Would CTE fit your needs? Here’s what you should know

These questions and answers were developed with the help of the School District’s Office of Career and Technical Education.

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

Is CTE a good idea for me?

CTE, or career and technical education, used to be called vocational education. Programs available now are varied and designed to prepare students for jobs in today’s economy. In addition to traditional, but still in-demand trades, such as plumbing, welding, and auto repair, CTE programs now include such fields as health-related technologies, computer systems networking, game design, and culinary arts.

Typically, students spend 1,080 hours of learning time in their specialties. Classes are taught by teachers with experience in the field, and students also may get part of their training through industry internships and apprenticeships. Successful CTE students can graduate high school with certifications and contacts that can lead directly to employment.

If I take CTE, does that mean I won’t be prepared for college?

Quite the contrary. CTE students also take all the academic coursework required for high school graduation and can often be better prepared for college. Studies show that CTE students graduate at higher rates than students not in CTE, probably the result of the focus on employable skills and hands-on learning.

Do CTE students attend college?

Many do. Most CTE career areas require at least some post-secondary training. CTE graduates can and do enroll in four-year colleges, community college, and trade schools.

Will CTE prepare me for well-paying jobs?

Many of the CTE specialties are in demand now. Some traditional trades, including plumbers, welders, and electricians, are experiencing shortages and pay well for highly trained people. The District has also added an “Advanced Manufacturing” program tailored to local industry needs, such as precision machine tool technology.

Can I attend any CTE program offered in any District school?

Most CTE programs, whether in specialized schools or neighborhood schools, take students from all over the city. For programs in neighborhood schools, preference is given to students in the catchment area. But programs vary widely in quality, so it is important to investigate the ones you are interested in.

How do I choose a program? How do I know whether it is rigorous and legitimate?

Talk to your counselor in 7th and 8th grade about your interest. Your first decision will be whether to apply to one of the District’s five CTE-focused schools: Randolph, Swenson, Dobbins, Mastbaum, and Saul. They all have admission guidelines, and competition is stiff.

The first four are “citywide admission,” meaning that all qualified students are entered into a lottery. Saul, which offers agricultural and horticultural programs, is a “special admission” school, which means its criteria include a test-score cutoff. But 25 other District high schools, including nearly all neighborhood schools, have at least one CTE program.

This guide, as well as the District’s online high school directory, outline what specialties are available at what schools. Programs listed in these guides are approved and supported financially by the state. All CTE programs in the District have been identified as being connected with the “high-priority occupations” for the Philadelphia region.

Can I find CTE programs in charter schools?

Only one charter high school, Universal Audenried in South Philadelphia, has state-certified CTE programs, in culinary, electrical and automotive trades. Don’t assume from a charter school’s name that it has a CTE focus or a certified CTE program, even though it may offer work-study or internship placements in certain fields. You should visit the charter school and ask questions.

What questions should I ask before enrolling in a CTE program?

Important questions include: Who is the teacher, and what is their experience in the field? Of those who enroll, how many pass their state competency exams? Can I earn college credits? Will I get to go to work-based settings? What partnerships are there with employers? What kinds of internships, part-time jobs, or other work experiences might be available for summer or after school? What industry certifications can I get? What are some of the program’s graduates doing now? Ask the principal: “How do you view CTE and what do you do to support it?”

When do I start CTE coursework?

CTE courses don’t start until 10th grade. For students at CTE schools, 9th grade offers orientation to the various specialties, in addition to a full academic program. In neighborhood schools, 9th grade can also be the time when students are introduced to the CTE option. Even if a student enters a neighborhood school in 9th grade without any thought of CTE, it is not too late to enroll in a program.

Does enrolling in a CTE course prevent me from taking any other courses?

It does reduce the number of electives that a student may take. Some neighborhood schools may also have difficulty scheduling students into all desired classes. For instance, Advanced Placement courses may be offered at the same time as required CTE classes. Schools try to adjust the student’s schedule to accommodate both courses.

What are industry certifications, and how do students earn them?

Students can earn industry certifications by passing a test showing that they have mastered the skills at the standards required to work in the field. The industries design the tests. These credentials may allow students to enter the occupation right after graduation. In most programs, each student can obtain multiple certifications. For instance, students in health-related fields can be certified in CPR and in the use of defibrillators, among other competencies. Culinary students can get certified through the ServSafe food handler’s exam. Welders, electricians, and carpenters all have certification tests for various skills. Philadelphia’s CTE students earned more than 3,400 industry certifications in 2014-15. The costs for industry certifications are fully covered by the District.

What is NOCTI?

NOCTI stands for National Occupational Competency Training Institute. Pennsylvania requires that students who have completed a three-year, 1,080-hour program take this exam in their senior year for the program to maintain good standing and continue to qualify for federal Perkins funds. The NOCTI exam consists of both a theoretical component, administered online, and a hands-on, practical component. About 70 percent of students who take the NOCTI in Philadelphia pass it. Potential employers consider industry certifications more important than NOCTI scores, although students who score advanced on NOCTI can get an additional state credential and benefit when applying to post-secondary schools.

Is it possible to earn college credits through CTE?

Yes. For most programs, this comes through the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Students Occupationally and Academically Ready (SOAR) program, Students can earn up to 11 college credits at participating institutions across Pennsylvania, depending on the field. Every field allows for at least some college credits with one or more state institutions. Students can also get post-graduate internships and industry apprenticeships through SOAR.

How much personal attention will I get from the instructor?

The typical number of students in a CTE program class/lab/shop does not exceed 24.

How are CTE classrooms different?

CTE program spaces have two major areas: theory and practical. The theory area, for traditional teacher-led lessons, looks like a typical classroom, with desks, chairs, and a whiteboard. The lab or shop area will have the needed industry-standard equipment so students can apply the skills learned in theory lessons to simulated work situations. Plus, CTE students often do much of their coursework through internships at industry sites.

Are there any dress regulations for CTE students?

Many CTE programs require students on “practical” days to wear the same attire (i.e., scrubs for health programs) that professionals wear in the industry.

If I enroll in a CTE program, do I have a longer school day?

No, the length of the school day is the same.

What if my interests change? Can I switch programs?

Students can and do change their minds.Those enrolled in a CTE school must switch to another specialty in that school. If they are in a neighborhood school and do not switch to another CTE program, their CTE courses count as electives. Students can also switch into a program in junior or even senior year, and if they master 50 percent of the field’s “competencies,” they can take certification tests.