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Vocational and technical programs are being reinvented by urban school districts

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When chef Samantha Jones arrived at Juarez High School in Chicago six years ago, she discovered a shell of a culinary program.

Jones set out to change that: she created a program, organized regular product deliveries, and sought out opportunities for students to show off their skills outside of the school kitchen. When the pandemic shuttered the school building, she crisscrossed the predominantly Latino neighborhoods on the southwest side of town to drop off ingredient kits at students’ homes.

More recently, Jones took students to meet chefs at the James Beard Restaurant and Downtown Chef Awards, drove them to competitions where some won thousands of dollars in culinary scholarships, and planned a trip to Italy next year to visit a mozzarella and olive maker. tree farm.

“These hands-on opportunities created a buzz for our program,” Jones said. “In terms of students actively wanting to be here, that has changed dramatically.”

The resurgence of the culinary program in Juarez coincides with a growing national profile of high school career and technical education, or CTE. Major urban districts, including Chicago, are rethinking and expanding these programs in the wake of the pandemic as students seek more direct, debt-free paths to in-demand careers.

The push follows a toll on the college-for-all mantra of the past decade that has propelled more students onto campus but hasn’t always led to a college degree. In Chicago, for example, 73% of students in the district are still not going to college or completing it, according to the University of Chicago’s To & Through Project, leaving many career prospects unclear.

Across the country, school district officials are increasingly banking on revamped CTE programs to put more teens on a clear path to employment after high school — and prepare them for advanced training and college. New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks touted CTE as the key to student re-engagement. Los Angeles this month announced new CTE pathways for high schools and career labs for colleges.

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But for large urban districts, changing gears on CTE can be a heavy burden. Chicago has CTE central schools like Juarez, with strong programs rich in hands-on opportunities — and CTE deserts, neighborhoods with few offerings. Data on student outcomes is patchy, but it suggests that a relatively small portion of the district’s roughly 15,000 CTE students — 45% of whom are black, compared to 35% of all CPS students — are getting the work experience. , college credits and diplomas considered the gold standard of high school career programs. Indeed, programs across the city offer unequal access to these opportunities, which require partnerships with employers as well as qualified instructors, which are in short supply.

Pedro Martinez, a national CTE champion who took over Chicago Public Schools last fall, says he wants district programs to send students ready to transition seamlessly between building careers and returning to life. school to acquire more skills.

“That’s where I see education going forward,” said Martinez, the former superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District. “I see a convergence of pre-K-12, higher education and industry coming together.”

Janice Jackson, who left her post as CEO of Chicago Public Schools last year, had focused on building a college culture in the district, whose students are predominantly Latino and black and low-income. With a focus on college, several CTE programs—some under-enrolled and outdated—closed during Jackson’s tenure. But Jackson said in an interview with Chalkbeat after leaving the district that she came to better appreciate the value of career education.

“We went from having no college culture almost to the extreme, where that’s all we talked about,” she said. “What we’ve learned are the same skills students need to be successful in high school that they need to enter trades programs.”

Now a national shift is underway, with a tangle of factors giving CTE a boost.

On the eve of the pandemic, the passage of federal Perkins V legislation increased funding for CTE and strengthened requirements for school districts, said Rachel Rosen, co-director of the Center for Effective CTE at the nonprofit MDRC based in New York. A growing body of research has shown that certain CTE models pay off for low-income college students and boys of color, providing momentum to help these teens transition into the middle class without going through a four-year college campus.

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The pandemic has shed even more light on inequitable educational outcomes, says Kyle Hartung, associate vice president of Boston-based Jobs for the Future. And amid crippling labor shortages, employers are eager to build diverse talent pools, while students want more direct access to high-paying careers in high-growth fields.

“The needs of employers and the needs of learners are starting to align,” Hartung said. “We’re not talking about your grandfather’s professional training.”

A series of states and districts have stepped up their CTE offerings — or are committing to do so.

Inspired by studies showing promising gains in high school graduation and earning potential in New York City, Dallas bet big on the P-TECH high school model: At these schools, students cultivate to both academic and professional skills with the aim of graduating with industry. recognized associate degrees. Martinez, the leader of Chicago schools, recently traveled to Dallas with Juan Salgado, the chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, to learn more about how this school district works with local community colleges and employers.

In Delaware, 50% of high school students follow career paths, course sequences and training that prepare them for post-secondary learning and employment. The effort — a partnership of state leaders, school districts, community colleges, employers and philanthropists — is on track to reach 80% of students over the next two years, Hartung said.

In the coming school year, Philadelphia, where district leaders are touting a significantly above-average graduation rate for its 6,000 CTE students, will review all 43 CTE programs to ensure they are responsive. employers and at the request of students. The district also joined the Talent Pipeline Project, a partnership between Pennsylvania districts and local maritime and defense industries that connected students with apprenticeships and jobs. The efforts reflect a break with the idea that the CTE is a dumping ground for struggling students.

“It’s always been seen as a program for those who ‘can’t, won’t, and won’t’ — for those who don’t go to college,” said Michelle Armstrong, executive director of CTE Philadelphia. “We see CTE as providing options for our young people.”

New York City, where 60,000 students attend nearly 300 programs, last year developed a five-year strategic plan for CTE. Innovative programs are springing up across the city, from a new teachers’ academy in Brooklyn where high school students will help teach middle schoolers, to an urban agriculture program in the Bronx, with opportunities to earn college credit. .

Reinventing the CTE can be a heavy burden

But experts say there are significant hurdles standing in the way of overhauling high school CTE programs.

In Chicago and other districts, a lack of student achievement data may hamper redesign efforts. There is little comprehensive data on whether students get jobs after high school or continue their education.

In Chicago, certifications data shows that the proportion of CTE students earning these degrees dropped even before covid hit. School-level snapshots of mid-pandemic CTE results suggest some campuses are doing much better at giving students the opportunity to engage in workplace learning and earn college credit.

Nationally, districts are also facing a shortage of qualified educators to teach CTE courses. Meaningful partnerships with employers and community colleges—essential to strengthening programs—can remain elusive.

Chicago recently signed an agreement called the Chicago Roadmap with City Colleges of Chicago, the network of local community colleges, hailed as an unprecedented effort to work more closely together.

Martinez also reported that the CTE will figure prominently in a three-year plan for the district that he is due to unveil in the fall. He said in an interview that he wants the district to embrace the P-TECH model and enlist large employers in the CTE push, citing recent conversations with Accenture and Amazon.

“The goal is to provide internships and job shadowing opportunities, especially for young children — even college-level exposure,” Martinez said. “I tell industry partners, ‘You can shape your workforce while it’s still in high school.'”

In the meantime, Jones, a cooking teacher at Juarez High School in Chicago, is moving forward. For the upcoming school year, the culinary program has a waiting list; students who did not enter angle to join the after-school cooking program.

Sophomore Jah Pagan said he was shocked to find out how popular the culinary program is and feels lucky to be enrolled. He’s already considering higher-stakes cooking competitions and summer jobs.

This spring, Pagan and his classmates faced off in a showdown between two imaginary restaurants for their flagship class project. They scrambled to finish sumptuous brunch spreads: French toast, yogurt parfaits, cookies, sausage and fruit breakfast skewers and more.

In one corner, atop one of the industrial freezers, trophies from the cooking competition towered, a reminder of the program’s goal of reviving students’ careers.

Mila Koumpilova is a journalist at chalk beat, a non-profit education-focused media outlet. This story was supported by the Higher Education Media Fellowship at the Institute for Citizens & Scholarswhich supports the reporting of ETC-related issues.