By Jeff Keeling
By the time some of his peers are receiving their bachelor’s degrees, Ethan Lyle is likely to be earning a pay packet in the mid-five figures – perhaps more if he’s willing to travel. Many of those who took the four-year (or five, or six) route will be starting to think about student loan debt coming due. Lyle may be starting to think about a starter home.
I met Lyle in late January at Science Hill High School’s career and technical education (CTE) area. He was polite, well-spoken, and patient with me as he explained the basics of TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding. By all accounts Lyle, who does well academically and plays varsity basketball for the Hilltoppers, would be perfectly capable of pursuing a bachelor’s himself. Instead, he’s in the category of student that a good many of our political, academic and business leaders would love to see grow larger.
CTE is big these days. For the past several months, a task force with representatives from the Johnson City and Washington County schools, and the city and county elected bodies, has been discussing ways the school systems can best collaborate to benefit students from both systems. Those discussions have narrowed in, for the present, on CTE. In addition, the Washington County Economic Development Council has tasked a working group with a three-pronged study that all spins back to producing more career-ready young adults to bolster the region’s future economically. CTE is making its way into that discussion as well.
It’s likely similar discussions are occurring around the Greater Tri-Cities, as in fact they are across the country. Different counties and cities have varying levels of school system collaboration. The degree to which employers, technical schools, community colleges and four-year schools interface with pre-college CTE programs is sure to vary as well. And without a doubt, everyone wants to see all such programs improve and flourish.
With that in mind, having listened to elected folk discuss the topic at multiple meetings, I decided to check on the state of CTE for myself. A couple of visits to Science Hill have given me sufficient grounding for several observations.
• If Johnson City’s program is any indication, and I have no reason to suspect otherwise, the area’s CTE leaders deserve a medal already. Science Hill offers courses in 11 of Tennessee’s 16 “Career Cluster Focus Areas.” They’re taught by people who came to academics via the world of work, and who stay current with changes in their fields, director Julie Decker told me. Students don’t just learn skills that will help them in work or college, they begin learning about real life – things like meeting budgets, and procuring equipment or material for their programs only if they can figure out a way to produce the revenue to afford it.
• The CTE programs and their existing leaders need help, but not necessarily an overhaul. The CTE directors from around Northeast Tennessee already meet as members of the Northeast Tennessee Technical Education Association, which also includes representatives from area community colleges, Tennessee colleges of applied technology and the state department of education. They share ideas about dual credit opportunities, how they can collaborate, and where they can share resources. As Decker put it, “we’re a team of leaders who have a similar mission for our schools.” Her teachers also communicate with employers in the fields for which their students are preparing – sometimes, by the way, fields they won’t enter until after a bachelor’s or beyond. So as the well-meaning elected and volunteer leaders concerned about work force readiness focus in on CTE, I hope they approach their roles with open ears and minds, and strive to make a good thing better.
• All parents need to be open to CTE possibly being the best fit for their children. I fear too many parents of certain socioeconomic backgrounds may have a false notion that “vocational school” would be beneath their children, or be hard to explain to other parents in their circles. First of all, there are some honor student, post-graduate degree bound kids in Science Hill’s CTE programs – health science and digital art and design come to mind – who probably are getting a leg up on peers who aren’t getting that exposure in high school. Second, some kids’ aptitudes and desires run toward CTE. Just because you and your spouse have master’s degrees and work white collar jobs doesn’t mean your kid might not be happier as a mechanic. As Decker said, her hardest sell is when freshmen sign up for their high school academic track, because “everybody’s going to Duke and Harvard.”
It’s good area leaders are focused on CTE. I hope they realize they already have a lot of positives with which to work, and that part of the task also involves changing some parental perceptions.