Thirty years ago, vocational ed programs were struggling to attract students and political support. They were stigmatized as “throwaway” classes. Many educators and parents said that college preparatory classes would better prepare students for college and careers.
That’s not the case today. The label “vocational ed” has been replaced by career technical education, and the course offerings are better geared to job trends throughout the state and nation.
“Over a period of time in the ’90s and 2000s, no matter what we tried to do from a marketing perspective we just couldn’t erase the stereotype people had about vocational education, thinking of it as a throwaway or a place for people who weren’t good enough to do something else, which was totally disregarding the technology of the business world and the manufacturing world,” said Valerie Vuicich, administrator of the Regional Occupational Program for the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools.
An example of the growing support for this new approach is Fresno’s newest high school. Career Technical Education Charter High School, or CTEC, is a comprehensive high school with pathways to prepare students for certification and jobs in commercial construction and advanced manufacturing. The school, located on Fresno County’s Board of Education Kermit Koontz Education Complex in central Fresno, welcomed its first freshman class in August.
CTEC students will have the opportunity to earn high school and college credit simultaneously — sparing them from having to pay costly college tuition and enabling them to be career-ready when they get their high school diploma.
Jim Yovino, the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, is excited about the options that career technical education exposes students to. More than half of the county’s students will be enrolled in at least one career technical education class during their high school years, he said.
Districts in Fresno County understand the importance of introducing students to a wide range of career opportunities so they can be better directed for career or college, Yovino said.
Superintendent Shares His Learning Experiences
He said his own post-secondary educational experience might have been vastly different if more career tech education options had been available to him.
When he graduated from Central High School in Fresno in the 1970s, “I went to college because I was told that’s what I should do. I didn’t know what I wanted, I had an idea of things. I actually wanted to be a sports journalist – I don’t know how I picked that.”
Yovino said he considered several fields before he finally gained a focus.
With career tech education, he said, “We want kids … to see many different things so they can start dreaming about what they want to do in the future.”
Students who enroll in career tech programs tend to be more successful and graduate from high school at a higher rate, says Vuicich. Her office tracks students in regional occupation programs over 22 school districts in Fresno County.
CTE Graduates Do Well in College
Career tech students who do go on to college have a higher rate of completion than their peers, she said.
In recent years, there’s been a gradual recognition by the general public that not all students are well-served on a college track and that career education is much-needed, said Vuicich. She also serves as executive director of the California Association for Career Technical Education and regional coordinator for CAROCP: the Association of Career and College Readiness Organizations.
“The stigma that these classes are for people not going to go to college, we’re slowly wearing that away. As people interact with all kinds of workers, you realize there are a lot of people making a lot more money than some of the folks with a college degree that are underemployed.”
Career tech education got a huge boost when $150 million was directly allocated in California’s 2018-19 budget, as opposed to the grant-based or categorical funding that supported it in the past, said Vuicich.
Federal Support for CTE
It’s also been gaining support at the federal level, which allocates money through the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. Perkins Act money, which totals $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2019, was always intended to be supplemental, but there were long stretches when it was the only funding source for career technical education programs, she said.
California’s allocation of Perkins Act money for fiscal year 2018 was estimated at $120 million.
“That’s one of the nice things in this political climate — career technical education usually has a lot of bipartisan support at the federal level and the state level. It’s nice to be up there and talking about something that all parties can agree on … ,” Vuicich said. “There’s a recognition that we need an educated and skilled workforce.”
Where the Candidates Stand on CTE
California gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom’s agenda includes calling for California businesses to partner with community colleges and create 500,000 “earn and learn” apprenticeships by 2029 to help train a skilled workforce. John Cox, who is vying with Newsom to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown, doesn’t mention career tech education but does state his support for more education options on his policy agenda.
The platform of Marshall Tuck, a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, calls for increasing career tech program opportunities and working with industry to identify anticipated needs. Tony Thurmond, who is also in the runoff, supports career tech education, especially for high-tech skills that will lead to good-paying jobs.
These days there are more career tech education programs in Fresno County schools than ever before, and CTEC will only expand the options, Yovino said. It’s a rarity – a comprehensive high school that’s a charter focused on career technical education.
When students take algebra and geometry, for example, they will see how mathematics will apply in the work world, he said.
Michelle Murphy, who formerly served as regional director for advocacy in the Central Valley and Central Coast region of the California Charter Schools Association, says that it’s noteworthy, but not entirely unexpected, that Fresno would be home to both CTEC and University High, two charter high schools offering vastly different programs.
That kind of diversity in educational opportunities is what the city needs, she said.
“We have a diverse city in terms of jobs available and in terms of opportunities we have before us,” Murphy said. “The educational system is more and more reflective of that. It’s exciting to me as a Fresnan myself, what’s going to be available for our students here and moving forward.”