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
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.”
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.