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February 2014 Vol. 21. No. 4 Focus on Keeping Students Engaged

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Technical education students tackle real-life problems

The District is undertaking an expansion of career and technical education programs at neighborhood high schools like South Philadelphia.

By by Dan Hardy on Feb 11, 2014 12:10 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle
Teacher Steve Grosso (center) works with Mustafa Bess (left) and Chandra Bista (right) in a Computer Repair and Networking class at South Philadelphia High School. The class is one of several career and technical education programs at the school.

In Steve Grosso’s spacious, well-equipped computer lab at South Philadelphia High School, students in a Computer Repair and Networking class are learning how to diagnose and repair every aspect of a desktop PC’s hardware and operating systems. 

A few floors below, their classmates in John Evans’ engineering class are using computer-assisted design programs and trigonometry calculations to come up with a plan for reconfiguring the stormwater drainage system at Southern, a real-life application of their academic work. A 3D printer is the latest industrial tool at their disposal, to help them raise their design skills to a new level.

Southern’s career and technical education (CTE) programs have expanded this year, and many participating students are enthusiastic about their future job prospects and engaged in their course work. 

“I like to learn how things work – how things are done,” said senior Thomas Mack, an engineering program student who is planning to go to college this fall, probably in engineering. 

Mack said that his program of study has given him clear objectives and a pathway to get there. “They say school prepares you for life; this class prepares you for a career.”

South Philadelphia High principal Otis Hackney said that he sees CTE, formerly called vo-tech, as a gateway to success for many at his school – a view shared by other District officials.

At times in the past, CTE was regarded as a last refuge for students who were not succeeding in the classroom. No more, Hackney said. 

“We want smart people to go into those fields – I want a smart mechanic, a smart electrician, and a smart plumber. It’s not a place where you send the kids who don’t do well academically. It’s more a matter of identifying kids with the right skill sets and interests.”

South Philadelphia principal Otis Hackney talks with Saleem Wright of Philadelphia Academies Inc. Hackney said the CTE programs are a gateway to success for many students.


Because Edward W. Bok Technical High School closed last June, Southern has become the latest Philadelphia high school to embrace career and technical education in a big way. It already had some CTE programs before last fall, but they have been greatly expanded with the addition of several hundred Bok students, at a cost of about $3 million for school renovations. 

There are now about 360 CTE students there, in grades 10 through 12, out of a total enrollment of 975.

The Philadelphia School District, too, is in the beginning stages of a dramatic CTE expansion, pledging in its five-year strategic plan to almost double the number of students in career and technical education, from about 6,600 now to 12,000 by 2017. That would put more than a third of the District’s high school students in CTE programs. 

“This is an exciting time for career and technical education in Philadelphia,” said Philadelphia School District Career and Technical Education Deputy David Kipphut. “It used to be that the job of vocational education was to teach entry-level skills. It is far beyond that now.”

A new Center for Advanced Manufacturing will open at Benjamin Franklin High School, most likely in the fall of 2016, Kipphut said. 

Clyde Hornberger, a nationally-known CTE expert who has been advising the Philadelphia district, said that the center will eventually have at least 600 students. While low-tech manufacturing has largely disappeared in most U.S. cities, high-tech fabrication work in numerous fields is still in demand in the United States, including the Philadelphia area, Hornberger said.

In all, the District plans to offer 30 new CTE programs in fields that should be ripe for hiring in the region, including biotechnology, pharmacy technician and veterinary technician. And the number of job-related certifications in the District’s nine existing CTE areas of career concentration is steadily expanding.

This school year, the three most popular CTE areas are Communications and Graphics programs, which includes graphic arts as well as cinematography and film/ video production; Health Industry professions, which range from emergency medical technician to dental assistant; and Construction and Manufacturing, which includes everything from engineering to construction trades. 

Cosmetology, an old vo-tech staple, has the lowest enrollment.

Also this school year, the curriculum for CTE courses was standardized across the city, raising the level of the offerings in some schools. Principals are being trained in CTE administration. Advisory committees of industry experts are being expanded, and discussions are underway about students getting more college credits while in high school.

Behind the push for expansion is the District’s belief – backed by academic studies and Philadelphia statistics – that CTE provides skills and career pathways that lead directly to decent-paying jobs.

It also helps keep more students in high school and headed toward postsecondary success, District officials say. 

Just-released graduation rates for 2012-13 show that on average, the percentage of students graduating from the District’s all-CTE schools – Dobbins, Mastbaum, Randolph, Saul, and Swenson – is about 20 points higher than the typical neighborhood high school. 

One reason for the higher graduation rates is the more selective nature of the CTE schools. To get in, most students must have grades of C or higher, no serious disciplinary problems, and 10 or fewer absences a year; those who meet the criteria go into a lottery.

But a 2013 Johns Hopkins University study of Philadelphia’s CTE programs indicates that their positive impact goes beyond the more selective character of the schools. Comparing students in CTE schools with those who met the admissions criteria but were not selected in the lottery, it found that the students in the CTE schools were far more likely to successfully complete their required math course sequence and to graduate than the comparison group.

Kipphut said he believes the reason for the better results is that career education augments the traditional three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – with another three that education guru Bill Daggett cites as keys to success: rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Rigor, Kipphut said, because students earn industry certifications as part of their course work and have to pass difficult national industry assessments. Relevance because, for example, “in electronics, you use Ohm’s law, so as a result, you understand the need to study math.” Relationships, because students often have the same teacher for three years: “To succeed in school, each student needs a personal relationship with at least one adult.”

As the District commits to more CTE, Kipphut said, it wants to make sure that the opportunity to participate isn’t limited to students going to all-career and technology schools, which have far more applicants than open slots. So it will be expanding programs in the neighborhood schools as well. 

Starting this fall, students from anywhere in the city will be admitted to CTE programs outside their neighborhood if those programs have empty slots after the local students had the chance to fill them. 

One place where there will likely be plenty of open CTE spots next fall is South Philadelphia High, which would have had an enrollment of about 1,400 this school year if the great majority of current Bok students had transferred there last fall. But hundreds went elsewhere. As a result, many of Southern’s CTE programs are underenrolled. 

At Southern, students and teachers say that CTE’s real-world applications and the ability to learn through doing keep interest and success rates high. 

“They learn that there is something beyond academic math and science,” said engineering program teacher John Hutchinson. “There are connections to the real world and real-world problems.” 

Tim McCullough, an 11th grader taking Computer Repair and Networking, said he likes the way he is learning the subject matter. “Most of the time, we’re doing projects. I like being able to do my own thing,” he said. “And when we do lab work, we work together – that’s really good for building teamwork skills.

“It’s really engaging. I’m doing what I want to be doing, so it makes my day go by really fast.”


About the Author

Dan Hardy is a freelance reporter who writes about education in the region.

Comments (9)

Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on February 11, 2014 9:42 pm
Repairing PCs. Hardware and operating systems?? Sounds a lot like the buggy whip repair program that the district establish in 1910 just as automobiles were getting going. Who repairs PCs anymore? Don't you just replace it with a smart phone? Problem with the current administrators is that they are so out of the business loop that I doubt industry is interested in any of the skills they are teaching.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2014 6:21 am
There are still thousands of people locally that don't have the means to own a computer, many of which are the families of our students. Most all of these computer repair programs in the district repair donated computers and distribute them to families in need. I don't know of anyone that just tosses a computer once it breaks down and until one can easily type a 5000 word paper on a smart phone, it's doubtful they will replace computers very soon. Further, CTE has changed and it's not the vocational education of old. A school CANNOT offer a CTE program unless it's on the state's High Priority Occupations (HPO) list. Meaning that, the occupation taught must have a high percentage of jobs available (in demand), be aligned to the skills and higher education as required by industry, and have the potential to provide family-sustaining wages. The school administrators may want a particular program in their school but they won't get it unless it's on the HPO list. Yes, they might be "out of the business loop", but it's not the admins that determine the curriculum and skills taught - the industry experts determine this and the CTE teachers (also industry experts btw) teach these. See:
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2014 10:47 pm
Show me a scientist or engineer who doesn't use a computer and I'll show you the brain you think you have.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2014 7:02 am
The SDP pays vendors to recycle (trash) hundreds of PC's each year, that are old but still operate. Give them to those who are needy in order to write their 500 page reports.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2014 8:12 am
That's exactly what these computer repair programs are doing... repairing and giving to the needy. We do this at my school; but if you actually look at most of the computers being trashed by the district, they are too old and/or slow to operate with current software. Those being repaired to be reused are old, but not too old to be functional.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2014 1:53 pm
Poogie speaks truth. Typing? Ever hear of Dragon Speak? Its been around twenty years. Who keys to a smart phone when you can speak commands to it ?(Unless you don't know how to use it...a kid can always show you...) How about the hundreds of occupations that ARE on the HPO that the District ignores? A school does not have the freedom to just "donate" anything to anyone who they decide are needy. Clyde Hornberger, from upstate, is older than dirt. Get real. Check the want ads, search online, there are no jobs repairing computers. Look good at the picture. How many kids do you see in that room? Please.
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on February 13, 2014 7:07 pm
All this let's fix computers to help the needy is an admirable goal. But does it provide any jobs? Are there high-paying jobs at the geek squad? This is training people to make Buggywhip's.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 18, 2014 7:09 am
Here is why current CTE will go nowhere. Most CTE teachers do no start with a college degree, as opposed to academic teachers. They take courses from Temple to become certified in Voc ED, but few ever obtain a real degree or a real master's degree. They are hired directly from a job where they do work they are supposed to teach the students. In times when technology changes from season to season, these folks are out of the tech loop. Most part, they have never taken an electronics or programming course, a networking course, a robotics course, and have no understanding of how a cell phone really works, a smart phone, or the possibilities of the wireless world. Their subjects could be fat with technology, but they are not. Most are suspicious of digital technology and worst of all, they do read. They go kicking and screaming through Temple's certification program, kicking and screaming and Temple seems unaware of the huge crevice between public compulsory education and college education needs and skills. Just cause a person built houses, fixed cars, or worked as a hair dresser does not mean they have the other skills needed to discipline students, teach, organize learning, or provide training. What has kept CTE alive so so long are the millions in Perkins funds from the Federal Government and state that pay for the salaries of dozens of people, who mostly lack any CTE credential at 440 and through out schools in so called support positions. If a CTE teacher is technically unaware of current trends, these folk are lost. Finally, when roster chairs refuse to roster decent kids into programs that are challenging and do lead to a decent job or are a great prep for tech school, all the promise fails on the vine, shrivels. They all have been at their school at least a quarter century, have their own friends and interest groups, and should be replaced with fresh eyes. Former CTE teacher
Submitted by Steve Long (not verified) on April 23, 2015 1:02 am

Technical education will be more beneficial for students; it helps to improve their inner capability and learning skills. After school and college pass out most of the students are looking for better career development opportunities and therefore they need the help of both technical and non-technical education system. Under Southern’s career and technical education we have found different types of programs that promotes the concept of technical education which helps student to refine their skills and qualities.

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