25,000 budget that utilized one of the Pistons’ four pillars: mentoring, equality, education, and health and wellness. During a presentation, five students revealed they will be hosting an educational event in June at Belle Isle.

Hillery Marks, 16, said it didn’t take too long for her and her classmates to create the event, which will feature games, food sponsored by Little Caesars, and a raffle for two scholarships. The hardest part was figuring out a way for them to make education fun for kids, she said.

The high school junior said she has been a part of the academy for two years and has enjoyed learning different aspects of the sports industry, like management and sports media. Marks plans to attend an HBCU after high school and study business.

“I definitely think I’m going to go the business route because I feel like that fits me better,” she said. “I feel like I want to go into a sports job eventually. I just don’t know which one yet.”

Micah Walker is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. You can reach her at mwalker@bridgedetroit.com.

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