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Broader, hands-on CTE helps engage students

It is our job as educators to engage students and help them explore career options as early as we can to set them up for success.

5 min read

Career-Technical EducationEducation

Student using machine and wood for boat-building project in CTE classroom for article on how CTE helps engage students

Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

I am the first to admit that school was not exactly an interest of mine when I was a student. Academics were not my strong point, and I typically used the line, “What am I going to use this for when I grow up?” There was little that I found useful in school, and my focus was really centered on how fast I could run out at 3 p.m. and play the sport of the season. I was the kid who needed to be busy and had to be interested in what I was doing. Furthermore, if I was not engaged, I was essentially lost.

headshot of Stephen Mazzola for article on helping CTE engage students

In my high-school years, my saving grace was the career and technical education electives offered to me. Carpentry, automotive, metal shop and even home economics kept me on task, and when the job was completed, I could physically see what had been accomplished. Little did I know that those hands-on, 45-minute periods, would be my most productive and even provide me with a tangible skill set and knowledge to complete projects. It was clear that CTE helps engage students.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and you would still be hard-pressed to find these types of classes in a school building anymore. Unfortunately, they were replaced with the concept that everyone will go to college and that skilled labor was a dead end.

In high schools across the country today, students typically take standard courses (math, English, science, etc.) that are intended to help prepare for college or the workforce. While these courses are important, making them the primary focus for many students can limit their exposure to a much larger pool of potential careers, skills and pathways available to them. Some students may not get a full picture of how these core courses can relate to a number of different careers in the skilled trades, business, health care and other areas.

Several options for CTE helps engage students

It is our job as educators to help our students explore career options as early as we can and set them up for future happiness and success — whether they go to college or not. By doing so, we actively engage our students in their learning and equip them with all of their possibilities. 

I’ve found that this truly makes an extreme difference for students both academically and personally. 

At Saunders Trades and Technical High School, a magnet school in Yonkers, N.Y., we wanted to increase student engagement in learning, help more students find their path, pass their CTE programs and ultimately graduate. So we began offering 10 different 21st-century career and technical education programs through YouScience Precision Exams that span areas such as architecture, biology and chemical technology, electrical and computer circuitry, cosmetology, fashion design, automotive technology and construction technology, among others. 

These are all very distinct programs with differing curricula, but they each have one common and key purpose: to actively engage students in learning and provide them with hands-on training that will prepare them to enter the working world or their next phase of education. 

Engagement starts with aptitude test

To get them on the right CTE pathway, the first step students take during the second half of ninth grade is an aptitude assessment. This tool provides them with guidance on where their natural talents lie, highlighting a variety of career areas that they likely weren’t aware of or weren’t exposed to and helping them realize their potential in certain fields and careers. 

Armed with this information, our students can explore career pathways for themselves that are based on their special, individual talents beginning in the 10th grade. That starts an important journey: where CTE helps engage students rather than the type of classes that decrease their interest in learning. Over the next three years, students can gain invaluable knowledge and build several in-demand skills related to their particular career or educational pathway. This ultimately leads to students graduating from high school better prepared with a few college credits already under their belt (for those who choose to go) or with a certificate that demonstrates to employers the skills and knowledge they already have mastered in a specific field or job.

As a result of implementing this programming at our school, we have consistently maintained a 90% passing rate for these programs, as indicated by their exams at the end of the 12th grade. We have also seen a 94% to 100% graduation rate over the last five years.

It’s truly a recipe for success.

As we look ahead to 2023, it is a good time for all education stakeholders to ensure that we are keeping our students engaged. We must get them on the right pathways early and help them be college- or career-ready as early as possible by helping them choose a career trajectory that they find satisfying. 

Steven Mazzola has been the principal of Saunders Trades and Technical High School in Yonkers, New York for 20 years and an educator for over 30 years. The school uses the YouScience educational assessment program that offers students hundreds of industry assessments and approved exams for the 4+1 CTE graduation pathway.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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