Angellinda Gonzalez is only a high-school junior. But she's already built with her own hands a solar suitcase that can be used to light birthing areas in Third-World hospitals that lack electricity, increasing survival rates for new mothers.
"I'm going through my day, just living my teenage life, and I'm actually saving lives," said Gonzalez, a student at 's Green Energy Technology Academy.
She also may be improving her job prospects. GETA is one of about 500 career academies at high schools statewide aimed at preparing students for the workforce. During a visit to Laguna Creek Monday, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson announced the launch of a new $3.2 million program to start and expand career academies focused on clean technology and renewable energy.
"Life is not a bubble test," said Torlakson. "The new education is about problem-solving and critical thinking, and it's happening here."
The announcement comes as a broader state program that funds career academies is scheduled to sunset this June. Of the 21 schools to get grants, three—including Laguna Creek—are in the . They will receive about $136,000 each. will fund an academy focused on sustainable agriculture and will teach students about green design.
GETA co-coordinator Eric Johnson says the grant will allow his program to grow its partnerships with non-profits and government agencies in third-world countries. Since the academy's founding in 2008, students have made dozens of the solar cases—which can also be used to power laptops and walkie-talkies—shipping them off to Nigeria, Haiti and Thailand, among other countries. In a collaboration with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, students are building solar-electric bicycles that can quickly deliver immunizations to rural clinics in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Students in the academy take the same core subjects as other high-schoolers—English, Physics—but classes emphasize environmental subjects. Admission is based on student interest, Johnson said, and companies including SMUD and PG&E provide support and internship opportunities.
Statewide, the graduation rate for seniors at career academies was 95 percent in the 2009-2010 school year, compared with 85 percent at public high schools overall, according to the California Department of Education.
At Monday's press conference, students showed off their projects to Torlakson and other visiting dignitaries, including state Senator Darrell Steinberg, who sponsored the legislation that led to the grants.
"This is the single most important education reform we can engage in, to expand career academies," said Steinberg. "We can't just teach courses in the same way and assume young people are going to remain interested and gain the skills they need to succeed."
Junior Molly Kelly told visitors how she and her classmates had sanded down the hull of a solar-powered boat, made of simple plywood and redwood planks, to decrease resistance as it glides through the water.
Kelly, who said as a child she loved building things with her father, transferred from Elk Grove High School to Laguna Creek recently just to attend GETA.
"I want to major in environmental engineering in college, so I figured I'd get a head start," she said.