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Not Your Grandpa’s Wood Shop: High Schools Revolutionize Career Programs

Once known as "vocational education," today's career and technical education programs are changing the way students work and study in the 21st century.

February is National Career and Technical Education (CTE) Month

Where earlier generations learned to boil eggs and build birdhouses, today’s career and technical education students are and .

“The overall goal of the CTE of yesteryear was to prepare students for the world of work and we still do that, but we do so much more than that right now,” said Claire Brisson, CTE director for Chippewa Valley Schools.

With the continued advance of technology and the related change in industry demands, traditional “voc ed” mainstays like home economics and drafting have disappeared. In their place, CTE programs such as health occupations, , robotics and mechatronics (engineering) have developed.

“It’s an edge,” said Monica Leasure, MISD CTE regional administrator. “You’ll find kids in CTE who are much more focused at the postsecondary level because they had the ability to try different things in high school.”

Leasure added that national data supports this “focus,” finding that CTE students more likely to graduate from college or university earlier than non-CTE students and post higher earnings over a lifetime than students who did not experience CTE.

“(CTE) is such a great place for them to do exploration,” said Amy Gole, CTE director for L’Anse Creuse. “We do a lot of things with students to measure their career awareness and aptitudes. Many students say, ‘I’m going to be a doctor or a chef,’ but put them in that environment and they realize that isn’t the path for them. But they learn great life skills that they’re going to have forever.”

CTE evolves to fit new curriculum standards

As Michigan districts continue to implement the newly adopted , students will find they have fewer hours available in their schedules for elective courses like CTE.

But as many in local districts have realized, CTE programs already teach the project-based, problem-solving skills supported by the common core and can be used to enhance, rather than distract from the new curriculum.

“CTE teachers bring the ‘why’ to the ‘what’ of the common core,” said Scott Palmer, CTE director for Utica schools. “We have traditionally trained teachers working with CTE teachers to introduce practical applications of (textbook concepts). We’re working more toward a collaborative model, so we are training the students with all of our specific skill sets.”

In districts like Chippewa Valley and L’Anse Creuse, common core subject areas like math, science and even English are being reframed for students on a CTE track.

In Chippewa Valley, students in the medical careers program have the opportunity to take specially designed 11th and 12th grade English classes that complement their interest in the health field.

“We reframed (the course) to make direct connections with the medical program,” Brisson said. “We have seen and have data showing that students are seeing those connections. They’re not just learning English in an isolated context. Everything they do has a connection and they’re achieving a result.”

Through CTE classes like horticulture and alternative energy, L’Anse Creuse students earn science and math credits that meet graduation requirements.

But more than simply fulfilling a graduation requirement, these classes “put a relevance to the concepts,” said Mike Garcia, Stevenson High School design engineering/CAD teacher. “My students are able to relate trigonometric functions with projects in class and strengthen their math and science skills.”

In the next two to three years, Chippewa Valley will pilot an entire program designed to enhance this hands-on approach to education. will combine traditional subjects like English, social studies and physics with industry research, work experience and specific courses such as mechatronics and energy studies.

“We need to strike a balance between rigorous standards, which we’ve focused on so much since the Michigan Merit curriculum came into being, (with) equally important technical acumen and skills, like problem solving,” Brisson said. “It boils down to relevance … We need to make academics come alive.”

A head start and foot in the door

Learning a specific skill has always been a key component of CTE programs, but an equally important element is the relationship district programs build with postsecondary institutions and local businesses.

“It’s actually a state requirement that any state-funded CTE program have some sort of postsecondary linkage,” Gole said. “Every program has a different articulation with how (students) get credit (at a college or university).”

In Chippewa Valley, L’Anse Creuse and Utica school districts, relationships with Oakland University, Macomb Community College, Ferris State and other institutions allow CTE students to bypass prerequisite classes or receive credit toward their major.

saw several of its students accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in New York last year, and Oakland University has enrolled many a L'Anse Creuse "teacher cadet" in its education program over the years.

But the greatest advantage of CTE remains the relationship programs build with industry and local business.

"It’s always been the focus for CTE, not only in Macomb, but in Michigan as well, to keep up with business and industry," Leasure said. "We’re having a number of meetings for business-industry partnerships, and we are hearing more and more from the business community that they are not able to fill the positions they have." 

"Everyone I talk to in industry, they’re screaming for help," Palmer added. "They can’t fill the jobs and they’re telling us that you have to get these kids excited and trained."

Kurt Muehlbacher, a 2008 Stevenson graduate, walked directly into a job at the local machining company where, as part of a CTE co-op program, he held a paid position during high school, while a fellow student used his design engineering skills to pay his way through college, where he was studying anesthesiology.

With few exceptions, all CTE programs have a job shadow or work study component that takes students out of the classroom and into their field of interest.

Health occupations students work at local hospitals, pharmacies and nursing homes, marketing and business students shadow local business owners and construction technology students build entire single or .

And as industry demands change, so will the CTE programs offered by local districts.

"We follow what they're doing in business and industry and that drives our decisions," Gole said. "As industry shifts to more technology and higher end technology, we will integrate that technology into our curriculum ... I see career technical education having a very large role in the future."

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