Five public charter schools making waves for their take on the vocational model

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Jamison White

Many students these days seek high-paying, meaningful, hands-on work without the burden of increasingly cumbersome student loan debt. Endless high-skilled job openings exist, and many Americans choose to jump straight into those jobs as an alternative to attending a university. This, however, requires job training, apprenticeships, and an intense focus on specialized skills. For students who choose this path, Career Technical Education (CTE) also known as vocational education provides a great alternative to the traditional education model. Some CTE schools focus primarily on specialized career fields while other schools fuse their core curriculum with real world experiences and industry-specific knowledge.

1. The Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers offers a college preparatory and vocational curriculum for high school students in Boston exploring careers in health and health-related professions. In 1995, a group of community health care providers and higher education leaders recognized that too few underserved children envisioned career possibilities in the health professions. They believed too many students lacked the role models, mentors, and rigorous academic preparation needed to explore the medical field. Consequently, very few students saw a future for themselves in health care. The group created Kennedy Academy for Health Careers as their solution to this problem, providing a new pathway of opportunity for Boston children to access the city's rich educational opportunities in the health professions. Today, Kennedy Academy supports students as they develop the academic, social, and personal skills they need to succeed in higher education and in health care careers. They focus on health and science to excite student interest in the field, establish a relevant connection between academics and job experiences, and create a pathway for underserved students to a viable career option.

2. The Pillar Academy for Business and Finance in Mohave Valley, Arizona, provides quality educational programs and services to students in ninth through twelfth grade who demonstrate an interest in an alternative educational setting emphasizing the business and finance skills necessary to enter the corporate environment and/or continue their studies at a post-secondary institution. Students engage in an integrated learning experience with an emphasis on core academic areas (e.g., language arts, mathematics, laboratory science, social studies), while also learning about business components, industry concepts, and career awareness. The fusion of practical and technical business and finance skills with traditional core subjects provides a unique arrangement beneficial to both the student and business community alike. The school gives students the chance to learn how the business and financial services industries really work and to develop rewarding career paths. They also collaborate with partner organizations, by contributing to and participating in the Academy’s education process, help to create a pool of highly talented and trained potential employees.

3. Sports Leadership and Management (SLAM) offers education in Miami, Florida, to students in sixth through twelfth grade who seek careers in the sports leadership and sports management industries. They boast an impressive seven-story state-of-the art school facility featuring a penthouse gymnasium overlooking Miami’s downtown and the Marlins ballpark. SLAM collaborates with sports franchises and educational leaders to integrate high academic standards and sports-related content into a core curriculum of mathematics, language arts, science, and social studies. SLAM prepares students for careers in sports medicine, business, sports marketing, health, and communications through numerous specialized electives. SLAM’s education offers unique access to career mentors including professional athletes, while also providing internships with local and national sports franchises. Through these partnerships students have the chance to explore all facets of the sports industry.

4. Chamblee Charter High School (CCHS) offers several exciting career pathways for students to choose from, including A/V technology, film, business, computer science, drafting/engineering, graphics, financial literacy, food and nutrition, and more. They provide a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program (JROTC) and a plethora of extracurricular activities including an award-winning band. CCHS serves more than a thousand students in Chamblee, Georgia, and thanks to the autonomy charter teachers receive, students have a myriad of paths into potential careers after high school or in college.

5. MITCH Charter School teachers in Oregon utilize an agriculturally-based curriculum to inspire students and help them develop a better understanding of the environment and agricultural systems.

As a charter school, we have the autonomy to develop a curriculum through which we can engage the exploration of agricultural knowledge and its values. Our learning environment extends from the classroom out to our school garden and local farms, connecting students to the community through partnerships with local nonprofits and agricultural agencies. Each spring, MITCH students raise hundreds of plants from seed on indoor grow stations, built for us by a local nonprofit: Neighbors Nourishing Communities (NNC). These plants are distributed through NNC to low-income gardeners and gardeners that are committed to donating 20 percent of their produce to the local food bank. We compost our food waste on-site through worm bins and bokashi composting systems, through which students learn about nutrient cycling, biodiversity, and waste reduction. We are currently amid building a rain garden as a place where students can learn about native plants, hydrology, and soil health. The opportunity for exploration in an outdoor environment is endless, and it is where we see our students truly thrive. In the education of living things, our children cultivate respect, kindness, compassion, and curiosity.

—Caitlin Blood, agriculture teacher at MITCH Charter School

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As machines replace or augment many traditional jobs, forward-thinking CTE education offers students an alternative to the typical and expected educational journey. Today’s prospective college goers face the harsh reality that four-year tertiary education costs continue to rise, and many students end up dropping out before they graduate. While many college graduates go on to successful careers, others suffer under the weight of college loans, underemployment, or working jobs outside their preferred field. Students who want to attend a CTE public charter school, may benefit enormously from the chance to develop their crafts at an earlier age. Why not give parents and students the options to explore what bests suits their needs?

Trade jobs exist all around us from dental hygienists to nuclear technicians with millions of unique and creative jobs in between. Many employers and firms need these hands-on high precision skills and all too often face a shortage of qualified candidates. The CTE educational model offers students more than just a chance to learn specialized skills; it offers them a chance to follow their passions and explore careers in ways that few students experience. The hands-on vocational experience also means students learn through practical and often interactive instruction, while teachers provide a strong academic foundation built on their students’ interests rather than mandated curriculum guides.

Society needs a workforce with diverse backgrounds and skills to function effectively and millions of Americans find rewarding careers in vocational fields. America should embrace the excitement around CTE.

Jamison White is the manager of data and research at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ blog.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.