Fixing CTE involves targeting middle school students

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

UPDATED with new numbers from the District on number of CTE seats

While Jim Kenney’s community schools and universal pre-K initiatives have made headlines since the mayor’s election, another part of his education plan could have equally important consequences in addressing Philadelphia’s systemic needs. He also wants to embark on a project to align Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs with the city’s industry demands, creating more options and job opportunities for the city’s students.

“We want to make sure what students are learning in the District and what young adults and adults are learning at [Community College of Philadelphia] are skills that were applicable to real occupations in the city,” said Kendrick Davis, director of STEM initiatives at the Mayor’s Office.

Just after Kenney took office, his office held a series of cross-sector meetings bringing educators from the District and CCP together with the Philadelphia Youth Network, the Department of Labor, the Department of Commerce, and others to discuss how fund and tailor CTE education to the city’s workforce needs.

While the District has been moving forward with training for high-demand CTE fields, there persists a mismatch between student interest and available spots. So the District and the Mayor’s Office of Education are setting out to educate younger students about the options as they consider where they would like to go to high school.

Currently about 6,400 students are enrolled in career and technical education programs while there is capacity in the District’s high schools for approximately 6,864, according to spokesman Lee Whack. And while there are waiting lists for traditionally popular CTE programs such as culinary arts and cosmetology, space remains in industries and skills that many young people see as less appealing, but are important to Philadelphia’s future growth, Davis said.

These include welding and plumbing, plus so-called “advanced manufacturing” skills in the chemical, electronics, metals and vehicle sectors. Some of these programs are sitting at only 60 to 70 percent of enrollment, said Otis Hackney, the city’s Chief Education Officer.

“We will work with the District to promote offerings to student and families so they do not go to waste,” Hackney said.

In the summer, the District said it was planning to have 12,000 CTE seats by 2020, but has now scaled back its estimates.

One way to do this is to educate students at a younger age about the different options available and showcasing the value of these jobs, Hackney said.

Many of these jobs are unionized, are highly-skilled, provide stable employment and have a high earning potential, he added. Part of the District’s strategy to fill the programs will be targeting younger students, those in middle and elementary school. The aim is to educate them about options before they get to high school and have to make choices about whether to aim for traditional academic track or a CTE program, and which one.

“So if I’m in middle school, if I’m in 6th grade and I learn that there is an agricultural program at Saul High School. Or if I’m in 6th grade and I learn there’s an advanced manufacturing program at Ben Franklin High School, it changes my trajectory and it changes what I think about the high school experience,” explained Davis.

“It changes what my expectations are about the high school experience, and then hopefully we can surround those students with the supports where they can take that change of expectation and translate it into something real.”

Some of the individual industries are already starting to do this in order to recruit more students into their professions down the line. For example, the Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia held an advanced manufacturing tour of the city as a middle school engagement program. Students were led by a Temple professor and they did prototyping with 3D printers with students in various schools around the city.

The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce also hosts a Future Ready program with the School District. The program allows middle school students to talk with local companies about various future job opportunities.

“One great thing about Philadelphia is that there’s so many different things happening in so many different pockets and corners of the city,” said Davis. “But the challenging part of that is capturing it and sharing the information and trying to figure out where the gaps are and how we can strengthen the efforts that are already going on.”

This, he said, is where the city comes in as a coordinator to increase awareness among middle school students and their families about the opportunities that already exist in these industries and the District programs to prepare them.

Individual schools are also taking it upon themselves to be a part of this effort. Southwark Elementary School principal Andrew Lukov has a partnership with South Philadelphia High School to introduce CTE modules to their middle school students that match CTE opportunities at Southern, their neighborhood high school.

“It’s important because too often children are narrowly focused on getting into citywide admission high schools or special admission high schools without considering other options,” said Hackney.

While the city is working with the District to encourage more principals like Lukov to expose their students to existing CTE programs, the city is creating additional exposure opportunities outside the classroom for students who do not have them. For example they worked with the District to do a symposium focused on the so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – where 1,000 middle school students who were able to see what it is like to work at PECO, PGW, and other utility companies.

“It was just an exposure opportunity,” said Davis, adding that “you never know” when these types of events may spark an interest in a child.

Getting an early start

The importance of middle school in determining college and career readiness is well documented, as is the positive impact that CTE programs have on lowering dropout rates and increasing student achievement. According to a report by the ACT on college readiness, “The level of academic achievement that students attain by 8th grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school than anything that happens academically in high school.”

The civic campaign STEMcityPHL was created last year under the Nutter administration as part of the national US2020 project that aims to mobilize 1,000,000 STEM mentors by 2020. It is meant to both bring STEM opportunities to high-needs students and make them think about their educational path as well as their future career readiness.

The general consensus seems to be that in order to change high school and post high school outcomes, the education community needs to start thinking about targeting kids earlier. Stephanie Gambone, executive vice-president of Philadelphia Youth Network, who has been a part of the cross sector meetings on future CTE initiatives, said that PYN has in recent years realized the value of bringing some of their own programs to younger students. As recently as two years ago the youth education and employment advocacy organization focused on 14- to 21- year-old students, but about 18 months ago they decided to include 12- to 14- year-old students because of the value of early exposure. PYN is now looking to expand programming they have been piloting over the past year with education partners.

Helping both parents and young people understand the benefits of CTE programming “I think is one thing we all feel very strongly that we need to do,” said Gambone, “and in terms of what we can do, particularly what can we do at scale, I think we are at the beginning stages of what that looks like.”

The STEMcityPHL initiative is just one that has been given a renewed focus under the current administration. In order to know where to target, the city identified areas they call “STEM deserts” where there is a high needs population but little resources and little exposure to this type of programming.

“There are nine zip codes in Philadelphia that we qualified as STEM deserts,” said Davis. The city is working on bringing STEM opportunities to these areas.

The programming may be completely new, or build on services already available, for instance through a Boys and Girls Club or community center, Davis said.

In that case, he said, the “audience of students” is readymade, and “maybe we’re just increasing exposure by asking if a robotics component can be added…Maybe we’ll have a science challenge of the week.”

The common theme is getting different programming that supports CTE efforts to more students at a younger age. However, the Mayor’s office, the School District, and other partners are still thinking this through, trying to decide what specific programs should be prioritized and how to most efficiently and effectively bring CTE to more students.

Hackney echoed the need to expose children at younger ages. But he also noted the need to “make sure that when students do enroll in CTE courses, they’re taught by a certified industry professional.”

Davis said that the are also considering establishing pilot programs as incubators where the Mayor’s office has more direct oversight and involvement to see how other types of targeted programming can work in specific neighborhoods. Similarly to the community schools initiative, the goal would be to eventually scale these programs across the city.

“[Kids] may not know that CTE high schools also have college preparatory curricula so there are opportunities to get the best of both worlds by preparing for college and trades simultaneously,” Hackney said.

All of this is part of a larger effort to reduce poverty in Philadelphia and find more people high-paying jobs. The Kenney administration is focusing on the younger generation, coupling this with the community schools and pre-k initiatives.

“There’s a part that education plays in reducing poverty,” said Davis. “CTE is definitely a part of it.”