The longtime principal of “Coop Tech” is the city’s new head of career and technical education.
John Widlund is well-versed in the city’s programs mixing practical skills and academics, having started teaching electrical installation at just 19 years old through an apprenticeship program. Twenty years later, and after a seven-year stint leading the School of Cooperative Technical Education, he will be overseeing CTE programs citywide Chancellor Carmen Fariña, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the teachers union have all promised to ramp up their support.
“One hundred and twenty thousand kids each year are touched by our CTE programs,” de Blasio said in June, “and we are going to strengthen them and we are going to make them available to even more.”
On Monday, Widlund’s first day as executive director of career and technical education, he said he didn’t have additional funding to offer schools, but he does have a long to-do list.
“I’d love to come up with a pile of money, but let’s focus on the belief that things can be better,” he said.
“Improving the quality of all of our programs — that is the number one thing, and the number-one-through-number-10 thing.”
To do that, he will be visiting schools to see how academic teachers are integrated into schools’ CTE teams. When all teachers work closely together, he said, it helps get struggling students excited about their academic work and ensures that schools see CTE programs as central to their missions.
“There’s so much more we could do with what we already have,” he said.
The city’s career and technical programs grew steadily under the Bloomberg administration, and 33 new CTE-focused schools have opened since 2003. While some of today’s CTE schools, like Brooklyn’s P-TECH, have attracted national attention for their innovative schedules and focus on technology, others, like Automotive High School, have long struggled with low graduation rates. Some have been around for decades, or even most of a century, like George Westinghouse High School, which opened in 1919.
Widlund served as Westinghouse’s principal from 2003 to 2008 before moving to Coop Tech, a District 79 school with sites across the city offering courses in welding, food preparation, medical billing, and graphic design, among other fields. Over his eight years at Coop Tech, the school eliminated some out-of-date programs and updated others — retraining IT teachers who had been focused on computer repairs to do web design and small device repairs, he said, and refocusing construction courses around sustainability.
Such shifts are one piece of an ongoing movement to keep career and technical education programs relevant by modernizing more traditional “vocational” programs and developing others, like P-TECH, that complement a college-prep curriculum or offer direct connections to higher education and jobs.
A 2014 report by the Community Service Society of New York pointed out some of the ongoing challenges for the programs. CTE schools often have students who come in further behind academically, and while they graduate students at a higher rate than comparable schools, fewer meet the city’s college-readiness bar. And while the report recommended creating additional small CTE high schools, the de Blasio administration hasn’t encouraged the ongoing development of new schools of its own, though the mayor has offered high praise for some that opened under the Bloomberg administration.
Gregg Betheil, who headed the city’s CTE programs from 2008 to 2009, said attitudes about vocational programs and now career and technical programs often reveal broader anxieties about the economy and the workforce.
“I think CTE over the last 100 years in the city — and I’m not exaggerating at all — has been in and out of favor every few years,” Betheil said.
Widlund and Fariña seem poised to define their broader plan for CTE over the next year. Earlier this year, Fariña said that supporting CTE programs would be a top priority, and she announced a pilot program in March that will encourage the expansion or creation of 10 CTE programs.
“Lucky for me, CTE seems to be in fashion these days,” Widlund said.