How career-technical education is making a comeback

“How do we pass a knife?” Kenneth Hosley asks his students.

“Handle-first,” chorus the two dozen Clayton County students in Mundy’s Mill High School after-school culinary club.

More than 60 students applied when Hosley posted fliers for the club earlier this year. Some work in local restaurants now. Some are aiming for culinary school. Many come bearing Tupperware for the take-home benefits.

“The whole idea was to give them real skills, something they could actually use,” Hosley said. “Everyone needs English and basic math, but those vocational skills are not being offered to them.”

Over the past 15 years or so, public schools in Georgia and nationwide slashed vocational education programs to focus on getting students ready for four-year colleges. But in recent years, policymakers from local districts all the way up to the White House have changed their minds. Vocational — or career and technical — education may be making a comeback.

“We got on this binge of college-for-all that began during the Reagan administration and accelerated during No Child Left behind when we reduced education to two test scores,” said James Stone, director of the National Center for Career and Technical Education at the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based think tank. “Around 2005, 2006, 2007, people began to realize that not every student wanted to go to college, that not every student will benefit from going to college. Oh and, by the way, the workforce doesn’t really need everybody with a four-year college degree.”

Today, given the choice between more career-technical classes at their local public schools or more advanced academics, most Americans would pick career-tech, according to a recent national Phi Delta Kappa International poll. State policymakers have poured millions into expanding career-technical education in high schools and linking high school graduates with post-secondary training, such as a technical certificate, that may stop short of a college degree.

But if career-technical education is making a comeback, it could be a bumpy, slow-motion return.

As of 2009, the average number of career-technical credits American high school students earned had dropped to its lowest point over the previous 20 years, according to the most recent national data. And in Georgia, about 326,000 high school students participated in career-technical classes in 2013-14, about 1,300 more than six years earlier. Schools in many states are scrambling to rebuild career-technical programs, find teachers and purchase equipment, Stone said.

“We’re looking around and saying, ‘Gee we should do more of this,’ only to discover our capacity is diminished,” he said. “It’s difficult to ramp this back up.”

A decade ago, former Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Beverly Hall led an effort to “redesign” local high schools by breaking them into smaller schools with a college-prep focus. That work stripped career-technical programs from most Atlanta high schools, said Michael Maze, Atlanta’s current director of career, technical and agricultural education. Today, Atlanta has a single construction program and one certified-nursing-assistant program and recently added an automotive repair class at one high school, Maze said.

Starting this year, Atlanta high school students who want to study computer networking or nursing or cosmetology or any of half a dozen fields can enroll at Atlanta Technical College. About 100 are enrolled this semester. Over the next few years, enrollment is expected to reach 500. The college got a $3.3 million state grant to renovate space for the dual-enrollment program.

The high school students have to meet the same college-entry standards — a minimum score on the SAT or ACT or college-placement exam — as other college students.

That requirement could shut out some students who would benefit from career-technical training, said Stone. But district and college officials said the program draws in students with a range of grade point averages.

In Clayton County, where Hosley teaches his weekly culinary class, career-technical classes vary by high school. Mundy’s Mill offers classes in technology, business and other areas — but not culinary arts. To start what he hopes will become a more robust culinary program at his school, Hosley solicited advice from local chefs and donations to buy supplies and equipment.

Many of the students don’t see a high school diploma as their endpoint. They plan on enrolling in two- or four-year colleges after graduating.

For junior Ja’Maya Tate, the culinary club has been an opportunity to learn about an activity she loves and is considering for a career. After graduation she wants to become a criminal investigator and eventually open her own restaurant serving her Louisiana family’s recipes.

“High school is supposed to prepare you to go to college and help you go on and build your career,” she said. “By the time you get to college, you should have a good idea of your career. If you love to cook, you should have gotten some sort of taste.”

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