Today’s ‘CTE’ dispelling vocational school stereotypes

Sparks fly as Science Hill student Ben Mottern lays down a weld in Brent Sluder’s classroom. Photos by Jeff Keeling

Sparks fly as Science Hill student Ben Mottern lays down a weld in Brent Sluder’s classroom. Photos by Jeff Keeling

By Jeff Keeling

In recent months, a task force that includes Johnson City and Washington County school board members, and members of the county and city commissions, has begun looking for potential areas of collaboration between the school systems. The group’s goal is to find places to improve outcomes for students, and make the best use of both systems’ resources.

The group’s discussions have returned several times to CTE. Informally at this stage, ideas ranging from sharing of expensive equipment between systems to establishment of a separate career academy have been aired. We decided to visit a local program and learn a bit for ourselves about what CTE is and how it operates.

Senior Ethan Lyle performs an advanced weld using the tungsten inert gas  (TIG) method.

Senior Ethan Lyle performs an advanced weld using the tungsten inert gas
(TIG) method.

Someday soon, when people check out the website for Science Hill High School’s new student coffee lounge, they’ll be witnessing the work of Mike Crumley’s digital arts and design students. If circumstances allow, they may buy a pastry from one of Marsha Salyer’s business students, prepared by one of Sasha Johnson’s culinary arts students.

All those teachers instruct students in Science Hill’s Career Technical Education (CTE) department, where 1980s-era perceptions of “vocational school” are far from reality. Instead, in a secondary school segment much on the minds of school board members, local politicians and the business community, hundreds of students ranging from future welders to future veterinarians get real world experience from teachers who, mostly, came to education from the private sector.

“Everybody here excluding one was doing this job outside and then came into education,” CTE Director Dr. Julie Decker said of the teachers who serve a total class load of about 1,000 per semester, in 11 of the state of Tennessee’s 16 defined “career clusters.”

Classes include the more traditional-sounding vocational courses such as welding, automotive technology and cosmetology. But students can also study therapeutic clinical services under the health science aegis, digital arts and design under arts, audiovisual technology communication, or event planning and management under hospitality and tourism.

“It’s not the old vocational school,” Decker said. Even in the more traditional disciplines, she added, students are reading automotive manuals, for instance, that are “college plus.” And each teacher, in addition to the core career/college readiness aspects of his or her field, must select a general education track – English, math or science – and be sure to build competencies in that area into their CTE curriculum.

Science Hill Future Business Leaders of America students Rachel Lemkin, right, Gavin Nickels and Harrison Simm (back) recently placed third in a regional Sports and Entertainment Management at the recent FBLA regional competition. Photo contributed

Science Hill Future Business Leaders of America students Rachel Lemkin, right, Gavin Nickels and Harrison Simm (back) recently placed third in a regional Sports and Entertainment Management at the recent FBLA regional competition. Photo contributed

Old biases about vocational education may persist in some households, even though Science Hill’s CTE program has alumni with post-graduate degrees in fields ranging from medicine to digital media. Decker said while CTE isn’t for everyone, she continues striving to get more parents and students to consider it.

“It can be a hard sell when incoming freshmen and their parents come in to sign up for their high school track,” Decker said. “Parents have often already done their child’s schedule of what they wanted.”

This coming summer, she hopes to conduct a career and tech academy for sixth through eighth graders, bringing them in to see what’s on offer at Science Hill’s CTE center.

“It’s all about transition,” she said. “What are we readying them for after high school? It’s about where you’re going and what the (employment) needs are for the future.”

The Laughlins are one local family that went from skeptics to believers during the high school experience of their son Jacob, who is now a freshman at East Tennessee State University. When Jacob told his parents he needed to sign up for an intro CTE course, Jeremy Laughlin’s thoughts turned to “shop class.”

Jeremy, a nurse who works for a medical device company, and his wife Kimberly, a teacher, figured Jacob would take a culinary course and move on with the “academic” side of his high school experience. Instead, he chose health science education, the intro course for the med-tech CTE track. Then he took another, and another, and by the time he graduated last May, he was intent on a career in physical therapy.

“We weren’t really sure what those classes entailed, but when we started seeing what he was learning about, when they started the didactic part, I was like, ‘wow.’ He had to take A and P (anatomy and physiology) and I think some Latin terminology, so there was both theory and practice (among four total courses, Jacob completed a clinical rotation while still in high school).

“We were impressed with the curriculum and the homework that was coming home and the tests that he had to study for. My being from a medical background and seeing what he was studying and learning, and hearing what the teachers were talking about, was impressive.”

Jacob Laughlin said the courses and clinical work – he also volunteered in the physical therapy department at the Mountain Home VA Medical Center – left him better prepared for his college work. “I loved the classes,” he said.

In terms of the CTE’s mission (found at – “the preparation of students to further their education at the post-secondary level or to enter the job market ready to meet the challenges of the workplace” – Jacob Laughlin is at one extreme, likely headed for post-graduate work. Ethan Lyle, a Science Hill senior, is closer to the middle.

Already a relatively advanced welder, Lyle recently displayed his “TIG” welding skills (tungsten inert gas) in welding instructor Brent Sluder’s classroom. Lyle plans to follow in the footsteps of his brother, Freddie, who entered the welding profession after getting a degree in blacksmithing at ETSU.

“He’s making really good money, and the money’s a good part of it, but I just like knowing that I can actually make something, and being proud that I actually like, made that, and had the creativity to do something like that,” said Lyle, who anticipates getting a degree at Northeast State. After that, he may weld locally at Eastman or some other industry, or he and his brother may team up, “and go maybe up north, out west, and actually welding on pipelines out there.”

Those of his students with an aptitude and decent work ethic, Sluder said, can essentially write their own tickets as far as work is concerned.

Jacob Laughlin

Jacob Laughlin

That’s really the case in a lot of CTE areas, Decker said. Some of Laughlin’s counterparts in med-tech earn their CNA certificates before graduation and can go straight into work. Carpentry teacher Robert Tester’s web page, for instance, says students who have completed each of two residential and commercial construction classes are knowledgeable and skillful in the early phases of building construction (site layout, foundation systems, concrete, framing systems and electrical systems in the first class) and start-to -finish projects (exterior finishing and systems in stair framing, masonry, plumbing and roofing in the second).

With local leaders pondering a greater focus on CTE, funding is a relevant question. Decker said  Johnson City’s system receives money from the Perkins Basic State Grant program to help provide for its instructional needs, which often far exceed those of standard academic classes. That total was $119,410 for this school year. The school board has the discretion to add to that amount, which it did to the tune of about $14,000 this year.

The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) reported a year ago that nationally, Perkins funding for FY 2016 was the same as for 2015, $1.118 billion, which is less than the level prior to the sequestration budget several years ago.

Those funding realities are part of why 16 CTE directors from around Northeast Tennessee serve, along with representatives from area community and technical colleges, on the Northeast Tennessee Technical Education Association, where a good bit of collaboration already exists, Decker said.

“We share due to finances – some have more than others based on numbers – and we’re a very giving group to one another, because in the long run it’s all about the students,” Decker said. “With the colleges, our goal is to find out what they have, how we can collaborate, what we can do dual credit with.”

Ethan Lyle

Ethan Lyle

Those students who “it’s all about,” at least according to the ACTE, are more engaged in their education, graduate at higher rates than non-CTE students, and score higher on academic achievement tests. They also, per the ACTE, gain critical employability skills, earn industry-recognized credentials, and, “are the backbone of the future U.S. workforce.”

Decker said CTE students at Science Hill definitely get a dose of life’s realities, whether it be the importance of living within a budget or the simple awareness that a day is coming when the adults in their lives won’t be giving them an allowance and paying for their car insurance.

“The cost is high to make sure these students have the equipment they need to get competent at the classes they do,” Decker said. And to that end, quite a number of them do their own fundraising through the clubs affiliated with their vocational area, in order to afford trips to competitions or extra equipment.

The practical nature of CTE, and the limited resources available, make collaboration second nature, Decker said. “We do collaboration with one another as systems, and with our students. What’s happening with other committees at this point we’re not yet part of. We’re just offering what we have to offer as directors.”



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