This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In Steve Grosso’s spacious, well-equipped computer lab at South Philadelphia High School, students in a Computer Repair and Networking class are learning how to diagnose and repair every aspect of a desktop PC’s hardware and operating systems.
A few floors below, their classmates in John Evans’ engineering class are using computer-assisted design programs and trigonometry calculations to come up with a plan for reconfiguring the stormwater drainage system at Southern, a real-life application of their academic work. A 3D printer is the latest industrial tool at their disposal, to help them raise their design skills to a new level.
Southern’s career and technical education (CTE) programs have expanded this year, and many participating students are enthusiastic about their future job prospects and engaged in their course work.
“I like to learn how things work – how things are done,” said senior Thomas Mack, an engineering program student who is planning to go to college this fall, probably in engineering.
Mack said that his program of study has given him clear objectives and a pathway to get there. “They say school prepares you for life; this class prepares you for a career.”
South Philadelphia High principal Otis Hackney said that he sees CTE, formerly called vo-tech, as a gateway to success for many at his school – a view shared by other District officials.
At times in the past, CTE was regarded as a last refuge for students who were not succeeding in the classroom. No more, Hackney said.
“We want smart people to go into those fields – I want a smart mechanic, a smart electrician, and a smart plumber. It’s not a place where you send the kids who don’t do well academically. It’s more a matter of identifying kids with the right skill sets and interests.”
South Philadelphia principal Otis Hackney talks with Saleem Wright of Philadelphia Academies Inc. Hackney said the CTE programs are a gateway to success for many students.
Because Edward W. Bok Technical High School closed last June, Southern has become the latest Philadelphia high school to embrace career and technical education in a big way. It already had some CTE programs before last fall, but they have been greatly expanded with the addition of several hundred Bok students, at a cost of about $3 million for school renovations.
There are now about 360 CTE students there, in grades 10 through 12, out of a total enrollment of 975.
The Philadelphia School District, too, is in the beginning stages of a dramatic CTE expansion, pledging in its five-year strategic plan to almost double the number of students in career and technical education, from about 6,600 now to 12,000 by 2017. That would put more than a third of the District’s high school students in CTE programs.
“This is an exciting time for career and technical education in Philadelphia,” said Philadelphia School District Career and Technical Education Deputy David Kipphut. “It used to be that the job of vocational education was to teach entry-level skills. It is far beyond that now.”
A new Center for Advanced Manufacturing will open at Benjamin Franklin High School, most likely in the fall of 2016, Kipphut said.
Clyde Hornberger, a nationally-known CTE expert who has been advising the Philadelphia district, said that the center will eventually have at least 600 students. While low-tech manufacturing has largely disappeared in most U.S. cities, high-tech fabrication work in numerous fields is still in demand in the United States, including the Philadelphia area, Hornberger said.
In all, the District plans to offer 30 new CTE programs in fields that should be ripe for hiring in the region, including biotechnology, pharmacy technician and veterinary technician. And the number of job-related certifications in the District’s nine existing CTE areas of career concentration is steadily expanding.
This school year, the three most popular CTE areas are Communications and Graphics programs, which includes graphic arts as well as cinematography and film/ video production; Health Industry professions, which range from emergency medical technician to dental assistant; and Construction and Manufacturing, which includes everything from engineering to construction trades.
Cosmetology, an old vo-tech staple, has the lowest enrollment.
Also this school year, the curriculum for CTE courses was standardized across the city, raising the level of the offerings in some schools. Principals are being trained in CTE administration. Advisory committees of industry experts are being expanded, and discussions are underway about students getting more college credits while in high school.
Behind the push for expansion is the District’s belief – backed by academic studies and Philadelphia statistics – that CTE provides skills and career pathways that lead directly to decent-paying jobs.
It also helps keep more students in high school and headed toward postsecondary success, District officials say.
Just-released graduation rates for 2012-13 show that on average, the percentage of students graduating from the District’s all-CTE schools – Dobbins, Mastbaum, Randolph, Saul, and Swenson – is about 20 points higher than the typical neighborhood high school.
One reason for the higher graduation rates is the more selective nature of the CTE schools. To get in, most students must have grades of C or higher, no serious disciplinary problems, and 10 or fewer absences a year; those who meet the criteria go into a lottery.
But a 2013 Johns Hopkins University study of Philadelphia’s CTE programs indicates that their positive impact goes beyond the more selective character of the schools. Comparing students in CTE schools with those who met the admissions criteria but were not selected in the lottery, it found that the students in the CTE schools were far more likely to successfully complete their required math course sequence and to graduate than the comparison group.
Kipphut said he believes the reason for the better results is that career education augments the traditional three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – with another three that education guru Bill Daggett cites as keys to success: rigor, relevance, and relationships.
Rigor, Kipphut said, because students earn industry certifications as part of their course work and have to pass difficult national industry assessments. Relevance because, for example, “in electronics, you use Ohm’s law, so as a result, you understand the need to study math.” Relationships, because students often have the same teacher for three years: “To succeed in school, each student needs a personal relationship with at least one adult.”
As the District commits to more CTE, Kipphut said, it wants to make sure that the opportunity to participate isn’t limited to students going to all-career and technology schools, which have far more applicants than open slots. So it will be expanding programs in the neighborhood schools as well.
Starting this fall, students from anywhere in the city will be admitted to CTE programs outside their neighborhood if those programs have empty slots after the local students had the chance to fill them.
One place where there will likely be plenty of open CTE spots next fall is South Philadelphia High, which would have had an enrollment of about 1,400 this school year if the great majority of current Bok students had transferred there last fall. But hundreds went elsewhere. As a result, many of Southern’s CTE programs are underenrolled.
At Southern, students and teachers say that CTE’s real-world applications and the ability to learn through doing keep interest and success rates high.
“They learn that there is something beyond academic math and science,” said engineering program teacher John Hutchinson. “There are connections to the real world and real-world problems.”
Tim McCullough, an 11th grader taking Computer Repair and Networking, said he likes the way he is learning the subject matter. “Most of the time, we’re doing projects. I like being able to do my own thing,” he said. “And when we do lab work, we work together – that’s really good for building teamwork skills.
“It’s really engaging. I’m doing what I want to be doing, so it makes my day go by really fast.”