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With our shortage of skilled workers, career and technical education is ready to be taken seriously

This story is part of Map to the Middle Class, a Hechinger Report series that explores how schools can prepare young people for the good middle-class jobs of the future.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — It was tough to nail down a favorite: maybe the chicken cordon bleu with sweet potatoes. But the lasagna was also amazing, and it was hard to top the scalloped potatoes that came with the prime rib.

Delivered desk-side on Thursdays before last bell, still hot from the kitchen and packed takeout style in brown paper bags, the meals were a buzzy new collaboration between Manchester School of Technology (MST) business students and the school’s Culinary Arts program. Beyond providing a weeknight meal plus leftovers to the 30 teachers and administrators who bought $60 memberships to the plan, the effort was also born of urgent need.

Career and technical education (CTE) programs such as those offered at MST — which feature academically and professionally rigorous classes and send graduates off to postsecondary programs at high rates — may be uniquely positioned to prepare young adults for the future of work.

As traditional blue-collar industries decline across the country, the casualties of automation and offshoring, they are increasingly being replaced by skilled service jobs such as those in health care, information technology and finance, according to research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. While good middle-class jobs are disappearing for people with only high-school diplomas, New Hampshire, with its workforce aging, is struggling to fill 17,000 jobs, many of them in skilled occupations.

And it’s only going to get worse. The state is losing its youth. Nearly 50 percent of New Hampshire’s college-going high school graduates are leaving the state. A significant factor is that college education in New Hampshire is the priciest in America. Those who leave seeking a more affordable education often do not return to the state to work, live and start families.

High-quality CTE, experts hope, will address many of these issues with retooled, up-to-date programs that help propel students to postsecondary education and, in the process, give them more in-state connections and prepare them not only for in-demand jobs but for the flexibility the future will require.

But career and technical education is in some ways still caught in the shadow of what experts call “grandpa’s vocational school.” Historically, such programs were limited to a handful of skilled trades that did not necessarily lead to well-paying jobs; students were separated into vocational and nonvocational categories early in their academic careers.

Often mirroring race and class divisions, this system of tracking children still haunts CTE today. “There’s no question that CTE has a dark history of tracking low-income and minority students,” said Kate Blosveren Kreamer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE, a nonprofit that represents state leaders responsible for career and technical education. “But the job economy has changed and CTE is really in a period of transformation.”

The graduation rate for students who concentrate in CTE programs is 93 percent — about 10 percent higher than the overall high school graduation rate. Photo: Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report

The national effort to improve vocational education and shed its negative image began in earnest with the Carl Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1984 and accelerated with the act’s 2006 “improvement,” which rebranded vocational education as CTE, encouraged substantive integration of strong academics with up-to-date technical education and increased state and local accountability.

Yet many still haven’t received that message. Speaking in February at the annual Republican retreat, President Trump referred to the programs as “vocational” and appeared to suggest that CTE was designed for students who are academically deficient. Meanwhile, enrollment in CTE has remained stagnant over the past decade, and the Trump administration’s most recent budget proposal does not reverse the overall reduction in Perkins funding to states over time.

Like many career and technical schools, the Manchester School of Technology used to offer only a part-time program for juniors and seniors from nearby high schools, but MST gave itself a face-lift in 2012 when it launched its own full-time high school. Today, in the hope of getting young people excited about learning — and keeping them closer to home — the school is trying to cross-pollinate academic and technical instruction, which is how the chicken cordon bleu with sweet potatoes came about.

READ MORE: These rare schools see benefits of combining AP classes with vocational training

At MST, where students may study a wide range of sought-after careers, from game design and aeronautical engineering to HVAC and nursing, teachers and administrators are working overtime to innovate and prove the school’s worth, hoping to both increase and highlight the value of CTE in today’s job economy. Principal Karen Hannigan Machado travels annually to Washington to secure her school’s $650,000 allotment of Perkins funding (those funds are “just a drop in the bucket,” she said). Teachers and school counselors visit local middle schools to evangelize about MST’s college and career opportunities, and they organize open houses and special events to coax local businesses to provide internships for students.

“We need to make sure parents are educated about what we can offer,” said Hannigan Machado. They need to understand “that CTE is not for kids who are dummies, or don’t go to college. Every program here, we encourage kids to go to college or earn a certification.”

MST had an impressive graduation rate of 94 percent last school year. In a pattern similar to other high schools in the city, 37 percent of its graduates entered four-year colleges, 15 percent enrolled in two-year colleges and certification programs and 21 percent went directly into jobs.

But its academic achievement appears weak by other standard measures. On last year’s SAT examination, just 21 percent of the school’s 11th-graders scored “proficient” or above in math, compared to 28 percent in the state; in science, 15 percent scored “proficient” or above, compared to 37 percent in the state. Hannigan Machado attributes these low scores to growing pains — the school only recently adopted federal rules for CTE performance indicators and just started to require SAT testing. “It is a difficult thing to meet all that is required federally while also trying to provide what is needed for students locally.”

Meanwhile, Hannigan Machado continues her big push to get academic and CTE teachers to collaborate closely in order to find new ways of engaging students, especially struggling learners. “We’re asking teachers more and more to work together on projects, so they can complement each other, provide more opportunities for students to connect with what’s being taught,” she said.

Michelle Strout, Manchester School of Technology business teacher, teaches a freshman soft skills class. Photo by Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report

When Michelle Strout, a business teacher at MST, brought together her class and the Culinary Arts program to conceive and market the meal delivery plan, it stirred so much excitement among staff and students that Strout’s class was invited to collaborate with five other CTE programs, brainstorming ideas about how to market services and products and generate income. This type of engagement, said Strout, is one way she and fellow MST teachers hope to keep students engaged in school and anchored in New Hampshire.

“We’re not keeping our young people here — we call it brain-drain. So, the ones we are able to keep and engage, and connect with the community early on, there’s a better chance they’ll stay,” she said.

Strout noted that nurturing connections to local businesses, where students may experience the workplace via internships, is another key to retaining young people. Results have been mixed, however; only about a third of MST’s students participate in internships, according to Hannigan Machado. “I know how important workforce development is to employers right now,” said Strout, formerly the membership director for the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. “But if industry really wants young people to stay here, they’d better get some teeth in the game. They need to be involved.”

In Manchester, the trickle-down of the youth exodus has played out painfully during the last decade, as the number of students attending high school in the city has declined by half. Despite its recruiting efforts, MST’s enrollment has fallen from 900 students in 2012 to 600. Statewide, kindergarten through 12th-grade enrollment is projected to drop nearly 22 percent from 2006 levels by 2025. Those numbers directly affect the bottom line at Manchester Tech. So while the school jumps through an increasing number of hoops required for competitive CTE programs, it’s also facing budget cuts. “Everybody’s scrambling,” said Hannigan Machado. “We had a major budget crisis at the end of last year and we lost four teachers. That was a huge hit to us.”

READ MORE: Without changes in education, the future of work will leave more people behind

Thus, the meal-plan collaboration also served as an important stop-gap: The Culinary Arts program lost a teacher through the budget crisis, which resulted in the remaining culinary instructor being over-stretched and struggling to ensure each student met the program’s requirements. When Strout stepped in to provide culinary students with a business lesson in how to make a profit, she also created a novel way to introduce a key simulacrum of a real-life workplace necessity: how to make money. This happens to also be an area of career and technology education job-preparedness, called “aspects of industry,” that instructors must check off their list of state-mandated competencies students must meet in their CTE pathway.

This approach of threading together technical and academic learning has allowed Hannigan Machado to get creative to keep students moving forward. For example, when 17-year-old Christian Lacoss repeatedly failed his MST biology class, instead of enrolling yet again in the same class, he is now among a group of students participating in a new ecology class taught by another fledgling teacher collaboration — this time between the landscaping and horticulture teacher and the biology teacher.

Just a few months into the school year, Lacoss ticks off projects he’s worked on so far: a monarch butterfly assignment; creating his own classroom wetland project based on observations from a real-life wetland; and a unit inspired by a field trip to a waste-water treatment plant. If he masters the content, this ecology class will earn Lacoss his biology credit. More importantly, the class has him engaged and reaching benchmarks.

“I was doing really poorly last year. I guess I just felt lazy and didn’t really know what to do about it,” he said. “But this year I’m doing so much better. Something just clicked for me. I love learning by doing stuff. I can’t sit still at a desk and read a book.”

Hannigan Machado acknowledges that schools such as MST are not for everyone, especially for students seeking a traditional high school experience. “The kids who come here come because they need something different. Sometimes they get here and say: ‘This isn’t for me, it’s too much work.’ Other kids thrive on it,” she said. “Often, it’s the kids who hated school and hated the traditional model of learning. They come here and they blossom.” (She is quick to add, though, that her students must meet high standards — a 3 on a scale of 1 to 4 — in order to pass a class and graduate.)

Nationally, there’s some evidence that the efforts of educators to refocus the career and technical model as a pathway to postsecondary education are working. All 50 states and the District of Columbia report higher graduation rates for CTE students than for other students. Still, critics caution that, as the job economy evolves to favor greater levels of education and training, workers need to be equipped with a level of elasticity — the ability to pivot, stay current with new job skills and retrain if necessary — that is not necessarily built into the CTE model.

“With CTE, there’s often this view that if we can just get them some skills, inject them into the job market, then everything’s going to be fine,” said Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna senior fellow in education at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “But what we’re not taking into account is that these people will need to learn new things over time, as they age. To me, this means we cannot afford to avoid providing children with a very strong general education where people develop the cognitive skills and learning capacity that’s needed as people age in the workforce.”

Another concern: Some say that the pathways to careers as envisioned by CTE programs in states and school districts create a flawed model for preparing young people for future jobs. Many states, including New Hampshire, rely on a network of 16 career clusters that, cumulatively, represent 79 career pathways. Among the clusters are areas of study such as Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources; Transportation, Distribution & Logistics; and Architecture & Construction. Instead of this one-size-fits-all list, critics say, states and regions should examine their strategic advantages — what their real labor market opportunities are — and work backward to ultimately prepare young people for in-demand jobs.

At Manchester School of Technology, students may study a wide range of sought-after careers, from game design and aeronautical engineering to HVAC and nursing. Photo by Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report

“It’s like any massive effort of this sort, by the time you get the information to print, it’s probably obsolete,” said James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, Southern Regional Education Board. “Ultimately, strong career pathways need to begin with the end in mind: How can we help every young person become a productive adult?”

In the trenches, Hannigan Machado says the need to meet local workforce demand is also a tricky balancing act with student interest and enrollment. Ensuring that MST is meeting Manchester’s future job needs is a process that is overseen by the Department of Education and by advisory boards made up of local industry and business stakeholders. For example, since the city does not have a thriving tourism industry, the school no longer offers a hospitality program. On the other hand, strong local manufacturing and health care job sectors recently led to new pathways at MST in manufacturing and health science.

For now, as every high school in the Manchester School District fights to keep up enrollment and funding, Hannigan Machado is laser-focused on preventing further teacher and program cuts at MST. “Everyone’s hoarding the bananas right now,” she said. “We’re just going to keep focusing on attracting high-fire, college-bound students.” But she says she will remain steadfast in her mission to prove that quality career and technical education can make a substantial impact in connecting young people to lucrative jobs in her city and state.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter here.