Revisiting CTE

Workforce training programs may soon look different in Memphis schools

Health care and information technology are among the career pathways that likely would be emphasized under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Memphis students would get more opportunities to earn job certifications before graduation under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Details of the overhaul are still under wraps, but Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin wants to make sure the district’s offerings align with the region’s most sought-after jobs. That may mean more classes focused on hot career fields like health care and information technology.

The school board is expected to get a first look at the proposal later this month.

Career and technical education, or CTE, is getting renewed attention under a state and federal push to prepare students for jobs of the future. And it’s especially important to students in Memphis because nearly half of graduates from Shelby County Schools don’t enroll in any formal education after high school and 21 percent aren’t working either — the highest rate in the nation.

Meanwhile, business leaders are talking with school leaders about improving education pathways to equip graduates for work in high-demand jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree.

“We need our students to have work-based learning experiences and residencies and then [businesses] don’t even have to train them,” Griffin said. “They’ll come out with a license; we’re going to pay for it. They’ll come out with a license ready to work.”

Currently, the 27 traditional high schools in Tennessee’s largest district offer a total of 207 classes that explore 16 career paths ranging from finance to advanced manufacturing. About 20,000 students participate.

Hamilton High students tour Barnhart Crane and Rigging Co. in Memphis on National Manufacturing Day in 2016.

But of about 400 participating seniors who are eligible to gain job certification, less than half did so last school year. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says that has got to change.  

“The point of revamping our CTE program is we don’t really have true effective career paths right now,” Hopson told school board members last week. “We spend $20 million on CTE, but its not designed to say that when I finish this program, I’ve got something I can go out to an employer and say ‘I’m skilled and I’m ready for this job and I’m certified.’”

Shelby County Schools has incentives to revamp its CTE programs. In response to a new federal education law, the Tennessee Department of Education will grade schools in part on how well they prepare students — not just for college, but for directly entering the workforce.

“It’s about making sure you can map and track and document and assess and quantify whether or not something is working,” said Terrence Brown, who co-directs CTE for the district. “And all of that has been on the college-bound, academic part of the house, not in trade and industry and skills and training. [Now] the age of accountability has now come to career and technical education.”

To measure a “ready graduate” under its new plan, Tennessee will look at how many students earned industry certification, took dual enrollment or Advanced Placement classes, passed military entrance exams, or earned a 21 or higher on the ACT. The metric accounts for 20 percent of school and district scores under a new grading system being rolled out later this year.

As part of its stepped-up commitment to workforce training, Shelby County Schools already has introduced a major change to one of its most historic high schools. East High began this school year to transition to an optional school focused on transportation logistics, engineering, and technology in partnership with several businesses such as global engineering manufacturer Cummins.

But the goal is to get a quarter of students districtwide participating in CTE by offering courses at more high schools. And the focus will be on equipping students for high-demand jobs that offer living wages in the Mid-South. More than 100 jobs fit that bill and not all require a college degree, according to a report from the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee. Those fields include electricians, machinists, medical record technicians, and computer support specialists, all of whom earned at least a median income of $40,000 per year in 2016.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with students during a 2017 tour of career and technical education programs at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has promoted the importance of career training by visiting schools with robust CTE programs such as one in Murfreesboro that she toured last November during her first stop in Tennessee as education secretary.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who helped author the new federal education law, told Politico recently that updating how federal funds are allocated for CTE is one of his top priorities this year.

But some educators and advocates worry that CTE will become a second-tier track for students viewed as incapable of going to college — or that their advantage in a fast-changing workforce will be short-lived.

“We want to make sure we’re not doing what we use to do with (vocational-technical education),” said Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center. “My dad would tell me that, as a black male, they funneled him to vo-tech because you’re a black male.”

A 2015 Stanford University study of CTE programs in 11 countries showed short-term employment gains for students. However, the researchers also found that those students lacked the skills to adapt to changes in the economy later in life compared with peers with a more general education.

Brown said Shelby County’s redesigned program will focus on higher-wage jobs that students can get certified for during high school or can train for in technical schools after graduating. That could boost business prospects when big companies consider locating to Memphis — such as the city’s recent failed bid to land an Amazon headquarters.

“One of the things we believe Amazon was looking for was (information technology) people who could come off the bat and write code and set up cybersecurity,” Brown said. “If you have an IT certification, you’re going to be in demand.”

Change agent

Education group that started in a Memphis classroom up for national Renewal Award

Students participate in Let’s Innovate Through Education, a nonprofit organization that develops young entrepreneurs in Memphis. The group is a 2018 recipient of the national Renewal Award.

A Memphis education group started by a former teacher is among 25 nonprofit organizations named as finalists for a national award for helping to renew their communities.

Let’s Innovate Through Education, or LITE, was chosen among 3,000 nominees across the nation to compete for the 2018 Renewal Award. The annual competition, now in its third year, was created by The Atlantic and Allstate to recognize local organizations for their work.

The finalists now go head-to-head for votes to see which five groups will receive prizes of $20,000 each, while five runners-up will get $10,000. The public can vote here through Feb. 21 for the organization that they believe is creating the most local change.

LITE was created in 2013 in the classroom of Hardy Farrow, a former teacher at Power Center Academy. The group seeks to close the racial wealth gap by helping young entrepreneurs of color launch businesses through an eight-year training model that equips students with capital, networks, and coaching.

More than 2,000 Memphis students have worked with LITE, and 90 percent are on track to finish college.

“When people from around the nation see us on this list, I hope they take away that age shouldn’t be a deterrent from pursuing entrepreneurship and location shouldn’t be a deterrent,” said Farrow, who now serves as the group’s executive director. “A lot of people don’t view Memphis as a place for new businesses to grow, especially businesses launched by young people. We’re changing that.”

LITE starts with a six-month high school program for students who pitch their ideas and work on projects to improve their communities. In college, they receive competitive internships with local employers such as Choose 901, Regional One Health, and the Memphis Education Fund.

So far, more than 2,000 Memphis students have worked with LITE, and 90 percent are on track to finish college.

LITE is the only Tennessee organization up for this year’s Renewal Award, but it’s not the first time for LITE to receive national attention. In 2016, the Memphis group was named one of the 20 ideas that can change the world by Forbes Magazine. And in 2013, Teach For America called it one of the five most innovative ideas in teaching.

“For students in our program who go on to apply for jobs or internships, saying you’re a part of this nationally honored program helps you get in the door,” Farrow said of the latest award. “It gives you confidence in launching a business, to say that you were picked for this program, you finished high school, and no you can go out and do this.”

Jada Newsom, a graduate of Ridgeway High School and sophomore at Middle Tennessee State University, is among those students. She spoke with Chalkbeat last summer about the work experience she was gaining as an intern at Imagine U, a local entrepreneurship program where she and other interns were developing a system to help college students manage their money better.

“I like how working as a team gives me a different perspective,” Newsom said. “ We can combine our ideas to make something bigger.”

Chalkbeat reporter Helen Carefoot contributed to this report.

How I Help

She’s not a therapist. This middle school counselor helps prepare students for college and careers.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, Denver Post

In our new “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Misty Schroeder, a counselor at Marie L. Greenwood Academy in Denver, talked to Chalkbeat about how she bulked up the school’s college and career planning efforts, what students tell her they want from their parents, and how she thinks about students’ challenging behavior.

Schroeder was named the 2017 middle school counselor of the year by the Colorado School Counselor Association.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?

I kind of stumbled upon the field by accident. Initially, I began working in higher education — in financial aid, housing, advising, admissions, student activities — and I discovered my passion for working with students, helping them to navigate their interests and their paths. I went back to graduate school for a master’s degree in counseling. In the process of earning my degree, I was able to spend some time in K-12 schools and eventually do my internship in a 6-12th grade school. I loved working with younger students, helping them explore their passions and interests, and helping them formulate plans to reach their goals. It was the best kind of accident.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
This is my third year at Marie L. Greenwood Academy. When I arrived at the school, students, staff and families had no experience with a school counselor. Through collaboration with the teachers and staff, the school counseling program has become a vital part of the school.

In a school where lessons on Individual Career and Academic Plans — a high school graduation requirement in Colorado — were not previously being taught, we now have a 100% completion rate. This ensures that our students are not only on track to meet that new graduation requirement, but that they are receiving curriculum designed around academic, career and college, and social-emotional needs. Students are now taking college trips and are meeting with speakers in their area of career interest.

Expanding on the career and college planning efforts already built into our counseling program, we are beginning a partnership with Career Spark. Career Spark is a program that provides students an opportunity to be exposed to careers across industries and learn about the field from industry professionals. Students will leave school and go to a local business or company where they will learn about the career opportunities in that industry and see the industry in action.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
My answer could change from year to year based on the needs of the students and my school. I think what is most vital to my work are the people I work with — students, families, teachers, and staff — and the relationships developed with all of those people.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?
Some common misconceptions are that I’m a therapist, that I’m there only to work with students on social and emotional needs, that I’m simply waiting for upset students to come to me so that we can spend time talking about their feelings. While I absolutely work with students on social, emotional, and personal needs, I also do a great deal of work in academics, and career and college. While I do work with students one-on-one, much of what I do is in classroom lessons, small groups and schoolwide projects.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I don’t know that I would be quick to give advice to parents. I’m also a parent and I know that sometimes navigating what’s best for our children is tricky. However, one thing I hear from my students often is that they wish they could spend more time with their parents: quality one-on-one time. So, I would say spend some time with your kid: Play games, eat dinner together, ask them about their day, ask them about their dreams.

Give them lots of love while setting limits for them. Kids are learning how to be in this world, how to be a responsible, productive adults and they look to us to give them guidance. They need boundaries and limits, and parents who will set those in a calm, clear, consistent way. I would also encourage parents to be involved in their student’s education. That does not mean you need to be at the school all the time, but check in with your student, check in with their teacher via email, phone or in person so that you know what’s going on for them.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
I’ve found that students — challenging or not — know if you’re being real with them. They can tell when you’re being authentic and when you’re not. So, I always try to be who I am — sometimes that means I’m goofy, sometimes I’m stern, and sometimes I make mistakes.

I also think that when working with challenging students, it’s important to remember that this one decision (or several decisions) does not mean that’s who they are as a person. I used to have a quote by my desk that said, “The Person is not the Problem. The problem is the problem.” Sometimes people make decisions that have negative consequences, sometimes they make bad choices — and they need to be held accountable for that. But they aren’t bad people. I try to keep that in mind when navigating a problem with a student. I love my students, hold them accountable and hold them to a high standard, and I think — I hope — they know that. I let them know that I’m there for them if they need me and I’m always willing to help them navigate something difficult.

What is the hardest part of your job?
I think that worrying about my students is the hardest part of my job. When students are going through a difficult time or struggling with something, or if there’s ever a concern that a student might be unsafe, I carry that feeling with me. Sometimes it’s hard to unpack that at the end of the day.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Every time I come into contact with a student’s family, my perspective or approach changes. Everyone comes to the table with a story and the families of my students are no exception. Meeting people who play significant roles in students’ lives is always a little telling and helps me understand my students more. When working with families, I often think of my own. If my mother were walking into this situation, how might she feel, what might she want to know? If my brother or sister were struggling with this, what might they need from me?

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
I do think it’s important to take care of yourself — particularly if you’re in a position where you are often looking after others. So, I do try to do things that make me happy. I like to spend time with my family and friends, playing games or enjoying meals. I really love to read and write. Getting outside and getting some fresh air helps and sometimes, so does a hot bubble bath.