Technical schools prepare students for life-long learning

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PORTLAND — Based on the premise that the best way to learn is by doing, directors of area technical high schools say they focus on preparing students to be career-ready in a variety of high-skill, high-demand fields.

While the majority of high school students still take a traditional path that often includes a four-year college degree, students who graduate from technical schools are considered immediately employable with job-specific skills.

But that’s not the only benefit of attending a technical high school.

“PATHS is about expanding opportunities not limiting them. PATHS students will leave better prepared, than students that have not had a (technical education) experience,” said Kevin Stilphen, the director at Portland Arts and Technology High School off Allen Avenue.

February is Career and Technical Education Month, and the goal is to “raise public awareness (about) and celebrate the value of CTE and the achievements and accomplishments of CTE programs across the country,” according to the website for the national Association for Career and Technical Education.

This week Stilphen said that in addition to making students career ready, nationwide technical high schools also have a higher graduation rate, about 90 percent, which is 15 percentage points higher than for a more typical high school education.

Guidance counselors and parents often still push students toward the college path, believing it will better their life-time earning potential, but Xavier Botana, superintendent of the Portland Public Schools, said “The new narrative about CTE (is that it provides) labor market preparation and is a step toward success in our current economy. 

“CTE provides an important opportunity for many students to learn in depth about different careers and obtain valuable training and credentialing that can help them to join the labor market or matriculate into their chosen postsecondary program,” Botana said.

“Our goal as a district is to ensure that students graduate ‘prepared and empowered’ for their next step. PATHS is an important part of that. Prepared means that students have the knowledge, skills and disposition necessary and empowered means that they know what they plan to do with those skills.”

This past summer Educate Maine released a report calling for a more sustained effort of steering students toward CTE programs, arguing it would benefit Maine businesses and the overall economy in the long run.

In mid-June last year, Educate Maine, a statewide educational advocacy group, and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, announced their goal of increasing the number of students who attend technical high schools, from 14 percent to 28 percent by 2020.

Currently, about 8,500 of Maine’s nearly 61,000 high school students are enrolled in a vocational school program, according to a Portland Press Herald story published on June 21, 2017.

At the time, Ed Cervone, executive director of Educate Maine, said the state’s 27 technical high schools are underutilized. Locally those include the Westbrook Regional Vocational Center and the Region 10 Technical High School in Brunswick.

“Cervone said the vocational schools of today are nothing like their predecessors,” the Press Herald story said.

“Today’s schools offer integrated curricula that prepare students for jobs as soon as they graduate or for college. They have updated, state-of-the-art facilities so students can keep step with changes in industry.”

Recognizing the importance of career and technical education, Maine’s new state aid to education formula now provides these regional centers with direct funding that’s based on a “program-driven cost model,” according to the Maine Department of Education.

PATHS accepts students from Bonny Eagle, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Gorham, Greely, Scarborough, South Portland, Westbrook, Windham and Yarmouth high schools, as well as from Deering, Portland and Casco Bay high schools.

Westbrook Vocational takes students from Bonny Eagle, Gorham, Scarborough, Westbrook and Windham high schools and Region 10 Tech accepts students from Brunswick, Mt. Ararat and Freeport high schools.

Todd Fields, the director at Westbrook Vocational, did not respond to a request for comment by the Forecaster’s deadline.

However, the school’s website says it “provides many opportunities for our students to succeed (offering) a hands-on, task-oriented method of instruction that develops knowledge, skills and attitudes for life and work.”

“Our programs are designed to meet the community’s changing technology-based labor demands and the student’s need for quality, meaningful employment,” the website adds.

Studies show that half of all science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, jobs call for workers with less than a bachelor’s degree.

Research also shows that healthcare occupations are projected to grow 18 percent by 2026 and that 3 million workers will be needed to support the nation’s infrastructure in the next decade, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education.

The association also said that almost half of the energy workforce may need to be replaced by 2024, and that demand for solar and wind energy technicians will likely double in that time.

In addition, it said, more than 80 percent of manufacturers are already experiencing talent shortages that impact their ability to meet customer demand.

Both Stilphen and Nancy Weed, the director at Region 10, said one of the most important ways their schools keep up with the demands of new technology and emerging fields is by working with an advisory committee made up of experts.

The committee “provides expertise and insight about current and future industry and technological changes,” Stilphen said and the members often prove to be “invaluable when it comes to (our) program staying current with the rapidly changing world of work.”

And Weed said, “Advisory members provide up-to-date information on the new technology needed in each of our programs, as well as ongoing feedback on new skills needed as the workplace changes.”

Among the benefits of attending a technical high school, Stilphen said, is the ability of students to earn “nationally recognized Certifications of Value and advance college credits at no cost, (while allowing) students to try out a career.”

“At PATHS,” he said, “we do not tell students they must attend college to achieve success.”

And, Weed said, “(Our) students learn skills that will last a lifetime, preparing (them) for future careers, whether they travel a direct pathway to immediate employment or elect to further their education.”

Both Stilphen and Weed also said that CTE programs are not only for those who want to pursue a career in the trades.

“All students should have the opportunity to participate in a CTE program in preparation for (their) career goals,” Weed said.

“School districts need to provide accurate information emphasizing how a CTE program will enhance a high school program and work with their administration to reduce scheduling obstacles for students,” she said.

Overall, Weed said, “I trust that students who participate in a CTE will achieve the skills and confidence they need to bring this educational experience with them wherever they go, whether it’s immediately into the workforce or after they pursue further education.”

She also said it’s the long-term vision of Region 10 Tech to become a four-year comprehensive technical high school.

“Our future holds the promise of expanded opportunities for all students in a full-time, four-year high school,” Weed said, arguing that the part-time model, in which students take core academic classes at that their local high school, “does not work for our students, our communities (or) our state. It’s time for a change.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.