Building the CTE program into a first-class option

David Kipphut has a mission: to transform what used to be called vocational education from a second-class backwater to a first-class pathway to prosperity in Philadelphia.

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

It’s an uphill climb in a cash-strapped district that prioritizes college attainment. Even so, Kipphut has seen significant progress since taking over the Office of Career and Technical Education (CTE) three years ago. Among his favorite examples: the welding program at Randolph High, which just graduated its first cohort.

One grad joined the military to specialize in aircraft repair. Another has a well-paid job at the Akers Philadelphia Shipyard, after a successful internship.

And a third is going to college in Virginia to study advanced manufacturing.

“Of course we run into the issue where everyone says, ‘You need to go to college,’” Kipphut said. “In the world of CTE, we say, college is an option, but it’s not the only option.”

When Kipphut, a former principal, took over the CTE office, he found serious problems: out-of-date courses, equipment shortages, unsupportive principals, and flagging enrollment.

But the challenge his team faced wasn’t just to resolve those issues. It was to wipe out vo-tech’s negative image as a dumping ground and convince parents, students, and principals that CTE can expand possibilities instead of limiting them.

The mission is far from fully accomplished, but principals say good things are happening.

“I tell students and parents: This is not your mother’s vo-tech,” said Toni Damon, the principal of Murrell Dobbins CTE High School, one of five CTE-focused schools in the city (the others are Swenson, Randolph, Mastbaum and Saul). “You will come out of this program ready to go to college – or any post-secondary school.”

The basics: What is CTE?

CTE programs are three-year courses of study taught by experienced professionals. Programs in 41 “occupational areas” include computer technology, engineering, architecture, design, cosmetology, child care, health care, and traditional trades such as plumbing and carpentry.

Real-world work experience is a central goal. Culinary students cater events. Design students run print shops. Horticultural students work on the Philadelphia Flower Show.

Altogether, about 5,600 students were enrolled last year in 115 CTE courses in 30 District high schools, including neighborhood, citywide admission, and special admission schools. Some have just a few programs; others offer 10 or more. All CTE courses are open to students citywide.

One Philadelphia charter school, Universal Audenried in South Philadelphia, offers state-approved CTE programs, qualifying it for federal funds.

Students generally apply to specific programs in 8th grade and arrive at high school enrolled in the specialty, but they begin CTE coursework in 10th grade. A typical CTE program requires 1,080 hours. Students take skill-specific certification tests along the way and a state-required, comprehensive exam from the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI) in their specialty area during senior year.

The programs get supplemental funds from the federal Department of Education’s Perkins program and state aid. Perkins money is declining, from $5.2 million last year to $4.6 million this year, due largely to an overall District enrollment drop. The state contributes $950 per student per year; Gov. Wolf’s budget proposal would increase that to about $4,000. Program design and implementation are guided by a complex set of rules and advisory committees largely made up of industry professionals.

How well do the programs work?

Backed by a $5.7 million grant from the Middleton family, the CTE office has been shaking out obsolete programs over the last several years, upgrading equipment, improving data collection, and resolving a variety of issues. Middleton money is seeding a new CTE center in advanced manufacturing at Benjamin Franklin High, opening in September.

Many of the problems, including the need for better training for principals, were identified in a 2011 evaluation; 42 principals are now certified in CTE administration.

Individual program quality still varies, however. Much depends on the quality of the teacher, the principal’s support, and the school’s climate. Kipphut says the CTE office is working on an assessment tool for “scoring” each program, but it is not yet available.

Still, a 2015 District evaluation of CTE showed several positive trends:

CTE students graduate at higher rates. The graduation rate for CTE students was 84 percent, compared to 62 percent citywide, and they were more likely to graduate on time.

The racial “achievement gap” for graduation is almost eliminated. Black and Latino CTE students graduate at almost the same levels as White and Asian students.

CTE students report better “soft” outcomes. The students reported more positive experiences than non-CTE students in areas like goal-setting, planning, recovering from setbacks, and staying engaged with classes.

CTE students are “typical” students. Positive results for CTE are not explained by pre-selecting for high-achieving students; those who choose CTE tend to be academically average, but with better-than-average attendance. (Attendance is a factor in admissions.)

What needs to be improved?

Despite progress, CTE programs still face obstacles.

They need high-quality teachers, support from counselors and principals, and effective private-sector and community partnerships.

The demanding 1,080-hour requirement, combined with minimal staffing and limited course options in schools, means that CTE students who want things like Advanced Placement classes (to prepare for college) or language classes (especially for English language learners) can find it difficult to schedule all the right courses.

Because of shortages in counselors and support staff, CTE underserves ELL and special education students.

“You can’t put an autistic student into a carpentry shop with 23 other students and one teacher,” Kipphut said. “In the entire District, I have four aides to work with special needs students.”

And perhaps most significant, the process of recruiting students to CTE courses is ad hoc and uneven. CTE-focused high schools may have 10 times as many applicants as spaces, while CTE programs in neighborhood schools are underenrolled. The District lacks the data systems and staff capacity to effectively steer students to all available options.

“That’s our biggest challenge,” Kipphut said. “In the middle years, we do a terrible job of informing young people about career pathways.”

Even when students show interest in a trade by applying to a CTE school, there is inadequate follow-up to inform those who don’t get in about similar options elsewhere, he said.

That’s a major reason why CTE enrollment – 56 percent of available slots when he started, 70 percent today – remains lower than Kipphut’s goal of 80 percent. Most openings are in neighborhood schools, although CTE-focused Swenson has had vacancies in some programs, mostly building trades and automotive skills.

Creating a “comprehensive” K-12 counseling plan for all students that includes CTE is one of Kipphut’s primary goals.

But for now, recruitment falls largely to overworked principals and counselors, among whom knowledge of and support for CTE varies.

“The principals that are totally engaged, those schools are very successful,” Kipphut said. Some principals are negatively influenced by memories of the days when students of color were steered away from college into subpar shop classes, he said, but others see CTE as a true complement to higher education.

For example, CTE internships can lead to part-time jobs that put cash in students’ pockets – meaning they’re less likely to drop out when hit with $200 dorm fees or other surprise college costs. That’s a “game-changer,” said Otis Hackney, principal of South Philadelphia High, home to eight CTE programs that migrated in 2013 from now-closed Bok Technical High.

Likewise, the student who gets a full-time job through CTE is in better shape to go to college part-time, he said.

Hackney, like Damon from Dobbins High, has a wish list of improvements, including more flexible schedules to help CTE students get the best academic classes and more support for ELL and special education students.

But mostly he’d like more awareness of the opportunity that CTE programs offer. Getting that message out to middle-schoolers isn’t easy. At a recent open house, Hackney hoped for 60 students and got about 20.

Still, he had his pitch ready. He told them, “If you go down the Shore, you’ll see as many carpenters and plumbers as you see doctors and lawyers. They have college graduates working for them, doing their books.”