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Students Excel at Vocational, Technical High Schools

Despite budget cuts to Career and Technical Education, grads still land jobs and go to college.

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In June, Rakiyah Wright graduated from Bloomfield Tech, a vocational-technical high school in New Jersey. At Bloomfield, she took academic classes, learned trades, participated in the Green Energy Club, fundraised for global-warming awareness, and was offered several internships, she says, during and after her senior year. Wright received a scholarship to New Jersey Institute of Technology, where she now majors in biomedical engineering.

"An engineer's job is to use discipline, skill, and practical knowledge in order to design and build that [which] will improve the lives of people," Wright says. "And I know that my high school has set me on the right path in order to accomplish my goals."

But the type of high school that Wright attended—vocational-technical, which is now known as Career and Technical Education (CTE)—often receives a negative perception.

"Vocational education has been stigmatized over the past few years as being somewhere where you send those students who were possibly a disruption in elementary school or middle school," says Michael Gagliardi, the CTE principal at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School (GNBVT) in Massachusetts. "That's an idea that's long since passed. Our schools are very well equipped; they're state of the art as far as technology goes; and that's really not what vocational education is about anymore."

The stigma of vocational education that Gagliardi mentions is something that a June 2010 Economist article identifies as a "unique disdain." The reporter adds that "Americans hate the idea of schoolchildren setting out on career paths—such predetermination, they think, threatens the ethos of opportunity."

GNBVT senior Jacob Miller set out on a specific career path when he decided to go to a technical high school, and says he's had more opportunities there than he could ever imagine having at another school. With a focus on media technology, Miller has landed internships in the field and a videographer job at the local cable access channel. Miller has more career experiences on his résumé than many college students, and he's still about six months away from high school graduation.

[Lean why nonsummer internships may be a better fit for some students.]

However, the title of the Economist article asks if such a defined career path is "Too Narrow, Too Soon?" Gary Patton is the director of secondary education at the Warren County Career Center in Ohio, which offers technical education to high school students. He says he understands this concern, but career and technical education helps students "explore the avenues of their interests." Patton explains that students can test out a field they're interested in to figure out if that's really what they want to do.

Miller, for example, who delved so deeply into media opportunities at GNBVT, knows now that he wants to go a different route after graduation: political science. The class president has applied to seven colleges and says that, "although I don't want to go into the media field, I still think that with the education I'm getting, it's helping me with things like problem solving."

Gagliardi says that about 75 percent of GNBVT graduates go on to pursue higher education, a trend that is in line with the government's new mission for CTE programs.

"It can no longer simply be about earning a diploma and landing a job after high school," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in an April 2011 speech. "The goal of CTE 2.0 should be that students earn a postsecondary credential or an industry-recognized certification—and land a job that leads to a successful career."

[Read Duncan's views on how discriminating against LGBT clubs violates law.]

About 120 miles from GNBVT, many Vinal Tech High School students in Connecticut lean toward the workforce rather than college after graduation. While about 44 percent of graduates pursue higher education, roughly 49 percent seek jobs in industries such as auto repair, cosmetology, and electromechanical technology.