Career-technical education emerges as a pathway to the workplace, or college

PAYETTE — For nearly a decade, Idaho’s leaders have been pushing high school graduates to continue their education. That’s largely, but not exclusively, a push toward college.

Meanwhile, career-technical education has emerged as a complement and a counterweight. In the eyes of many educators, CTE solves a lot of problems. For the college-bound, CTE gives students a way to pay for tuition and housing. For students who won’t attend college, CTE promises mobile and tangible job training, at a bargain price.

Students such as Holly Youngberg are getting the message.

During her junior year at Payette High School, Youngberg took a certified nursing assistant’s class. She spent the summer working full-time as a CNA, and works part-time as a senior. She’s taking another career-technical class — an emergency medical technician’s course. “We’re learning a lot and it’s coming at us real fast.”

Between her career-technical classes and her dual-credit college level courses, Youngberg hopes to enter college with credits in hand, and mobile job skills to help cover college costs.

‘Postsecondary’ vs. ‘college’

“That word ‘college,’” said Jeralyn Mire, the postsecondary transition counselor at Sandpoint High School. “People sort of shut down.”

Mire’s students keep hearing about Idaho’s “60 percent goal,” but the details get lost in translation. The state wants 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds to complete some additional education, but that can mean college or a professional certificate.

Instead of “college,” Mire emphasizes the word “postsecondary.” Even though Sandpoint boasts high college enrollment rates — 57 percent, compared to a state average of 45 percent — Mire lets students know that they can get good jobs as welders, diesel mechanics or repairing power lines.

“We really believe it’s not just a four-year degree for everybody, and I think that comes through to our students,” she said.

Elsewhere, the career emphasis assumes even greater importance.

In Shoshone, only 38 percent of high school graduates go on to college. Since the school-to-work track is a reality for many students, the district requires all high school students to find and work at an internship.

“We believe if a student feels strongly they want to go to college, we should support and encourage that path,” the district said in its 2017 college and career advising report, which districts must submit each year to the State Board of Education. “If a student is preparing to enter the workforce, we should also support and encourage that path and prepare them for it.”

While Idaho’s political, education and business leaders seem united behind the 60 percent goal — to the point of making it a mantra — Harold Nevill thinks the plan is misguided.

Nevill is CEO at Wilder’s Canyon-Owyhee School Service Agency, a rural one-stop co-op. One of COSSA’s  functions is to provide career-technical education for 245 students from Wilder, Marsing, Homedale, Notus and Parma.

If nursing or welding programs give Nevill’s students money they can set aside for college, that’s fine. But he is more interested in making sure his students can get jobs. “It makes a lot more sense economically for our families out here.”

Opening up options

Students in Payette High School’s CTE programs are looking for different things.

Destiny Frazier is a senior, taking culinary and early childhood professions classes. After volunteering last summer at the district’s Payette Primary School, she plans on going to college to major in early education.

When Analicia Dovalina was in eighth grade, her younger brother spent two months in a neonatal intensive care unit. He came home in good health. Now Dovalina wants to work in an NICU. She says her senior EMT class is stressful, but she sees it as a step on her career path.

Kaleb Gauthier, a senior in the welding program, is looking at attending the College of Western Idaho or Treasure Valley Community College in nearby eastern Oregon. He might study biology, or stick with welding. “It’s a good skill to know, and you can find a job pretty easily, if you know what you’re doing.”

Kaleb Gauthier

Shelby Payne, another senior in the welding program, plans to enlist in the Army and attend college. In the short run, her CTE class will get her a summer job with her stepfather’s welding and lawn care business. “It’s more like a hobby, in a way.”

It’s all about options, says vice principal Marci Holbomb. Some students will wind up with a passion for what they learn in CTE. Payne at least comes away with a valuable skill.

“She’s always going to have it if she needs a job,” Holcomb said.

In 2017, 44 percent of Payette’s graduates went to college, a number slightly below the state average. Payette is one of the state’s poorest school districts, so the earning power from CTE is crucial for Holcomb’s college-bound students.

“The kids here know,” she said. “It’s not a case of, ‘I can go anywhere I want, because my parents can pay for it.’ … It’s on them.”

Teaching ‘the group we forgot’

Brad Baumberger says it’s time to pay attention to students in the middle. American schools pay a lot of attention to high-achieving students — those who are ready for the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math — and pay a lot of attention to special-education students. CTE caters to the in-between students.

“We’re putting them back into action,” said Baumberger, a CTE teacher at Payette. “It’s the group we forgot.”

Baumberger isn’t only an unabashed champion for CTE. He also put a human face on rural schools’ scramble to find willing and qualified CTE teachers.

For Baumberger, it was a conscious choice. He had taught in Boise’s Borah High School, and eventually became superintendent at the tiny Highland School District in north-central Idaho. When he became tired of the hassles of school administration, he decided he wanted to come back to the classroom, on a semi-retired basis.

Tyson Smith used to teach biology. Now he teaches Payette’s welding classes. In a way, he sounds a lot like many CTE students. He finds teaching welding more rewarding; unlike biology, the real-world applications are apparent.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get a kid motivated,” Smith said. “With the CTE program, you can at least give examples.”

Still, for Superintendent Robin Gilbert, hiring CTE teachers presents an ongoing challenge.

A few months ago, Gilbert had a candidate turn down a job teaching a certified nursing assistant class, for another job at three times Payette’s salary.

Gilbert finally found a CNA teacher for the 2019 spring semester.

‘Reality sinks in sooner or later’

Martin Jones calls himself “kind of an odd duck.” He worked in engineering and construction, mostly in Southern California. He was a lawyer for a while. He’s been a millionaire, and he has declared bankruptcy.

He now teaches CTE at Clark Fork Junior-Senior High School — a remote Panhandle school serving 120 seventh- through 12th-graders. He’s in his second year teaching CTE. Before that, the position had gone vacant for eight years.

Some of his students are just there to round out a schedule, he says, or because they have a girlfriend in class. But some students are there because they struggle in a traditional classroom, and one contemplated dropping out before he found CTE. “In some ways we’re saving him, and that’s a cool thing to do.”

Those ideals quickly collide with harsh realities.

Martin Jones

Jones would love to figure out a way to make Sandpoint High School’s aerospace classes available in Clark Fork. The schools are part of the same district, but they’re also 25 miles apart.

And Jones can’t offer intense or specialized courses, because his small enrollment won’t justify it. He instead tries to offer a smorgasbord of classes.

But it’s still a start toward a good job, without the cost of college.

“People see the viability of CTE,” he said, “because reality sinks in sooner or later.”

A funding scramble

At Weiser High School, a few miles north of Payette, senior Brandon Collins jumped at the chance to enroll in a new apprenticeship program. He is working toward a degree in heating, ventilation and air conditioning from CWI. He knows a degree will give him skills he can take into adulthood — wherever he decides to live.

“I have no idea yet, and that’s the great thing about life,” he said. “I can take everything I like right now, and take it anywhere I want.”

HVAC business owner Gina Applegate is also excited about partnering with Weiser schools, and training workers that are hard to find in rural Idaho. “We need to be part of the solution instead of just complaining about it.”

But there is a snag.

Idaho’s advanced opportunities program gives students $4,125 they can spend on dual-credit college courses. But HVAC courses don’t qualify, so the state won’t pick up fees for Collins and his classmates.

District officials stepped in. In the long run, they hope to find a legislator to write an amendment to the state law. In the meantime, the district will cover fees and books for the fledgling program. “We want it to work and we want it to be successful,” Superintendent Wil Overgaard said.

It’s a paradox. Career-technical programs and apprenticeships are particularly important in rural Idaho, where students might not have the money or the inclination for college. But rural districts are often the state’s most cash-strapped districts — drawing voter-approved levies off a limited local property tax base.

So rural schools scramble for CTE class supplies, much as they scramble to find teachers. Payette uses a patchwork of state and federal grants and business donations. In Clark Fork, Jones’ machining students carve out items bearing the school’s Wampus Cats logo, using donated equipment from North Idaho College.

Students’ plans vs. the state’s goal

A junior in the first year of Payette’s welding program, Tyler Petty is looking at getting a job after high school. Technical school is a possibility.

Payette junior Rose Winsor wants to be a nurse, following her older sister and her late mother. She’s in the CNA program now and wants to work after high school. After some hands-on experience, she figures she’d have a better idea of what she might study in college.

Rose Winsor

But if Petty or Winsor stay in the workplace — and even if they have jobs as a welder or CNA — they don’t get Idaho any closer to its elusive 60 percent goal. This yardstick measures only adults with a college degree or a professional certificate.

That’s why some K-12 educators bristle at the 60 percent goal — despite, or maybe because of, the political push behind it. They say the state should do a better job of counting successful student outcomes, including high school graduates who are workplace-ready.

The 60 percent goal runs into something even more powerful and more pervasive. In many communities, in many households, education beyond high school is seen as an expensive luxury. The 60 percent debate, at its core, is a collision of mindsets.

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

This series, at a glance

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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