PARIS — This week President Donald Trump told the nation in his State of the
Union Address that vocational schools are important.
The brief, but significance statement, was punctuated by Massachusetts
Congressman Joe Kennedy III when he provided the Democratic response
standing on a podium in the automotive repair garage surrounded by
scores of students at a technical high school in Fall River,
CTE matters for all students.
That’s the message educators at the Oxford Hills Technical School want to spread.
Long touted as a pathway only for those students not academically inclined, CTE or career and technical education, is far from it, say local educators.
It is relevant and important to meet the needs of today’s and future workforces, and that means for all students, they say.
Many Oxford Hills Technical School students involved in a variety of CTE programs including nursing, engineering, architectural design and others, will continue on to two- and four-year or longer programs.
Others will be certified at their high school graduation, ready to enter the workforce often landing jobs right away with mentors or others they have been able to meet through the CTE program.
CTE programs are for all students who want a leg up on their career path, said Oxford Hills Technical School Director Shawn Lambert.
“Career and technical education is an opportunity for high school age students to prepare for specific career fields,” said Lambert. “Depending on the requirements of a given field, students who complete a technical program are poised to enter the workforce or go on to more advanced training at the post-secondary level. As a result, it is an appropriate pathway for students of all interests and abilities.”
Technical and vocational training has been an intrical part of the Oxford Hills School District curriulum for decades.
But in 1993, when discussion centered on creating a $26 million comprehensive high school that would combine vocational and academic classes in one building, school officials, particularly in the less affluent Oxford Hills, saw it as an important way to address the local econmic needs.
“It’s going to be a way out of the economic doldrums for this area,” then chairman of the school Board of Directors Chairman Don Gouin. “The people of Oxford Hills just got a tremendous opportunity, one that doesn’t come down the road everyday.”
The new school would offer vocational and technical classes to students of the Oxford Hills School District and Buckfield High School which were then sharing costs of the technical school in Oxford where students had classes in health, forestry, building trades, automotive, business skills , culinary arts, drafting, marketing and electrical occupations. The new comprehensive high school would also expand the base to accept tuition students from the Bridgton area.
“People talk about the 21st century and they pay a lot of lip service to that,” Gouin said 25 years ago as members discussed the proposal. ” You hear a lot of talk about educating the middle group of kids – not college prep and not special ed. They’re getting shortchanged and now we have a chance to do it. It’s an education for everybody.”
The plan was approved by voters in both districts.
Today, the Oxford Hills Technical School offers students from SADs 17 and 39 plus any home schooled, private schooled, online or other students within the district who wishes to take classes, a variety of programs including many of those that were being taught when the comprehensive school was built.
Lakes Region High School students no longer attend, having created its own technical high school – Lake Region Vocational Center in Naples- years ago, but Lambert said a handful of homeschooled and a growing number of online students now attend classes routinely.
There are just over 25 career and technical high schools in Maine including the Oxford Hills Technical School, Lake Region Vocational Center, Lewiston Regional Technical Center, the Region School of Applied Technology in Mexico and the Foster Career and Technical Education Center in Farmington. They are each designed as hands-on programs that meet national standards and prepare students for academic success and qualified career placement, according to the Maine Department of Education.
The Oxford Hills Technical School offers 21 programs ranging from fashion design, engineering and architectural design, business studies, advanced communications and most recently plumbing and hospitality and tourism and recreation management.
Others offer similar programs. For example, at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center which serves students from Edward Little, Leavitt Area, Lewiston, Lisbon, Oak Hill and Poland Regional high schools, offers 22 programs ranging from nursing assistant to plumbing, law enforcement and criminal justice, multi media technology and hospitality and travel .
The Lewiston Regional Technical Center hopes to expand.
Last July, the Lewiston School Committee endorsed the idea of the Lewiston Regional Technical Center adding a satellite program, specifically at the proposed new Auburn high school to provide space for a growing number of students who want to attend CTE classes.
While growth is evident at that school, not everyone at the Oxford Hills Technical School believes its programs are growing.
“The enrollment issue is an interesting one,” agreed Lambert. “There are some programs with persistently lower enrollments and we are working to address those issues.”
But, he added, the school as a whole, is serving a higher percentage of Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School students in “countable” courses than it did in the 2006-07 school year. Changes in state reporting enrollment procedures has necessitated the elimination of many one period classes, he said.
In order for the state to consider a student “enrolled” in an MVR 11 program, that student needs to be enrolled in a class that meets for at least two periods, he explained.
So the enrollment figures show 973 in 2006 which includes 359 one-period classes. The 593 in 2017 includes 115 one-period classes.
MVR 11 board member John Bell of Waterford believes the number of students has declined over the last decade and OHTS needs to improve its recruitment methods to improve those student numbers.
“There is high demand for many of these trades and the pay scale is comparable to careers from 4-year colleges without the debt,” said Bell. “I think we have fallen down on getting this information into the hands of students.”
While nationally, there is no shortage of older tradesmen, CTE educators say there is a wide gap in the younger generation entering skilled trades.
Bell said the reasons behind the decrease in enrollment are unclear but it seems likely there is more than one reason.
“Some of us on the board are of the opinion that the recruitment methods have been ineffective. When teaching there, I often struggled to fill my classes but frequently heard from students who were planning to attend engineering or architectural colleges who wished they had taken my program, but had not known about it,” he said.
“There has been a growing sentiment that a 4-year college degree is required to have a successful career, diminishing interest in 2-year trade or community colleges,” said Bell. “This emphasis on 4-year colleges has led to an emphasis on the importance of taking AP classes which frequently create scheduling conflicts with tech programs.”
Other theories ask if the students themselves have changed, he said.
“High school students today have likely spent less time outdoors and ‘tinkering’ on machinery and construction and more time on computer-related activities than students in the past. Consequently they lack the interest in trades that involve working with their hands,” he said.
“For example,” Bell said, “We are currently revising the focus of the forestry program from chainsaws and felling techniques to operating machinery. Nearly all forestry operations are mechanized and no longer use chainsaws. Also there is a large demand in the area for construction equipment operators.”
Bell believes under-performing programs have not been evaluated rigorously enough to determine what the issue, such as content, relevance, teacher and so forth) is.
“When it comes to enrollment we always have challenges; some programs are up one year and down slightly another,” said Munn who said she believes the tech school serves a “slightly higher” percentange of students than in the past. “If you see a downward trend then we look closer at the program to see if it is serving the current needs of the student body.
Participation rates can be as simple as whether students feel the teacher is engaging, she said. Other low participation rates may be due to more complex issues such as such as a course needing to be updated, Munn explained.
The Cooperative Education program was phased out because of the lack of work sites at the time. The Truck Driving program was phased out for financial reasons. “It is an expensive course to maintain,” she said.
Bell said most programs have tried varying their offerings to increase enrollment. For example, some of the programs have switched from offering one and three- period classes to offering two, two-period classes.
“This might make the program more accessible to students having trouble fitting three periods of a tech class into their schedule,” he said.
“Recruitment is a process,” says Munn.
Interestingly, some OHTS students say it’s the joy of the job, not the size of the paycheck that some says drives them to class.
“I’m not in it to be rich. I want to do something where I can have fun,” said Emanuel Barr of West Paris, a building trades student who said his love of Legos and creating log homes when he was young drove him to this career path.
Barr, whose uncle is a builder, currently take three of his eight classes in the building trades.
Other students who were interviewed during a two-day recruitment effort in January agree.
“I want to like what I do,” said Marvel Ayottee, a pre-engineering student.
Jayda Stevens, who wants to be a robotics engineer and is in the pre-engineering course, agrees saying, “I’ve always wanted to do stuff like this.”
Barr says matching the right student to a program is simple.
He says the right student for the program is someone who “wants to be there and learn new things and is open to getting better.”
Building trades, for example. “It’s not for everybody,” he said.
Some students say they will leave Maine in order to be where the appropriate educational facilities are located. Others will stay in Maine, such as a student who wants to be mechanical engineer and already has ties to jobs here.
During the recruitment fair, a CNA certification program sign up sheet received the most student signatures, said Victoria Crockett-Harrington, a junior at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School and a student in the CNA program.
Crockett-Harrington will be certified as a Certified Nursing Assistant by the time she graduates high school and have had hands-on experience behind her and pentiful scholarships available to her as she continue her education.
“Nurses and doctors are always needed,” she said of the job supply.
Meeting a need
Over the last several decades, CTE enrollments nationwide have been on the decline as states increased their core academic requirements for high school graduation and the emphasis shifted toward meeting those goals in mathematics, science and other core curriculum.
But that shift did not lose sight of the importance of CTE.
In 2015 alone, 39 states instituted 125 new laws, policies or regulations relating to CTE, many of which increased state funding for such programs.
In 2014, former President Barak Obama announced more than $100 million in awards to redesign high schools to better prepare students to not only enter college but to get the skills they need for specific in-demand jobs such as health care, technology and engineering.
“We’ve got to make sure that our economy works for everybody, not just a few,” Obama told students at a high school in Maryland where he made the announcement of the Youth Career/Connect grants. “We’ve got to make sure opportunity exists for all people.”
“You guys are all coming up in an age where you’re not going to be able to compete with people across town for good jobs – you’re going to be competing with the rest of the world,” Obama continued.”We’ve got to outwork and out innovate and out hustle everybody else.”
The first federal law providing funding for vocational education was passed in 1917, but compulsary education did not become law in every state until 1918.
CTE is important to the community as a whole, said Lambert, because it prepares the local workforce to meet the continually changing economic needs of the area.
CTE, he says, still matters very much.