Time to give Career Tech its due
“College is not the only way to become independent, employed and engaged,” said Malia Lewis, president of the Cleveland Heights–University Heights City School District Board of Education (BOE), and a longtime advocate for a strong Career Technical Education (CTE) program
Since the early 1980s, when high-paying manufacturing jobs started to disappear, there has been a national movement to replace vocational education—the old “manual-training” option for high school students who were not seen as “college material”—with something more relevant to success in a high-tech workplace.
The advantages of the new approaches to CTE instruction are still not widely understood. Much like the Advanced Placement courses discussed in this column recently, the CTE alternative suffers from too few students, whether college- or workplace-bound, seeing it as an appropriate option for themselves. And yet, these courses can motivate students, help them develop clear and informed career goals, and prepare them for college and well-paying careers. Some students even support themselves in college using certifications earned in high school.
“I want Heights students to be better counseled about their options so they can maximize their potential and follow their interests,” Lewis continued. Those options include 22 programs that offer challenging content and industry certification in fields including audio engineering, firefighting, clinical health, engineering and robotics.
This specialized instruction is offered through a consortium of school districts. Each district offers distinct courses that are available to students from all participating districts, which include CH-UH, Shaker Heights, Warrensville Heights, and, more recently, Maple Heights and Bedford. CH-UH provides administrative oversight to the consortium.
Two significant challenges for a multi-district approach are transportation and getting all five districts on the same school calendar; keeping offerings and resources up to date requires a lot of attention, too. Unfortunately, the consortium lost its director three years ago and has not hired a replacement, putting some progress on hold, and burdening the coordinator.
CTE courses also face other hurdles. They don’t fit neatly into traditional classroom spaces, or already-full daily schedules. Many offerings are two or three periods long, and most require specially designed spaces and specialized equipment. All require instructors who are experienced professionals. The popular criminal justice program was discontinued this year when its founding teacher retired and was not replaced.
It takes time and leadership to remove barriers. In 2015, as part of the redesign of the high school, a small cadre of community members focused on the space needed for CTE. Led by then BOE member Ron Register, and interested community volunteers Don Frederick and Malia Lewis (prior to her being elected to the BOE), the group pushed for other improvements. These well-informed squeaky wheels kept pushing for the district to focus on strengthening CTE. Their advocacy paid off.
Lewis noted that when the district hired Superintendent Elizabeth Kirby, one of its goals for her was to bring career education into the foreground. This year, the district hired CTE expert Celena Roebuck to lead a process that will result in a five-year plan. I participated in one of more than a dozen focus groups convened as part of that process. A report is due in May.
Our district is more effective and more successful because students have varied opportunities that build on their interests and strengths, and equip them for life after graduation. CTE provides one of those opportunities. This is an important moment to make CTE a source of community pride and high-quality education.
Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of the recently published Resisting Segregation: Cleveland Heights Activists Shape their Community, 1964-1976.