Career education is poised for a comeback in Newark high schools, but challenges await

After a decades-long decline, Newark’s traditional high schools are plotting a comeback.

On Tuesday, the district will unveil a new program at East Side High School to prepare students for teaching careers through a partnership with Montclair State University and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union. Later, the district is expected to announce similar career-themed “academies” at the five other traditional high schools backed by partnerships with hospitals, universities, and even the tech-giant Google.

“Major initiatives, major work, major dollars,” Superintendent Roger León said last month.

Despite their proud histories and pockets of excellence, the district’s traditional, or “comprehensive,” high schools suffer today from low test scores and graduation rates, high levels of absenteeism, and discipline problems. Many high-achieving students shun them, opting instead to compete for spots in the district’s selective “magnet” schools or high schools run by Essex County or charter school networks — a trend that has made it all the harder for some traditional schools to bounce back.

León wants to end that cycle by generating a new buzz around the traditional schools. To do that, he’s urging a rapid reboot of career academies, which previously existed in each high school but have languished in recent years.

Newark’s return to vocational training reflects a national trend as school districts increasingly focus on preparing students for careers, not just college, and businesses clamor for employees with specialized skill sets. But experts caution that effective career programs demand significant resources, including qualified instructors and up-to-date equipment and curriculums — all of which are in short supply in Newark’s high schools after years of disinvestment by the district.

Under León’s plan, each revamped academy will have a career focus and partner organizations. For example, Weequahic High School’s allied health academy will be backed by Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, RWJBarnabas Health, and Rutgers University, while West Side High School’s business and finance academy will get support from Google and Rutgers, according to school promotional materials. Every traditional school will also be paired with a magnet school, which will offer guidance.

The goal is for students to graduate with industry credentials that will help them find well-paying jobs, whether they choose to attend college or enter the workforce.

But those credentials may not be available for some time: District officials do not expect the new academies to be fully operational until July 2020, according to school board members — despite León’s promises to “move very, very quickly” to rebuild the vocational programs.

“You have a district that has underfunded these facilities, curriculums, and student supports now trying to scramble to piece its career-and-technical-education programming back together,” said Monique Baptiste-Good, former vice president of programs at the Newark Alliance, who co-founded a group dedicated to expanding career education in Newark schools. “It’s going to be a really tough climb.”

The district first embedded a career academy in each high school in the early 2000s. Later, schools added more of the programs, often with the same themes, such as culinary arts, leading them to compete for qualified instructors, according to district veterans.

More recent superintendents, including Cami Anderson, pulled back from vocational education as districts across the country focused intently on preparing all students for college. A central-office team devoted to career education was disbanded; until last year, no district official oversaw that work.

Individual schools continued to offer vocational programs in fields ranging from carpentry to cosmetology to information technology. But many schools struggle to maintain the expensive equipment needed to run the programs or find teachers with industry experience. Few of the programs meet the stringent eligibility requirements for federal funding. And in many cases, students who complete the courses are unable to obtain the industry certifications that employers require.

“Currently, we have academies that are in name only,” León said at an October board meeting. “In all reality, that’s called an elective.”

León vowed to swiftly restore the programs. Each traditional school would have an approved career focus by last fall and the necessary teaching materials and equipment by this spring. “Our timing is very, very short,” he said in October.

Since then, the district has approved academies at every school. Some, such as Weequahic’s allied health program and Central High School’s dental and environmental studies programs, already existed. Others, such as Barringer High School’s law and public safety academy, are new. The district also appears to have lined up outside partners for most if not all of the academies.

Actually getting the programs up and running is a different matter — as the district’s July 2020 target date shows.

Experts say a key challenge will be attracting qualified teachers, who must have a special career and technical education, or CTE, certificate issued by the state. (Individuals with industry experience can get provisional teaching certificates, but must undergo two years of classroom supervision and coursework to become fully certified.) Skilled workers are often wary of the lower pay and strict certification rules that come with teaching, which has contributed to a nationwide shortage of CTE instructors.

Newark must also compete for teachers with Essex County’s four vocational-technical high schools, which tend to have more established programs and better facilities. A recently approved $500 million state bond act provides new funding for vocational programs in county schools and colleges — putting Newark’s district schools at even more of a disadvantage.

Besides teachers, the district also has a limited supply of administrators available to build out the academies. The district’s career education chief, Chamiris Mantrana, became the sole official overseeing that work when she was brought on last year. At the school level, vice principals in charge of career programs are often assigned unrelated tasks that drain their time and attention, experts said.

“If you’re really going to do this, you have to have a person who 24-7 in each school this is all they do,” said Erin Sweeney, executive director of Schools That Can Newark, a nonprofit that is helping several schools develop the academies and co-founded the Newark CTE Network. “I don’t think most people realize the amount of work it takes to pull together even the minimum of what you need for a CTE program.”

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford said the plan is for industry experts to teach at the academies. Montclair State University faculty will teach students at East Side’s new academy, she added. She also noted that the academies are still being developed, and that all new programs face challenges early on.

Deborah Smith-Gregory, a retired Newark high school teacher who is president of the Newark NAACP, applauded León’s plan to reboot the academies. But she said it will take “creative thinking” to secure the necessary resources after years of neglect by the district.

“It wasn’t undone in a year,” she said. “And it’s not going to be restored in a year.”