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A new age For CTCs: changing perceptions of career and technical centers

By Karen W. Smith

“This is not your father’s tech school anymore,” says Walt Slauch, administrative director of Central Montco Technical High School in Montgomery County. “There has definitely been more interest in career and technical education (CTE) education in the past few years. People are really starting to pay attention.”

Vocational education, created 100 years ago by the Perkins Act, is defined in the act as “organized educational programs offering a sequence of courses which are directly related to the preparation of individuals in paid or unpaid employment in current or emerging occupations requiring other than a baccalaureate or advanced degree.”

Perhaps it is the buzz around words like career ready, STEM, grit, non-cognitive skills, creativity, 21st-century skills, technology integration and career pathways which has directed more attention to our career and technical centers, (CTCs) often called vo-tech or tech schools. Or maybe it is the popularity of television shows like Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs, which highlight the value and importance of skilled labor in our society. Or dare we say parents and students are simply understanding and appreciating the opportunities presented by a hands-on, occupation-focused educational alternative? Whatever the reason, CTC leaders agree we are entering a new age for CTCs.

“I have seen a tremendous change concerning the image of CTCs,” agreed Glenn Meck, administrative director of Lebanon County CTC. “How people view technical education is much different than 25 years ago. Some studies show 60% or more of the jobs in the future will require some type of technical background or postsecondary training. With the world’s ever-changing technology, students must be able to read at a higher level, do higher levels of math and have greater reasoning skills to be successful in vo-tech schools. As a result, there is now a greater value on vo-tech education.”

“Accountability changes from PDE resulted in the development of Programs of Study core standards for each technical program,” added Kathleen Strouse, administrative director at the Middle Bucks Institute of Technology (MBIT) in Bucks County. “This now ensures relevancy and rigor which aligns with labor market demands. All CTC programs are required to provide students with the opportunity to earn recognized industry certifications that lead to employability.”

At Chartiers Valley High school in Allegheny County, the recently developed Applied Engineering and Technology (AET) courses, which contain such standards, appeal to all students.

“There is no non-academic vs. academic student in our AET courses,” said Valerie Keys, Chartiers Valley High School principal. “The hands-on nature of the courses encourages all types of learners to enroll and succeed. The needs of today’s workforce require students to have problem solving skills as well as the ability to effectively communicate, and the AET courses use real-life situations to develop these skills.”

Central Montco Technical High School also offers a wide variety of programs for a wide variety of students.

“We now have high-end programs for the more academic student,” said Slauch of Central Montco. “Our Allied Health program is headquartered in the hospital to which these students have almost unfettered access. It is just amazing immersion. The program is very competitive. These kids come back to us from their college medical programs and say they are so far ahead of their peers.”

Yes, it’s now true that most CTC students do go on to further training and education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the portion of CTC graduates who continue their education has risen steadily over the last generation to more than 90%.

“It’s not like vo-tech school is a terminal stop to their education,” said Slauch. The idea that CTCs always lead a student straight to work and away from college may be the greatest misconception about CTCs we need to work to change. In fact, many CTCs now offer students the opportunity to obtain college credit during high school.

Exposing students to all the learning opportunities available to them at each stage of their education should be a goal for all districts. At Lebanon CTC, Meck credits the work of his sending districts for doing just that.

“In Lebanon, all of our sending schools have created outstanding career guidance programs with the emphasis on exposure to various career options,” said Meck. “Approximately two years ago, all six districts in Lebanon and the CTC participated in a yearlong development process to create career guidance programs that meet the needs of their students. Exposure to the CTC in the elementary, middle and high school is embedded in each district’s plan.”

Educational options like increased rigor and exposure to technology aside, recent legislation is also providing CTC students with an alternative path to graduation. House Bill 202 now allows a CTC student to use a passing NOCTI (National Occupation Competency Testing Institute) score instead of a Keystone exam as a graduation requirement.

“In the past few years during the legislative process vo-tech leaders aren’t at the kids’ table anymore,” said Slauch. “We are at the adult table and a real part of the legislative process. Governor Wolf is a big proponent of vo-tech education, which is good because we still have a long way to go.”

“Even with the popularity of career and technical education on the rise, there are still many misconceptions about the academic level of the programs,” agreed Tom Allen, Eastern Center for Arts and Technology (Montgomery Co.) executive director. “We often share stories of our successful alumni engaged in college programs or promising careers on our social media sites. Their success speaks volumes to our programs.”

Board members, administrators and teachers are a very important part of ensuring that today’s students understand the opportunities available to them through CTCs.

“School boards and school administrators can help by adopting policies and practices that assure every middle school student will visit the regional CTC to explore the programs and opportunities available to them,” suggested Strouse of MBIT.

But first, Jackie Cullen, executive director of Pennsylvania Association of Career and Technical Administrators, finds that many school staff and board members have never even been to their CTC. An easy goal for every board member to accomplish this year is a visit to their CTC.

Vocational education is not about placing students on a college-bound or non-college-bound track. Instead, it offers students a wide range of choices and assumes that the large majority of students will need formal education and training beyond high school, even for those students who choose to immediately enter the workforce.

“Recognize that students’ interests and goals may include working after high school, attending a two- or four-year college, or entering an apprentice program,” said Keys of Chartiers Valley High. “There is not one ‘right’ pathway for all students – each path has merit.”  B

Dual enrollment multiplies benefits

For some students, achieving a college degree seems like a long shot. Tuition costs are up, and the whole college experience can seem daunting, especially to those who are the first in their families to attend. To help address these concerns, a growing number of high schools, career and technical centers, and colleges are collaborating to offer dual enrollment courses. These courses provide college credit, often at a reduced rate, and fulfill some requirements for high school graduation. The result is a pathway that removes traditional barriers to postsecondary education, leading to greater success for students.

At Chester County Technical College High School (TCHS) – a career and technical center that offers a variety of courses, including dual enrollment – students attend an average of 12 hours of instruction a week. TCHS provides bus transportation to and from the home high school for the approximately 900 students it enrolls.

TCHS offers several options for students to obtain college credit while in high school; some of these credits may also fulfill high school graduation requirements. Under articulation agreements, enrolled students can earn college credits by completing certain TCHS courses that also fulfill the requirements at specific colleges. There is no additional fee or tuition cost since these courses are a standard offering of TCHS. Students may also take classes from TCHS teachers who are certified to teach at the college level, enabling them to earn highly transferable credit at a much lower cost, right in the TCHS classroom. Students can also earn college credits at local higher education institutions TCHS has an agreement with, at a reduced cost, through the open dual enrollment program.

In addition to the lower- or no-cost tuition, students benefit from being introduced to college in a supportive setting. “Students are able to gain some experience and confidence as they earn college credits while working with a familiar instructor in their career education program,” says Frank McKnight, principal of TCHS Brandywine. Dual enrollment programs that have greater teacher support, also have greater enrollment.

McKnight said many students enrolled at the school who plan to further their education after high school take dual enrollment courses to get a head start in their career programs of choice. The most popular programs include Allied Health Sciences, Criminal Justice, Animal Science, Culinary Arts and Cosmetology.

TCHS works closely with businesses in surrounding counties to provide students with real-world industry experience, McKnight says. Not only has the experience been beneficial to students, but it “has also led to our industry partners establishing relationships with students which led to more permanent employment during summer months and upon graduation.” The hands-on experience and dual enrollment courses work together to help boost students’ confidence and provide a pathway forward.