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How can schools build strong career and technical education programs? Partnerships

February 24, 2023

By Meredith Watassek

When schools and businesses work together, the results are meaningful CTE programs for students, educators, and the community

A version of this blog originally appeared as “Dream teams” in our 2023 Research + Benchmarking publication. 

Traditional education in which a teacher lectures and a student takes notes was once the standard for passing on knowledge. High school students have long wondered how they can apply the material they’re taught in the adult world.

Wonder no more. Educators want to connect in-school learning with the dynamic real world that students will meet when they graduate. The culture, environment, and people of each place always shape each school experience. School districts are looking for ways to enrich the in-school experience, connect it to a changing world, and show students the relevance of the curriculum. They can do this by exploring meaningful partnerships with businesses in their communities.

Students at Sterling Aviation Early College High School in Houston, Texas, examine airplane engine components.

Both students and local businesses benefit. Students gain on-the-job work experience, mentorship, exploration of various career fields, and direct connection to professionals. The businesses reap their own rewards. These include workforce development, building a presence in the community, and new business development opportunities.

Partnerships come in many forms. These usually are in the areas of programmatic planning, student experiences, funding, and human capital development. Districts must evaluate which partnerships are right for their situation.

Programmatic planning to match job needs

To design useful career and technical education (CTE) facilities, we need to know which programs will be in demand in the near and long-term future. With access to information on industry trends, designers and districts can supply spaces where students gain an advantage by accessing skills needed for the future.

While developing the Technology Exploration Career Center – West (TECC-W) for Lewisville Independent School District (ISD) in Texas, our design team knew it was important to include business leaders about relevant careers. Lewisville ISD relies heavily on its CTE advisory board to supply information about program needs.  Industry experts also play a key role in suggesting equipment, technologies, and work approaches. For TECC-W, a team of architects, education experts, and industry experts worked together to solve design challenges in real time. They created professional spaces that emulate the environments students will work in.

Student experience for today’s generation

Survey data tells us that student engagement is reflected in pride in one’s schoolwork, experiencing relevant lessons, and enjoying coming to school. The same surveys show that only 48 percent of 12th graders feel that what they learn in class helps them outside of school. This is where CTE can bridge the gap.

A hands-on automotive education shop at Hobbs Career and Technical Education Center in Hobbs, New Mexico.

CTE coursework can make learning relevant by showing students how the skills they are acquiring—in math, science, reading, writing, or social studies—apply to today’s job market. If they find value in what they are learning, students are more likely to be engaged.

Fort Bend ISD outside of Houston, Texas, took this to heart in their partnerships. TRIO Electric was losing electricians to attrition and retirement. It recognized the need to build a junior-level workforce. Fort Bend ISD collaborated with TRIO Electric to create an instructional model to give real-world experiences and training to students. Students take part in a three-part learning experience: academic content, virtual reality learning, and a hands-on learning lab.

TRIO Electric ensures that students obtain their industry certification through academic learning. Spending one-third of their time in a virtual reality simulation appeals to many in today’s tech-savvy generation. The rest of students’ time is spent in the mock construction lab where learners pull wire and install multiple electrical units. Students walk out of the program with one year of their state electrical apprenticeship program completed.

Surveys show that only 48 percent of 12th graders feel that what they learn in class helps them outside of school. This is where CTE can bridge the gap.

Funding can present challenges

It’s costly for school districts to install CTE programs. Often, the programs need expensive specialized equipment. Partnerships can supply critical funding. The Hobbs, New Mexico, community pushed through this challenge by developing early support for the development of the new Hobbs Career and Technical Education Center. During the community-engagement process, local businesses, government agencies, institutions, and post-secondary education partners all worked together.

Hobbs Municipal Schools superintendent TJ Parks led the way and secured two major benefactors and partners for the project. The JF Maddox Foundation and the Permian Strategic Partnership each committed $10 million to the CTE project. Due to this early support, Hobbs Municipal Schools easily passed a $30 million bond. The mayor recognized the importance of CTE for the community. His enthusiasm led local businesses to support the operational budgets through funding, donation of equipment, and provision of teaching staff.

A culinary arts class at James Reese Career & Technical Center in Sugar Land, Texas.

Human capital development is key

To develop CTE educational offerings, districts must secure and train qualified personnel to teach in specialized programs. Teachers can make or break the student experience. Early on, both the Hobbs CTE center and Fort Bend ISD James Reese Career & Technical Center programs realized this need. Our team consulted with project stakeholders during the design phase about what type of teachers it would take to make programs successful.

In both instances, the districts rely heavily on their industry partners to train teachers and sometimes instruct students. In year one of the Fort Bend ISD/TRIO Electric partnership, TRIO Electric employed as a contract employee a teacher who was on the school district staff. Since then, many business partners at Hobbs and Fort Bend have supplied summer externships for teachers. By taking part in this type of training, teachers stay current on industry trends.

The future of education

The world of education is ever changing. It’s critical that educators provide thriving programs that engage students and serve them with relevant and useful skills. Strategic partnerships between schools and businesses provide this opportunity at today’s CTE facilities.

  • Meredith Watassek

    Meredith is a senior associate specializing in the design of educational institutions. She has the unique perspective of working in education for over 20 years. Her designs focus on student needs in diverse communities.

    Contact Meredith
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