Students at Ohio Hi-Point Career Center often use professional-level tools and digital devices. Recent network upgrades make that possible, Technology Director John Case says.

Dec 20 2019

Schools Focus on Boosting Students’ Future Career Options

At its best, career and technical education uses technology, real-world experiences to prepare students for post-secondary success.

Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools re-envisioned what career-focused education could look like. That effort began in the early 1990s and spurred a systemwide resurgence in career and technical education. The district now offers 16 career clusters, exposing students to a variety of technologies, from medical manikins to VEX robotics and 3D design tools such as Autodesk. 

The district’s website boasts more than 150 areas in which high school students can earn professional credentials in fields ranging from 911 dispatch to aerospace technology and web development.

In the 2018-2019 school year alone, Fairfax County students earned 18,000 industry credentials, says Beth Downey, the district’s CTE coordinator. The district enrolls more than 187,000 students in its elementary and secondary schools as well as alternative programs. “Our business and technology clusters have the most technology,” Downey says. “We’re teaching cybersecurity, we’re teaching network administration and Oracle, we’re teaching CAD drawing and robotics.” 

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Building Skill Sets That Help Students

Fairfax County’s CTE programs are an example of the growing push to offer students opportunities to explore career paths, earn industry credentials and college credits, and get real-world experience — all before completing high school. But how can schools create truly 21st-century CTE programs that prepare their students for the future of work?

First, CTE should balance rigorous academics with career-focused learning, says Kyle Hartung, associate vice president of Jobs for the Future and director of JFF’s Pathways to Prosperity.

The best CTE programs are about identifying problems, understanding what the market is saying, and building skill sets that will help students to respond in meaningful ways, says Hartung. 

“Exposing young people to strategic, door-opening, early college courses in a particular career field can set them on their way to their first professional credential with value in the labor market, without limiting their future educational or career aspirations,” Hartung says.

Such exposure helps improve students’ school attendance and engagement, which also means a boost in core academic skills, according to the Brookings Institution. Key benefits of CTE include training that directly ties to in-demand careers — a point frequently discussed amid concerns about the value of a traditional four-year college degree. Offering students apprenticeships, opportunities to earn professional credentials, and access to professional tools and technology are ways to better ensure their experience aligns with related career fields. Data shows “that students who concentrate in a high-demand CTE field, such as STEM or health sciences, go on to reap benefits from their studies long after graduation,” Scott Stump, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for career, technical and adult education, said in September when the data was released.

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For us, a win is that a kid either solidifies that ‘Yes, this is what I want to do,’ or they say, ‘No, not for me.’”

Beth Downey CTE Coordinator, Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools

Personalized Learning Must Be a Goal

Running CTE on the scale of Fairfax County Schools’ program requires a close relationship with the IT department, Downey says. That’s particularly true now that the district has issued Dell laptops to all high school students for the current school year. The IT department also operates an isolated LAN in some technology classrooms to keep those machines off the primary network when students are learning programming.

The ultimate goal, Downey says, is to produce well-rounded graduates who have had opportunities to explore pathways that interest them.

“For us, a win is that a kid either solidifies that ‘Yes, this is what I want to do,’ or they say, ‘No, not for me’ — and they haven’t spent a lot of postsecondary time and effort to train for something they will not be interested in,” Downey says.

Such personalized learning is also a goal for educators at the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center. They aim to help students “identify their E” — enrollment, employment or enlistment — Communications Director Kelsey Webb says. “Are you planning to head directly into your career? Are you looking to save money on college tuition and earn credits? Or are you looking for additional opportunities by enlisting in the military?”

The school, which serves students from 14 partner districts, has a 96 percent placement rate in those three areas, Webb says. Last year, Hi-Point students earned almost 700 industry credentials and over 400 college credits. 

The center was established in 1974 in a Cold War–era Air Force property but uses modern approaches and technology to meet students’ needs. Hi-Point offers programs for adult learners, provides instruction for juniors and seniors on the main campus, and operates satellite programs across five counties, giving students as young as seventh grade chances to explore in-demand career paths.

To support the technology those programs require, the Hi-Point IT team relies on the latest 802.11ac Wave 2 wireless technology and runs access points on CAT 6A cabling to ensure each classroom has adequate bandwidth. 

“We replaced most of our network switches with HPE Aruba switches and redundant 10-gigabyte fiber backbones between closets,” Technology Director John Case says, “and several years ago we virtualized all of our servers on VMware and Hewlett Packard Enterprise storage area network storage.” 

Academics With Real-World Relevance

In Michigan, Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District established its Career-Tech Center in 1976, offering CTE to juniors and seniors across five Michigan counties. TBAISD balances academics with more technical education, says Patrick Lamb, assistant superintendent of CTE and community outreach. 

“We have academic teachers who meet the certification requirements from the state of Michigan that team teach with our technical teachers,” Lamb says. Students meet academic requirements in a way that makes the real-world relevance clear, and they’re exposed to a range of technologies. For example, TBAISD’s Manufacturing Technology Academy students work with tensile testers, robotic arms, plasma cutters and more, Teacher Tim Wheatley says.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY DUSTIN SPARKS