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Advanced manufacturing center hits snags

Housed at Ben Franklin High School, it has faced administrative turnover, hiring difficulties, and scheduling glitches.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When the Benjamin Franklin High School Center for Advanced Manufacturing & Engineering Technology opened its doors three school years ago, the politicians, educators, and business people who toured the building had high hopes – the prospect of turning out hundreds of graduates a year, ready to fill open posts in welding, precision machining, computer assisted design and drafting, and “mechatronics,” as 800 students funneled through the center.

Better yet, the $6 million invested to build it – $2.5 million of it from Phillies co-owner John Middleton – would be put to good use, because students from Community College of Philadelphia would use the same high-priced, state-of-the-art equipment in the evenings, bringing more job candidates into manufacturing to fill vacancies produced by the much-discussed “gray tsunami” of Baby Boomers retiring.

The reality is something different. During the last school year, 175 high school students were enrolled in five programs that could have accommodated about 360,with the number of instructors on board.

“We’re building,” said Christine M. Borelli, the school principal, using the same words as the District’s head of Career and Technical Education, Michelle Armstrong.

Ben Franklin High School’s story is about what happens when dreams meet How-It-Is, although not necessarily How-It-Will-Be. People come and go. Staff is harder to recruit than expected, and the logistics of moving students through the school day turned out to be more complicated than imagined. State and federal regulations that apply to Career and Technical Education have to be met, as well.

On the personnel front, Borelli, for example, is the third principal at Franklin since the center opened three years ago. And two top School District CTE administrators who shepherded the project have also departed.

“The secret to success of any school is the vision and drive of the principal,” said one of them, Clyde Hornberger, the District’s former special adviser for CTE. The question, he said, is whether a new principal will continue the program. Hornberger, who was well-known for his success in building career partnerships in the Lehigh Valley as director of the Lehigh Career & Technical Institute, had retired from that job and was hired in Philadelphia as a consultant.

Hornberger spent a lot of time building relationships with the manufacturing community, including the Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, as well as commissions put together by former Mayor Michael Nutter.

Their expertise was critical. The manufacturers and employers advised the District on what types of machines to buy, what industry certifications were important, and what should be included in the curriculum. They helped to recruit instructors.
When the school opened, Hornberger left. David Kipphut, the District’s well-respected head of CTE, retired last school year. Armstrong, the new leader, simply hasn’t been around as long.

“There’s been remarkably little reaching out in the last two years,” said Stephen Jurash, president and chief executive of the Manufacturing Alliance. Borelli, who has been a principal at several schools, says the days of the high school’s leadership instability are over. The daughter of a union blue-collar worker, she is no stranger to the trades, and she says she’s staying put at Ben Franklin.

“I love this job,” she said. “It saves kids’ lives,” because young people who aren’t engaged in a traditional classroom find themselves ready and eager to learn when they can work with machines.

There are, however, complications. To be accredited in the trades, students must have 1,080 hours of teacher-led instruction in the specific trade. It takes three years to accomplish those hours, so what happens if an 11th grader transfers into the school?

“It’s a rostering nightmare,” Borelli said. Because there are so many shop classes, Borelli doesn’t have the ability to create enough electives to keep students who won’t be able to accrue their 1,080 hours engaged.

Another problem? Some Benjamin Franklin 9th graders were slotted into programs that they didn’t want, she said. To change that, she is instituting a Freshman Seminar class that will acquaint 9th graders with all the programs and team them with junior and senior mentors.

The early developers of the Franklin center had envisioned 9th and 10th graders rotating through the various disciplines before choosing a specialty for their junior and senior years. It was a good idea, Armstrong said, but incompatible with state regulations on CTE curriculum development.

Borelli credits the career and technical instructors with pushing her and others to start recruiting students in middle school. “We want the students who are coming to Ben Franklin to be coming for advanced manufacturing.”

Other lessons have been learned, as well.

For example, mechatronics – which is technology that combines electronics and mechanical engineering – proved to be too difficult for students who hadn’t had physics.

The problem is that physics is typically taught in later high school years, but students needed that background to understand their mechatronics coursework.

Borelli knew it wasn’t working when the school opened a renewable energy program and the students from mechatronics fled to it in droves – a credit to the renewable energy program, but also an indicator of flaws with the mechatronics course.

One of Borelli’s goals for this year is to better coordinate the academic program with what’s needed in the shop – for example, teaching angles in math class when they are using them in the design program.

There have been some bonuses as well, she said.

One plus is that each discipline has an industry advisory committee that helps keep instructors up to date. PTR Baler & Compactor Co. in Northeast Philadelphia donates metal and wire to Franklin’s welding shop.

An obstacle to hiring instructors is that many of them, long expert in their blue-collar trades, haven’t stepped inside a classroom since high school, but now have to go to college to gain the necessary certifications. That can be a deterrent to recruiting.

But it has a positive impact in the school, Borelli said.

“They are learning best practices” and passing them onto their colleagues, even as they are picking up tips from the experienced pros at the high school.

Borelli likes that her students know that Community College of Philadelphia students are using their classrooms at night, sending a message that college is an option for CTE students.

“The perception has been that you do CTE so you don’t go to college,” Borelli said. “We want them to know they have employment opportunities so they can afford higher education, if that’s what they want.”