Steve Rothenberg: It’s time to rethink high school education

For the Monitor
Published: 1/30/2019 12:10:01 AM

Gov. Chris Sununu recently announced the state’s intention to develop New Hampshire Career Academies, a progressive idea to provide high school students a pathway to industry certification, an associate’s degree and a job opportunity through a unique approach that partners community colleges, employers and local high schools.

Supporters, like Commissioner Frank Edelblut, accurately say it will strengthen the state’s efforts to develop and keep more skilled workers, while making college more affordable for students and their families. Opponents argue the program creates a state-sponsored charter school that would siphon funding away from the public school system.

Besides, they emphasize, much in this proposal currently is being offered through other statewide programs currently in place, including New Hampshire’s 28 Career and Technical Education centers, a robust Extended Learning Opportunity model and Community College System of New Hampshire offering high school students college credits at greatly reduced cost (or free for STEM-related classes with the state’s new scholarship program) through their Running Start and Early College programs.

No matter how the politics of this proposal work out, the message is clear: It’s time to rethink high school education. If we want more students to graduate truly ready for today’s college and career opportunities, we can no longer continue to educate them in silos that fail to connect that learning in meaningful and purposeful ways to careers.

The current model is just not working for a large number of our young people. As evidence, when looking at the data for typical high school graduates six years out, 50 percent of them possess neither a degree nor any meaningful industry credential. This despite a 50-year focus on four-year college prep in our high schools (in fact, about 30 percent end up earning bachelor’s degrees).

The rapid evolution of today’s economy means students need to be prepared to compete for jobs that don’t even exist yet. To accomplish this, we must teach them to become agile, lifelong learners able to interpret and apply knowledge, solve problems, be inventive, and collaborate and communicate well with others. While some of these skills are learned in traditional classroom settings, collectively they form the very foundation of all CTE curriculums.

Career and Technical Education offers a more strategic approach to learning that partners with college and industry to connect classroom lessons to real-world applications through work-based learning opportunities, including exposing students to job sites and career professionals. Most CTE students participate in job shadows and internships, and can earn college credits and industry credentials before they graduate high school.

And while CTE is aggressively incorporating emerging skills, technologies and job markets into its career pathway programs, many parents still equate it with the “voc ed” job training programs they grew up with. It’s this identity problem that keeps many students and their parents from even considering CTE as a pathway.

Our new CRTC+ program is another reason to take a fresh look at CTE. This “jumpstart” platform allows CRTC students to create a very different and strategic senior year that is in direct contrast to the “just finish up” mind-set. We help high school seniors, who started with us as sophomores or juniors, to create a personalized and purposeful hybrid schedule that includes a mix of on-campus CCSNH classes, robust work-based learning internship opportunities, and other college- and career-related activities, while also staying connected to select high school classes and senior life (sports, band, graduation).

Max Lambert is an example of how this new program works. The Concord High senior started the CRTC Automotive Technology I CTE program in his sophomore year (now officially allowed with a 2017 change in the N.H. law), and took Auto Tech II in his junior year, which included a nine-week internship at Grappone Automotive, a concurrent enrollment class for three credits with Manchester Community College, and eight industry ASE and Snap-On certifications. This year, Max is working an extended internship at Grappone, has secured an entry-level job there, and is enrolled in two CHS courses and five on-campus MCC classes. And with 400 open automotive technician jobs in the state, paying up to $85,000 a year, Max is well on his way to fulfilling his career goals.

Like Max, 2018 Merrimack Valley graduate and CRTC health science completer Elizabeth Williams also chose to personalize her senior year through CRTC+. Last year she enrolled in our CRTC Career Communication English class where she was able to meet senior English credit and competency requirements by completing all assignments for teacher Beth York in the context of her future medical career. Her research included a job shadow at Lakes Region Hospital where she collaborated with doctors and observed a major surgery. She is now a freshman at Utica College.

Now is a great time for parents and students to learn more about the benefits of Career and Technical Education. CTE centers across the state are recruiting for next year’s classes, and here in Concord, and in the eight surrounding school districts connected to the CRTC, students and parents can tour our programs and talk to teachers and administrators about how CTE can help to strategically organize and advance individual college and career goals.

In this environment of exciting educational innovation, we owe it to our students to rethink high school education, and re-evaluate the ways in which we are preparing our children for college and career success. Whether students plan to go into a two- or four-year college, the military or into the workforce after high school, CTE can be a pivotal and progressive part of their education, and it’s something all high school students and their parent/guardians should take the time to learn more about.

(Steve Rothenberg is director of the Concord Regional Technical Center, president of the New Hampshire Career and Technical Administrators Association, a CCSNH trustee and chairman of its Student Success Committee.)

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