You are here


Learn to Work, Work to Learn

Districts are redefining career connections through today's career and technical education programs

Many career programs, including automotive shop, health sciences and construction technology, have evolved to incorporate a strong academic focus. "Career and technical programs are no place for academically ill-prepared students," says Bob Somners, CEO of Butler Technology and Career Development Schools, a Fairfield Township, Ohio-based organization that operates a central campus and nine satellite programs across the state.

Somners continues, "We like to say that any parents that accept college-prep for their students are lowering their standards." The National Assessment of Vocational Education 2004 report to Congress claims that students who combine strong academic and vocational programs may have better outcomes than those who pursue one or the other.

While some districts are witnessing a demise of traditional vocational education programs, others are cultivating a renaissance and busting myths about career and technical education.

Consider the facts, says James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education: "Over the last 30 years, the data has shown that kids who [concentrate] in career and technical education have better economic outcomes than kids who don't. There's also some evidence that indicates that these programs keep kids [who might otherwise drop out of high school] in school."

" Our board chairman's favorite expression is that you can't train kids for up-to-date careers with out-of-date equipment." -Gerald Paist, superintendent, Pathfi nder Regional Vocational Technical High School District, Springfi eld, Mass.

The changing name for these programs is a sure sign of growing respect. Once the Perkins Reauthorization passes in Congress, schools will officially drop vocational education terminology, going with the career and technical education label instead. "This represents a dramatic shift in philosophy," explains Linda Anderson, director of career and technical education for Birdville Independent School District in Haltom City, Texas.

There and elsewhere, schools are beefing up programs. Narrowly focused vocational skills programs leading to non-baccalaureate degree careers are being replaced with academically rigorous programs that prepare students for both higher education and the changing workplace by including a high-degree of technology and focusing on high-demand careers.

For example, health sciences programs have burst onto the high school campus. These programs typically provide a high degree of academic rigor and a field element for career exploration. The Birdville health sciences program course requirements--which include anatomy and physiology, medical microbiology and medical terminology--certainly hint that the program won't be a breeze. A clinical rotation, developed through partnerships with local hospitals and healthcare providers, allows students to take a closer look at a variety of medical careers.

Despite the excitement surrounding career and technical programs, they face many challenges. After all, they're not exempt from budget crunches and education reform efforts. How are smart districts managing to prepare students for increasingly high-tech careers with obligatory high-dollar investments in equipment while simultaneously strengthening academic quality?

In a word, connections. By partnering with local businesses, regional and national organizations and vocational and community colleges, school districts can provide meaningful, high-quality career and technical education programs.

Bonding with Businesses

Leaders of Springfield, Mass.' Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School District have grouped the school system with local businesses. "The district is a very active member of the local Chamber of Commerce," says Superintendent Gerald Paist. In fact, the district's construction and carpentry program builds a house for the chamber each year. "This lets us showcase our wares and raises funds for the chamber," he adds.

There are many advantages to partnerships with local industry, confirms Stone of the National Research Center. One example: A local car dealer may underwrite an equipment purchase to bolster a district's auto program. Stone continues, "Industry will let you know which credentials and certificates it values. If industry values a credential, then it has value for students. Business partners can also assist with program development and staff training."

Take Owatonna (Minn.) Public Schools, for instance. The small-town district partnered with a local manufacturer to create an old-fashioned apprentice program and train the next generation of workers. Stone sums, "This is a program that was born of business involvement in the schools and benefited kids and the community." Other districts are also tuning to the local economy to benefit their students. In New Haven, Conn., district partnerships with local businesses led to a new regional high school. Aquaculture/Sound School preps students for careers in shoreline industries, including boat repair, marine biology, commercial fisheries and pollution control.

Other programs groom students for high-tech careers that can be pursued around the globe. For example, Butler just developed an animation and movie production program to prepare students for careers in video game production, cartoon animation and movie making.

It's Certifiable

The old auto-shop model typically entailed tinkering with junk cars and learning about mechanics through exploration. That model, however, does not prepare students to work on the sophisticated cars on the market today. So districts are seeking programs offering students professional certifications.

The approximately 300 school districts with Automotive Service Excellence programs, for example, commit to providing the latest equipment and ASE-certified instruction.

Stone reports, "Students get two things out of these programs: college credit and industry certification. All eight [ASE] certifications can land students a $60,000 to $80,000 salary out of high school."

It's not just auto program students who are learning the ropes as a pro. In Birdville, tech-savvy high schoolers can earn a Cisco network certification--and a well-paying career--through the district's networking program.

Another option propelling students forward in their careers is the dual-credit course. These allow post-secondary school credits to be earned early. In a few dozen states, for instance, nursing students can earn an LPN in high school, and then transfer credits to a state university to earn an RN in two years.


Dividing program time wisely is the order of the day when it comes to career programs. Paist notes, "One of the biggest challenges is the expectation of high quality academics along with technical studies. We've transitioned from an almost 100 percent emphasis on shop and vocational studies to a combined program that stresses math, science and communication skills." At Pathfinder, students divide their time between technical weeks and academic weeks, with one week devoted to career concentration and the next focused on academics.

Districts in Massachusetts want to stay as close as possible to the 50-50 schedule while increasing the emphasis on core academics, in Paist's experience. Pathfinder has met the increased pressure to perform by sending English and math teachers, hired with state funds, into shop areas to help with materials on the state exam. They work with individuals or small groups to reinforce test concepts. For instance, students may get a writing assignment related to customer service.

It's an arrangement that Paist says helps struggling students see the relationship between academic concepts and shop, since gauges, meters and other relevant equipment are right there. Shop teachers, who are used to having extra adults in their classrooms, have welcomed the additional assistance. And after students realized the positive impact on their grades, they too looked forward to the extra help.

This "techedemics" approach works in other districts, as well. Birdville uses federal funding to send core area and career and technical teachers to joint professional development conferences that focus on integration and team teaching. Anderson says this approach helps teachers make connections between disciplines and understand vocational applications of core subjects like English and math.

Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational District in Upton, Mass., meanwhile, is experimenting with a longer school calendar that stretches the number of days from 180 to 193. Another measure to increase time on task is a modified long block schedule that gives freshmen and sophomores 112 annual hours of English and math instruction, which comes close to the traditional high school average of 120 hours. Principal Rich Brennan reports on the success of the changes; 100 percent of students in the class of 2004 passed the state's high-stakes exam, compared to a statewide average of 85 percent.

Dollars and Sense

"Our board chairman's favorite expression is that you can't train kids for up-to-date careers with out-of-date equipment," says Paist. And high quality career and technical education can be a costly endeavor. Paist admits, "We've had to go a long time without equipment upgrades. That's because we've chosen to sacrifice equipment upgrades and preserve high-quality teachers."

Paist and Pathfinder Regional's board have developed a five-year plan that replaces equipment a portion at a time. The superintendent is laying the groundwork for a possible bond issue by marketing to the local community and policy makers, so both groups understand the value of teachers and equipment.

A bond issue to the tune of $50 million is making one Indiana district's facility dream a reality. The Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp. just broke ground on the Southern Indiana Career and Technical Center, a project that illustrates the benefits of long-term vision and planning.

The building process began with a 1996 feasibility study of all K-12 facilities in the district, which found the 60-year-old vocational facility lacked the infrastructure to support modern career education equipment. Without adequate class space for career programming, students criss-crossed town to attend various programs at different high schools.

In 1999 the board formed an executive advisory committee consisting of 16 regional CEOs and a planning and design task force that included post-secondary representatives, government officials, business partners, parents, students and teachers. Over the last five years, the groups have collaborated to develop a vision and plan for career and technical education in the district, culminating in the new building.

As Butler Technology and Career Development Schools have shown, operating costs don't have to be sky-high. The nine schools operate at one of the lowest costs per pupil for career and technical schools, $8,754 in 2003 compared an Ohio average of $11,470 for career and technical districts.

Somners says his cost-containment secrets begin with marketing. "We market heavily to recruit students into our career and technical programs and run a full program." That keeps costs down by maximizing the investment in staff and technology.

The district also puts its funds into technology. "We start the decision process with board policy and our established budget parameters of 62 percent personnel costs and 9 percent administration costs. All budget decisions are made within those parameters," Somners says.

And while successful, cost-effective career and technical programs can be found in separate buildings or districts or within conventional schools, there are some common denominators, namely:

Avoiding program duplication to minimize costs.

Running programs requiring high-dollar investments at a central site to accommodate as many students as possible.

Seeking partners to share expenses.

Looking into the crystal ball of career education, Paist says traditional programs can thrive with a high-tech twist. Construction courses incorporate technology and focus on alternative energy. Radio and television repair is passe, but fiber optics and robotics programs are a hit with students and industry. Other future-oriented programs include animation, biotechnology and forensic science.

Ultimately, the recipe for a successful career program boils down to a few ingredients. Partnership-based programs that blend academic rigor and vocational training are what works, says Anderson. To a student, these programs translate academics into a meaningful career.

Lisa Fratt is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.

Related Information