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Career and technical education: North Carolina public schools’ best kept secret

If you have social media, you have probably come across an image like this at some point while scrolling. For the vast majority of North Carolina’s students, this rings true. However, these skills, and many more, are being taught in every school district across the state of North Carolina via Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses.

In the 2017-2018 school year, 904,040 students were enrolled in the plethora of CTE courses offered across the state. In the 2016-2017 school year, over 99,000 students earned state CTE credentials. In North Carolina, we currently have 16 career clusters for our CTE courses. They are: 

  • Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources
  • Architecture & Construction
  • Arts, A/V Technology & Communications
  • Business Management & Administration
  • Education & Training
  • Finance
  • Government & Public Administration
  • Health Science
  • Hospitality & Tourism
  • Human Services
  • Information Technology
  • Law, Public Safety, Corrections & Security
  • Manufacturing
  • Marketing
  • Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
  • Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

In February, Governor Cooper announced his administration’s focus on North Carolinians being ready for the jobs of today and tomorrow through the NC Job Ready initiative. A key component of this readiness is education. In North Carolina, our public high schools are uniquely equipped for this mission through Career and Technical Education programs. As a former CTE student and now as an agricultural educator, I want my students to be prepared for the changing workforce in the same way my CTE teachers strived to do that for me.

Why are CTE concentrators not as common as college-bound students?

Following World War II, mindsets began shifting around the issue of higher education. Suddenly, all children needed a college education. As baby boomers became college-aged, we saw this shift increase, which made CTE courses less “prestigious” than courses like Advance Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) for students. Parents, teachers, and students were under the impression that in order to be successful, college was key.

So for years, we have tracked students into college bound courses — even if that did not best align with their interests or goals — all because our kids deserve the “best.” However, with over half of the fastest growing jobs being jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree, but instead require training, certifications, or associate’s degrees — being college bound is not necessarily the “best” option anymore. CTE concentrators will be the people best equipped for these careers and will be ready sooner than students who proceed to college and then decide to pursue one of these careers.

How do we get our students there?

In recent years, CTE has been emphasized across districts with the opening of CTE-focused high schools all over the state. Currently, North Carolina has over 50 CTE-focused high schools, many of which include partnerships with the local community college and/or industry partners. These schools allow students to truly focus on education related directly to their future careers.

In traditional high schools, students still have a plethora of options. High schools have the opportunity to offer unique programming that best aligns with their students’ interests and the opportunities within the community. Of the 16 pathways, most high schools will offer multiple pathways, with multiple levels of classes within each one, often times including honors-level courses.

Additionally, State Superintendent Mark Johnson recently issued a request for proposals to expand CTE in North Carolina by “prioritizing the inclusion of students in sixth and seventh grade through grant awards provided to selected local school administrative units for up to seven years.”  Districts like Mount Airy City Schools are embarking on this expansion already, working to create a “career exploration culture” for students in grades six through eight.

What do we need to do to get our students NC job ready?

Our students are North Carolina’s biggest hope to make the state and our population “NC Job Ready.” In order for this to become a reality there are several things we need to do. In the 2009 Career and Technical Education Strategic Plan, June Atkinson wrote “When looking at how we can change public education to better prepare and train our workforce, there is great value in taking [an] approach in which every student establishes goals and maps out a personalized route that will lead to his or her future career.”

The first thing we need to do is encourage students to pursue paths that align with their interests and lead to success. For some students that is college but for many students it is CTE courses as career concentrators. We need to remove the stigma surrounding students choosing options other than college. We need to put funding and attention into making our students job ready.

That includes things like enough counselors to help guide students along their journey. It includes funding and resources for classrooms that serve all students, not just college-bound students.  It includes educating our communities (parents, teachers, community members) on the options our students have.

I encourage students to explore the opportunities that CTE offers. I encourage teachers and parents to help students explore those opportunities. I encourage CTE teachers to be loud and proud of the amazing things going on within your programs and classrooms. And I encourage our elected officials to learn more about what your districts offer and be a community partner for your CTE programs.

As industry leaders continue to look at North Carolina as an option for business growth, we must have a population ready to meet the demands of the jobs of the future.

Career and Technical Education is our best hope for that. No longer can CTE in North Carolina be one of our “best kept secrets.”

Meredith Pinckney

Meredith Pinckney is a Hope Street Group North Carolina State Teacher Fellow and a teacher at Carroll LT Magnet Middle School. At Carroll, Pinckney teaches classes that range from Animal and Plant Sciences to Agricultural and Environmental Biotechnology. While at Carroll, Pinckney has co-chaired the PBIS committee and is a member of the school improvement team.