This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Five years after receiving a $5.7 million grant from John S. and Leigh Middleton to revamp its career and technical education program, the Philadelphia School District continues to strive to give students a head start in finding gainful employment after graduation.
The program now offers training in 40 career fields through 117 programs at 30 schools in the District, where career-focused students can learn from industry professionals and gain hands-on experience that can lead to industry certification and college credits.
Students can choose from such fields as business and administration, horticulture, animal science, fashion, auto technology, and much more.
According to School District data, interest in CTE has been rising, with a 41 percent year-over-year increase in the number of program applicants in the fall of 2015. In addition, enrollment in CTE is on an upward trend. In the 2014-15 academic year, 5,542 students enrolled in CTE programs; in the following year, 5,886 students enrolled.
But CTE is not immune to the regular funding problems that plague the District. Even with the Middletons contributions, the DIstrict’s funding crisis has impeded its goal of increasing the number of CTE seats. When the revamping began in 2013, the District planned to have 12,000 seats by 2017. Last summer, they pushed that deadline to 2020, before pulling back from the estimate altogether. Currently, there are close to 7,000 seats.
Although CTE is a worthwhile investment for many students, it is an expensive one for the District. Equipment alone can carry a price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars.
This year, the District received about $10 million in federal and state funds for FY17 and FY18. The federal portion comes from Perkins funding, which pays for CTE expenses, while also requiring the District to test students to measure their progress. The requirement for testing makes it critically important for schools to maintain student engagement in their programs and encourage students to stay committed.
Colette Langston, principal of Swenson Arts & Technology High School, a CTE-focused school, received $190,800 in Perkins funding for the 2017-18 school year.
“You want students that are going to come into your program, finish your program, get certification,” she said. “Because you want the federal government to say, ‘Oh, OK. They’re spending our money in a worthwhile way.’”
To measure students’ progress, the state of Pennsylvania requires that all seniors enrolled in CTE who have completed their three-year, 1,080-hour program take the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI) exam.
The exam consists of both a theoretical component and a hands-on, practical component, and helps maintain a school’s good standing for federal funding. Those who score at an advanced level can get an additional state credential and benefit when applying to post-secondary schools.
Although it is important to career and technical education, the NOCTI is not an industry standard test. Each field has its own test designed to evaluate students’ proficiency and mastery of the required skills to work in that particular industry.
For example, students in health-related technology receive certifications in CPR and defibrillators. Last year, the District issued more than 3,800 industry credentials to CTE students.
Despite the focus on careers, CTE is not a substitute for going to college. Instead, it’s a supplement. CTE students take all of the typical academic coursework for graduation at the same time as their hands-on career training.
Cheryl Logan, the District’s chief academic support officer, said that when it comes to college and CTE, the programming is “preparing our kids for both.”
At Swenson, Langston estimated that more than half of the school’s graduating class moves on to post-secondary education.
“I tell them, ‘This is the foundation. You’re just building a foundation. You’re going to leave here with entry-level skills,’” she said. ‘“It’ll make you more attractive than someone who just took academics.’”
Even career academy schools, such as Roxborough High and South Philadelphia High, incorporate the CTE programming into their college preparatory mission.
And whether CTE students choose post-secondary education or go directly into working in their chosen field, their graduation rates are strong. A 2015 District evaluation that followed a 2009-10 freshman cohort over four years found that the graduation rate was 84 percent among CTE students.
The results held steady District-wide, with an 85 percent graduation rate for CTE students for the 2015-16 school year.
Not only is the training program preparing students for real-world job skills, it also is proving to be a potential mechanism for equity. The same District evaluation found that black and Latino students’ graduation rates — 83 percent — were only three percentage points behind white and Asian students — 86 percent.
For non-CTE students, the graduation rates were 74 percent for Asian and white students and 58 percent for black and Latino students.
In some fields, students can receive an industry credential before completing the program. Culinary arts students, for example, can receive ServSafe certificates as sophomores. ServSafe is a food-handling certification that is valid in many states.
Marcus Henderson, a 2013 graduate, studied Health-Related Technologies at Franklin Learning Center. He has since attended the University of Pennsylvania’s nursing program, served as president of the Student Nursing Association of Pennsylvania, and was one of 10 interns who worked over the summer of 2016 with the U.S. surgeon general in Washington.
He said the skills he learned through his CTE training helped him along the way.
“Already knowing how to do blood pressure, already knowing how to do some of those technical skills that a nurse’s aide does coming into a nursing program is very helpful because it kind of sets you apart from some of your colleagues who might not have necessarily had that training,” he said.
In the past, there has been some concern about CTE’s services and availability to English language learner students and students with disabilities. However, the CTE office maintains that the programs are open to all students and that resources such as bilingual teaching assistants and CTE assistants are available in various schools when requested. Currently, about 17.5 percent of CTE students classify as ELL and 10 percent as special needs.
Another challenge for CTE is increasing awareness about the programs among prospective students. The District works with middle school guidance counselors to help them inform 8th-grade students entering high school.
“We try to make sure all of our kids know their options and the things that are available, especially in their own school,” said Logan.
The District also organizes events to raise CTE awareness. The biggest, perhaps, is in February when the District celebrates CTE Month. Ceremonies honoring students and public tours help bring attention to the program’s benefits.
As of the 2017-18 school year, some of CTE’s offerings have changed. Due to low enrollment, HVAC & Refrigeration Technology is no longer available. Logan said that at Parkway West High School, they are beginning an early childhood education program. She also said that aviation is being considered for the future.