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Recent Greenville County Schools graduate Nicholas Morales made history when he became the first South Carolina high school student to earn an American Welding Society pipe welding certification. His welding teacher at Greenville’s Donaldson Career Center, Wanda Haynes, says the certification has opened up a rare opportunity for him: a job offer from a Georgia nuclear plant. “That’s unheard of, because you usually have to have 10 years’ experience before you even go into the nuclear industry,” she says.

Although Morales’ parents worry that the job might derail his college plans, he says he still plans to attend. He came to the center in 11th grade from his home high school to see what welding entailed. “And then as soon as I got here, I realized it was a completely different world and the industry’s huge,” he says. “I just fell in love with learning about it.”

CTE by the numbers:

About 600 miles north, outside of Cleveland, Polaris Career Center student and high school senior Emma Whipple is also looking to her future. She attends the cosmetology program at Polaris and plans to get her license when she graduates. But she’s not stopping there. She’s going to a four-year college to become a cosmetic chemist and start her own cosmetics line. She’ll make money cutting hair and doing manicures while she’s at college.

Her classes at Polaris, she says, bring the academics and the career skills together, “the mainstream schools and the stuff I’ve learned here to formulate certain products that we can use in the salon.”

 

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Both Morales and Whipple are part of a new generation of career and technical education (CTE) students. Gone are the days when students were tracked into either career training or academic classes. Many districts have programs where the boundaries are fluid or nonexistent. Today, many students who choose these classes are headed for some kind of postsecondary training, if not a four-year university degree. “It’s not an either/or, it’s both,” says Stephen DeWitt, deputy executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education. “Either/or is not helpful.”

Interest in CTE programs has grown steadily in the past decade as the nation continues its long, slow recovery from the 2008 recession. According to the latest NCES figures, 98 percent of school districts have CTE programs in their high schools. The federal law that provides some funding for CTE was reauthorized with bipartisan agreement in Congress last year, a feat almost unheard of these days.


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Its recent reinvention is the result of several societal and economic factors. Unskilled jobs are disappearing, and jobs that require repetition are at risk of being lost to increasingly sophisticated automation and artificial intelligence. As the economy approaches full employment, businesses and other employers are having difficulty filling so-called “middle-skill” jobs—those that do require some training after high school but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. The explosion in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and the makerspace movement illustrate how all students benefit from learning skills—academic or otherwise—with activities that show their real-world relevance —something that CTE classes have baked into them.

And with four-year college expenses rising along with student debt, career exploration in high school is making sense to more parents and students. “Good CTE programs actually track kids to college, but in a more meaningful way than wandering into college without a clue,” says James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at The Southern Regional Education Board.

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Different Models

The Polaris Career Center in Middleburg, Ohio, outside of Cleveland, and Greenville County Schools in South Carolina are examples of CTE programs that are working for their students, the district, and the community.

They represent different models. Polaris Career Center is one of 49 joint vocational school districts in Ohio, and it serves seven surrounding districts in Southwest Cuyahoga County. Nearly 1,000 juniors and seniors from those districts attend classes at the center. Polaris also offers satellite programs at the high schools and the middle schools of the participating districts and serves about 3,000 students. It becomes as an adult training center at night.

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On the other hand, Greenville County Schools, with an enrollment of 77,000 students, runs four career centers in addition to its 14 high schools. Ninth-graders take an exploratory class to see what the career centers offer to 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-graders.

While structures may be different, both districts and programs focus on the idea that students should be both career- and college-ready. Both work closely with businesses in the community to hire teachers who have professional experience in their area. Local businesses sit on advisory committees and offer internships and work-based experience. The schools have close partnerships with their local colleges and universities.


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Polaris

Walking into the medical wing of Polaris, you’d be hard pressed to believe you’re not in an actual hospital. The beds, monitors, curtains, and other equipment look ready to take patients.

This authentic classroom prepares the medical arts students for what’s ahead. “It makes it easier, so once you actually do go into the field, you’re prepared to go into a hospital room and know how to operate different beds,” says senior Jocelyn Price. “And that gives me a look ahead to what I’ll be walking into.”

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Students in the program can earn their Certified Nursing Assistant credential and use that to get a job after graduation or as a basis for a nursing or other medical degree. Price plans to get a bachelor’s degree in nursing once she graduates.

The area is home to the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, and Metro Health. “We have three major health systems. Some cities wish they had one. And we have three,” says teacher Liisa Coldiron, a registered nurse. “So, we have many positions that are available here. And because of that, our students are going to get better opportunities.”

Like the medical wing, the other sections of the building are similarly equipped: the cosmetology classrooms that look and feel like a high-end salon; the professional-grade kitchen and classes taught by professional chefs; the automotive repair department that mirrors garages. There’s even a flight simulator in the aeronautics classroom so students can train to take their professional pilots license— another job that’s in high demand in the area. “All the equipment that you see around you, it’s all state-of-the-art. It’s what students will be working with when they get out and get into the workforce and/or receive further training,” says Polaris principal Jerry Lanning.

And Polaris emphasizes the need to continue education after high school. “The majority of our students go on to postsecondary education. Everyone needs to have some type of credential and skill, and we can provide them that. Many of our students use that credential to pay for college. We have a great launch pad for students to earn college credit,” says Polaris Superintendent Robert Timmons.


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Greenville

Brianna Maden is the only girl in her welding program at the Enoree Career Center. The junior at Travelers Rest High School says her father owns a welding business, and she grew up helping him.

She already has earned a college scholarship for her performance at a statewide welding skills competition. “At first I wasn’t going to go to college,” she says, “but then when I got my scholarship, I was like, well, now it’s kind of stupid for me not to.” When she graduates, she wants to take over her dad’s business and transform it into an all-female welding business.

Maden credits her welding teacher, Jamie Walden, as making a difference for her in the class. “If you need help, he has no problem with helping. He’s not one of those teachers that just sits down and talks the whole time. He’s more hands-on, and I like that.”

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Like many communities in the south, Greenville took an economic hit with the decline of the textile industry in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the area had a diversity of other businesses to help economically. It’s home to the Michelin North America headquarters. The company’s first tire plant in the United States also is located in Greenville. A BMW manufacturing plant is in nearby Spartanburg and Greer.

The school system has close ties with the local industries. Several companies, including Michelin and Sandvik, which manufactures solid carbide cutting tools for the automotive industry, participate in internship programs with Greenville students. Several of the students who were in the most recent program at Sandvik were hired on, and plan to work while they attend Greenville Technical College to earn a degree in mechatronics. The local baseball team, the Greenville Drive, also hires Greenville students as summer interns.


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Greenville’s Graduation Plus program requires that students graduate with an industry certification or college credits through dual enrollment, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate classes. “And in many cases, we have students who leave us with both of those things, with an industry certification and with college credit,” says Superintendent Burke Royster. “And that program and that focus is where we’re saying to our students and our community a high school diploma is important, but it is no longer sufficient for a living wage.”

“We’ve worked for years to make sure that our career centers afford our students an opportunity for advancement once they leave our doors, whether it’s aircraft maintenance, firefighting, law enforcement, culinary arts, building sciences, and welding and many more,” says board President Charles Saylors. “They can leave with certificates that give them the professional status in that particular career, whether they choose to go for a one-year opportunity following graduation, a two-year degree, or a four-year degree following that.”

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A Different Path

Despite the ubiquity of CTE, it still has a poor reputation among many parents and educators. The “college for all” movement —the belief that all students should attend four-year-universities—is one factor that affects perception (and enrollment) in CTE programs. Many still remember when CTE was vocational education, and it was a place to warehouse non-college-bound students.

“Historically, CTE has been given a bad rap,” says Gregg Seaton, associate director of Jobs for the Future. “We have bought wholesale into the college as the ultimate educational achievement. Very few people go to college for college’s sake. It’s a way to enter the labor market. We get caught up in what college is. For many people, CTE can do the same thing that college does. It’s not a lesser path, it’s a different path for a person to understand and explore.”

Advance CTE Deputy Director Kate Kreamer says CTE advocates may unwittingly be giving the wrong message. “Lots of people who are advocates are talking about it in the wrong way,” she says. “It’s another path. They are making it sound like a lesser path.”

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Richard Micko, Polaris board president and a member of the Strongsville, Ohio, school board, says parental perception about CTE needs to change. “We need to make sure that our parents are aware that the career tech stereotype that they may be used to from 30 years ago isn’t what career tech is today,” he says.

Small classes, involved teachers, hands-on learning — CTE teaches academic skills in an active, applicable way, and this is appealing to a wide range of students, not only those who want to follow a particular career pathway.


At Polaris, says Timmons, students tell him how surprised they are that they must use math to be able to measure the distances on metal in welding and to make the calipers correct on automobiles, and that they must use science to mix the correct chemicals in cosmetology.

"That is how students really start realizing how math and science and the comprehensive environment translate to real-life scenarios. And they’re learning it without even knowing that they’re using that math and science. But it’s essential,” he says. “That’s really when you start seeing light bulbs turn on and the kids get really excited about ‘Oh, now I know why that was important in physics,’ or ‘why we needed to learn what a solution was in chemistry.’”

 

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In a class like welding, where the students are using equipment that requires an extra amount of safety, earning the trust of students is essential. “Then you start teaching them and then you show them, and you lead by example, says Enoree welding teacher Walden. “And I’m out here every day, sweating with them, cutting stuff, welding with them in the booth. And I try to make sure that I’m setting the example of how it works.”

Some of Donaldson welding teacher Haynes’ students were having trouble academically until “we put a twist on math and science, and they go back and pass their classes.” Welding also gives students confidence, she says. Once you teach them they can do something as hard as welding, “they start becoming very confident and independent. These kids come in the shop on fire. They come in wanting to be here and work.”

Photographs courtesy of Polaris Career Center and Greenville County Schools.


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