Student Voices

Amid renewed focus on job training in high school, Memphis students consider their options

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Melrose High School students (from left) Deshon Davis, Aaliyah Scott, and Jonterio Collins at RedZone Ministries in Orange Mound.

For years, Memphis school leaders promoted the idea that college was the most logical next step for all of its students. Now they’re changing their tune.

Shelby County Schools’ new budget dedicates $6.7 million to overhaul its job certification classes, with a focus on training students for higher-paying, in-demand careers that don’t necessarily require a college education, such as information technology and carpentry. By contrast, that same budget earmarked $1.3 million for adding advanced college preparatory courses and readying students for college entrance exams.

That represents a big shift for a district that had once gone so far as to make t-shirts reading “Every Child. Every Day. College Bound.” It’s also part of a larger trend toward job training statewide and nationwide.

But it may take time to win students over.

Jonterio Collins, a rising junior at Melrose High School in Orange Mound, said he appreciates the option of vocational training, but that he and his peers think the district should provide more advanced courses to prepare them for college.

Collins said that Melrose has few Advanced Placement courses, which can count toward college credit, while “other schools have a lot.”

“Some students are really angry about that,” he said.

New focus career fields

  • Advance manufacturing
  • Architecture
  • Health science
  • Information technology (IT)
  • Marketing/distribution
  • Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)
  • Transportation

District leaders have said that both vocational training and college preparation are essential since either path can lead to a career. Since job certification classes have not gotten the same attention in recent years, the revamp is an opportunity to play catch up, according to Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

“We’re going to have a career pathway for every child, no matter what that looks like,” Powers said.

The state Department of Education will begin to count the number of students who earn industry certifications, such as horticulture, machining, or plumbing as “ready graduates.” Local educators say vacancies in the local job market provided the impetus to offer more job certification classes. Nationally, a push for more vocational training is fueled by muddied statistics that the job market awaiting students is changing quickly and dramatically. And a recent Massachusetts study shows job training classes encourage more students to finish high school.

Melrose High School alumna and a current school volunteer, Claudette Boyd, recently took it upon herself to survey about 80 students at lunchtime in an effort to gauge their educational and career interests.

According to the surveys she distributed and provided to Chalkbeat, most respondents want to go to college, and about half of the students said Melrose had course offerings in a career path they wanted to pursue. Health science was the most popular job field and is one of the district’s focus areas, but certifications related to that field will not be offered at Melrose. Other popular careers included business management, criminal justice, and cosmetology or barbering.

Under the district’s plan, Melrose will offer certification programs in advanced manufacturing, architecture, barbering, cosmetology, web design, marketing, criminal justice, and tourism.

A recent district report showed that poorer students are less likely to have access to advanced courses that are meant to mirror college coursework. Those classes give students a chance to earn college credit and therefore save on college tuition.

The Orange Mound school has the highest poverty rate among high schools in the district at 88 percent and had only five courses that can count toward college credit. By contrast, White Station High School has the most in the district with 56 such courses.

Some students like rising junior Aaliyah Scott are simultaneously pursuing career training and a college education. Scott is entering her third year in the school’s popular cosmetology program, which will stay at Melrose under the district’s plan. She’s also hoping to go to college to become a traveling nurse. But she acknowledged that she knows little about preparing for college entrance exams or about the application process.

“It makes me nervous,” she said.

Deshon Davis said his exposure to advanced classes and job training courses were noticeably different between his first and last years in high school. He was enrolled in an advanced program he tested into at Central High School for ninth and 10th grades; then he transferred to Melrose, from which he graduated in May.

Most students he knew at Central High School, where about 46 percent of students live in poverty, took advanced courses. When he got to Melrose, he said his options were limited. For example, he wanted to take a computer science course, but it had been discontinued.

“At first it was a little bit confusing,” he said, referring to choosing classes at Melrose.

In April, Melrose students were given a catalog of job certification classes that will eventually be offered at the school, said Michael Schulte, who taught English there. At that time, teachers and students discussed various fields, and went over job descriptions and average pay. Students had about 15 minutes to ask questions, before ranking the classes they most wanted. The district consultant who helped design the new program also surveyed some students to get a better sense of their interests.

The upcoming school year will be a transition for the workforce training program, as the district provides teacher training in one of the seven identified fields.

Where the jobs are

Chicago invests $12 million into expanding pathway to construction trades

PHOTO: PHOTO: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visits Prosser Career Academy Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, to announce a $12 million investment in vocational education.

What happens when Mayor Rahm Emanuel headlines a pep rally in a sweltering, Northwest Side high-school gymnasium to promote a $12 million investment in vocational education?

Lots of HVAC jokes, for one thing. And some students fanning themselves with the signs they’d been given that read “Thank you” and “Mr. Mayor.”

As he makes rounds in the city touting his accomplishments  — after announcing Tuesday that he would not run for reelection in February — Emanuel was flanked Thursday morning by luminaries from Chicago Public Schools, area trade unions and employers such as ComEd. On Wednesday, he dropped in on a pre-kindergarten class to push his early-education initiative.

Thursday, there was also lots of enthusiasm about the city’s push to develop career and technical education curricula, to bolster economic opportunity in the neighborhoods.

Part of a $1 billion capital plan announced over the summer, the $12 million investment at Charles A. Prosser Career Academy will expand the school’s vocational training beyond its current emphasis on the hospitality industry to include construction trades including carpentry, electricity and, of course, HVAC.  

Many welcome such initiatives as a long time coming. Vocational preparation has been deemphasized in favor of college-preparatory programs, said Charles LoVerde, a trustee of a training center run by the Laborers’ International Union of North America. He’s glad to see the investment.

The city’s current construction trades program launched in 2016 at Dunbar Career Academy High in predominantly black Bronzeville. Prosser makes access easier for West Side students, including the predominantly Latino residents of Belmont Cragin, where it is located.

“Dunbar is a great program, but my kids are not going to go to Dunbar because it’s just too far — it would take them two hours to get there,” said 36th Ward Alderman Gilbert Villegas, who pushed Emanuel to launch Prosser’s CTE program.

Access is important because CTE offerings are among the district’s most in-demand programs, according to a report released last month by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Demand is not even across demographics, however, with vocational programs more popular among low-performing students, students from economically isolated elementary schools, and black students, according to the report.

Almost one in five seats at district high schools focus on vocational education. But Dunbar’s — and now Prosser’s — focus on the construction trades has Emanuel and Villegas excited, because Chicago’s construction boom means that jobs are readily available.

“There’s not a building trade in Chicago — a carpenter, an electrician, a bricklayer, a painter, an operating engineer — that has anybody left on the bench,” Emanuel told the crowd at Prosser.

Villegas sketched out an idealized, full-career path for a graduate of the new program — one that includes buying a home and raising a family in Belmont Cragin. “I see it as a pipeline that would extend our ability to maintain the Northwest Side as middle class,” Villegas said.

The investment in Prosser comes as part of a broader, national effort to invest in career-technical education. In July, Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized  a national $1.1 billion program for job training and related programs.

The new program at Prosser not only will give more students access to training in the building trades, but also will provide proximity to some labor partners. The Laborers’ International Union of North America operates a training center less than a mile from Prosser, where students will have a chance to learn and also visit job sites, LoVerde said.

He said that college-track programs also have their place, but career education presents a clear path to a steady income.

“This gives [unions] a focused path to recruit and find students who are looking for a different path,” LoVerde said. “Becoming a career construction laborer is a job for life.”

future of work

Tennessee approves its first-ever computer science standards for K-8 schools

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

With regional jobs related to computer science going unfilled, Tennessee soon will introduce academic standards designed specifically to strengthen those skills beginning in elementary school.

The state Board of Education gave final approval Friday to Tennessee’s first-ever computer science standards for elementary and middle schools. The benchmarks will reach classrooms in the fall of 2019.

In the works for a year, they’ll replace computer technology standards that were last revised in 2011.

State officials say the current standards don’t capture the critical components of computer science, a growing field with jobs especially in healthcare, transportation, and banking. In 2015 across Tennessee, for instance, only a third of the 90,000 jobs posted for workers in IT, or information technology, were filled.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the employment gap represents a huge opportunity for students as the state also emphasizes instruction in science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM.

“We don’t have enough students actually interested in computer science because they don’t know what it is,” she told members of the board earlier this year. McQueen cited research showing that 50 percent of people who pursue STEM careers trace their interest to exposure in first or second grade.

“Getting kids interested really does matter at those very, very early ages,” she said.

For elementary schools, the new standards will focus on introducing students to the basics of computer systems and programs — and helping them learn about safe and responsible device practices, such as protecting private information and using passwords securely.

For middle schools, students will study computer-related calculations and information-processing skills used to create computer programs. They’ll also discuss “digital citizenship,” which covers how to interact safely with people and content online. And they’ll explore career opportunities related to computer science.

Except for instruction in coding and computer programming — which will be taught as a stand-alone class — the skills are to be integrated into existing core classes in English, math, science and social studies. They’re “things our teachers are already doing,” said Melissa Haun, math coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Education, of most of the new computer science standards.

“We’re not asking teachers to do more things or give them a heavier workload. We’re asking them to be aware of the standards and be deliberate in how they can enhance their instruction with technology because we are in a very very digital world that moves very fast,” Haun told the state board in April.

"We don’t have enough students actually interested in computer science because they don’t know what it is."Candice McQueen, commissioner of education

School districts will have discretion on how to add coding and computer programming instruction to the mix. Many school systems already are piloting such curriculums after investing in digital devices in the ongoing transition to computerized state testing.

McQueen said coding represents “one of the most underutilized opportunities that we have.”

“If you can get kids to think like a coder and the problem-solving that occurs with that, … you can start to inspire them around opportunities,” she said. “That coding skill set, and the language of coding, opens up about 75 percent of jobs that they may have never thought about before.”

Computer science marks the latest new standards for Tennessee, which has or is in the process of revamping benchmarks in all four core areas of instruction.

New English and math standards start their second year this fall, new science standards are about to begin, and new ones for social studies reach classrooms in the fall of 2019, the same year of the first-ever standards for computer science.