The CTE opportunity

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Sheldon Cox first realized how significant career and technical education was while teaching at Edison Career & Technology High School.

One year, Edison’s applied technology program had a house construction project down the street from the school.

“The culture of building the house with the kids being part of that project, it was electrifying. I mean, everyone involved with the house building was excited—the teachers were excited, the students were excited,” says Cox, who is now director of the Career and Technical Education Department at the Rochester City School District.

“They missed classes,” he recalls. “But they never missed working on that house.” 

CTE spans a broad spectrum of skilled trades that can include agriculture, food and natural resources, construction, business management, health science, information technology, robotics, manufacturing, engineering and public safety. 

Some students who find a traditional school setting difficult can bloom with the hands-on experience offered by these courses, Cox finds. A project-based learning approach, which has received recent support from education advocates due to its active participation, teamwork requirement, and real life application, is already baked into CTE.

What’s more, graduates of CTE programs can be career-ready right out of high school with industry certification and on-the-job training, provided they complete the program’s requirements.

“We’re making our program offerings reflect the latest trends and interests of young people we serve,” Rochester Mayor Malik Evans said in his state of the city address last night.

He gave kudos to Rhythm Robotics, the Frederick Douglass R-Center robotics team, for making it to the regional Lego robotics championship this year and recognized their work in engaging more city youth with this activity.

Evans went on to mention esports and the career pathways to public safety, all of which fall within the umbrella of CTE programming.

“Rochester’s greatest asset is the human potential of its people,” Evans added. “And that starts with our youth.” 

While Edison and East have the most certified CTE program offerings, RCSD’s Career and Technology Education Strategic Plan envisions an expansion of programs, enrichment opportunities, employability, work-based learning, and engagement at all schools. Rochester’s increased emphasis on these fields could help counteract a widening job gap experts warn about in the skilled trades.

“It is an excellent viable path for young people. Not everyone goes to college because of a lack of resources or maturity, maybe they want a few years of working at a job,” says Benjamin Ogwo, chair of the department of career and technical educator preparation at the SUNY Oswego. “If someone drops out or leaves school without a skill set, that can be a dangerous combination of factors. Because you have no skill to sell.”

College readiness

Cox knows the positive impact CTE can have on a student because he lived it.

As a youngster, he wanted to become a firefighter. But after moving from Trinidad to New York City at age 15, a supportive high school counselor helped him get into an applied technology program at Keuka College.

Cox combined the computer science skills he learned there with a natural affinity for engaging students to become a technology teacher in a number of Rochester middle and high schools. He found that the hands-on learning experience along with context to the eternal question “Why are we learning this?” was something students responded to with enthusiasm.

“When you see a nail not going in straight, bending around or you see a nice straight angle, you know if it’s done well or not,” says Cox. “WIth that type of feedback, all kids benefit from project-based learning. It doesn’t matter if you’re extremely academic or extremely crafty working with your hands.”

A 2019 longitudinal study from the U.S. Department of Education found that students who participated in CTE programs had higher graduation rates, and were more likely to attend post-secondary institutions and find employment.

“Even if you are not going to take paid employment in (CTE labor), you now get some skills which can be used in your own do-it-yourself projects or volunteering, for example,” Ogwo adds. “It takes teamwork, communication skills and these soft skills which can apply to any job.”

Sheldon Cox at a school board meeting

During Cox’s years of teaching in the area, Edison, long a bastion of technical education, had a catastrophic review of the two schools on its campus in 2013 that pulled it into receivership, a designation New York gives low-performing schools. While Edison remains in receivership, it has reformed into a single school with four pathways for different CTE programs and improved its graduation rates to be on par with the district average.

“Students everywhere, not just in RCSD, benefit from having these programs available. In the suburbs, students get this type of program from BOCES, but here, we have to provide it for ourselves,” Board of Education Commissioner Amy Maloy said at a recent presentation.

“It’s so refreshing to see this renewed focus, not just in this district, but really nationwide. There was a shift in the 1990s away from CTE-type programming,” she continued. “Then with No Child Left Behind there was a further shift and this idea of ‘Everyone is going to college.’ I think there is a great deal of value to invest in this type of programming.” 

At the federal level, both Republican and Democratic administrations have pushed the concept of college readiness in measuring success. Courses once called vocational training transitioned to career and technical education instead. 

Cox is aware of this relatively mainstream thought process, which he sees as categorizing college as a superior outcome. To him, this perception comes from an oversimplification of CTE programming.

“CTE is college readiness,” he says. “I truly dislike when someone makes the statement, ‘College isn’t for everyone,’ and uses CTE as an alternative.”

Cox believes that CTE coursework is as rigorous as any college-level work and notes that all certified programs have at least one dual-credit course or articulation agreement.

“It is specialized work,” agrees Ogwo. “Technology has taken over and things are not as simple as they used to be. That requires a knowledgeable person to adjust with technology.”

Plans for expansion

Currently, over 6,600 spots are filled for the 150-plus CTE classes offered at the high school level, data shared by Cox shows.

About half of those are from elective courses rather than specifically certified programs, however. Among CTE certified programs, those that can give students industry certification, Edison, East, and Wilson account for 33 percent, 14 percent, and 12 percent of seats, respectively.

The most popular field of study is the business administration program, which is offered district-wide. Courses in computer science, construction and design, culinary arts, and health science are also popular.

Students in CTE programs are working toward a Career Development and Occupational Studies credential. CDOS demonstrates to employers that a student has acquired relevant skills and experience in their chosen career field. It can be earned through work-based learning and coursework hours or by passing a work-readiness assessment 

The percent of graduating seniors with CDOS commencement credentials reached 49 percent in the 2018-2019 school year. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, that number plummeted to 3 percent in 2020-2021. The levels have recovered a bit since then, with 21 percent of seniors graduating with CDOS in 2022-2023.

This improvement is in line with the district’s CTE strategic plan, which outlines goals for CTE programs, enrichment opportunities, employability skills, work-based learning, and family engagement. In all five areas, the main indicator of success is growth.

Proposed expansions over the next two years will boost CTE programs at a half-dozen schools: Franklin, Monroe, School of the Arts, Wilson, World of Inquiry, and Rochester Virtual Academy. Those programs include unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), cosmetology, athletic trainer, bilingual teaching and learning, urban agriculture, digital media, home health aide, and nursing assistant. There are also plans for the Career Pathways to Public Safety Program at Franklin to include more offerings for firefighting and emergency medical services.

Enrichment programs are another expansion goal already enjoyed by plenty of CTE students. Multiple robotics teams from Rochester city schools participated in the 2024 Finger Lakes regional robotics competition with the Wilson robotics team, the X-Cats, winning the event. The X-Cat experience has impacted many Wilson students.

Cox is also proud of groups such as Girls Who Game and Women with Wrenches, which support women in technological careers, a field where they are generally underrepresented.

“We believe that diversity in the workspace is important, and programs like these make students aware of their potential and the multiple opportunities available to them,” he says.

Afterschool programs and activities aimed at younger students are important to the plan as well. For example, recent events include a Lego building competition and esports competition. Showing students CTE early in their schooling can help build enthusiasm and open their minds to the opportunities that exist.

Nowhere was that better illustrated for Cox than in a conversation he had at the conclusion of “Job Shadow Week.” The event, held in February, had seniors visit 40 businesses across Monroe County, many directly related to the CTE programs they were studying. A few days later, Cox was at World of Inquiry when a senior came up to speak with him.

“He said, ‘I really enjoyed the job shadowing, because now I know exactly what I want to do when I graduate.’ He was applying to become an electrician,” Cox says. “That’s my definition of success in terms of opportunity. Because (a) kid didn’t know what he wanted to do after high school and now he has a direction. That’s why these opportunities are so important.”

CTE challenges

In Rochester and nationally, the growing demand for CTE has highlighted certain challenges.

Chief among concerns for Cox is staffing for instruction, which requires extensive content knowledge. With a certified nursing program, for example, instructors are required to have both a nursing and teaching license as well as work experience in a nursing home facility.

“Imagine doing all those things and still getting a pay cut,” Cox remarks.

In these cases, CTE teacher training is invaluable to establishing adequate staffing. At Oswego’s program, while some graduates decide to apply for jobs in Rochester, Syracuse has a more formal teacher pipeline with the college.

“For now, we don’t have a similar understanding with the Rochester school district,” Ogwo says. “We are definitely supportive of them improving CTE programs and hope we can work with them to assist someday, especially in places where there is no CTE at all.”

Additionally, costs of CTE courses are greater than core classes due to the cost of necessary resources and equipment.

“If I were teaching social studies, for example, I would probably need a textbook, paper maybe for worksheets, pencils, a computer. When I’m teaching carpentry, I need sheets and sheets of plywood. I need pinewood, I need saws, I need ventilation for the dust I’m going to accumulate. I need nails, screws,” Cox says. “It’s so vastly different when it comes to materials needed.”

According to RCSD budget book data, CTE had a budget of about $7.7 million, just under 1 percent of the entire budget. The proposal for this year increases it to $9.2 million, which is just over 1 percent of the proposed budget. This stems comes from an increase in the occupational education category, which broadly refers to programs covered by CTE.

Skilled-trades job gap

Nationwide, anecdotal reports of a wave of job vacancies in the skilled trades are supported by research.

A 2023 report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called the shortage of skilled trades workers “massive.” A year later, a report from McKinsey predicted that, even with skyrocketing demand and a rise in wages for those fields, younger replacements would not fully offset an aging workforce over the next decade. Construction laborers, electricians and welders were identified as the most difficult to replace due to the extensive training requirements and slow career progression.

Some researchers have speculated that Gen Z lacks interest in this work. The McKinsey report cites a survey of 18- to 20-year-olds that found 74 percent of respondents perceived a stigma associated with choosing vocational school over a traditional four-year university.

Yet, apprenticeship programs have been growing in recent years, by nearly 70 percent in less than a decade, according to the Department of Labor. Many of the careers identified as difficult to replace by McKinsey usually require apprenticeships. Ogwo says he has noticed a rising number of incentives offered by employers as well.

Similarly, the New York State School Boards Association last year said CTE program participation was booming. Data from the Perkins Collaborative Resource Network shows that CTE participation in secondary schools statewide bounced back in 2021-2022, growing by 67 percent since the 2019-2020 school year.

“I think there is this belief that this generation of students doesn’t want to work and that’s just not the experiences I’ve had,” Cox says.

In fact, students’ efforts to find work often are frustrated. The CTE director recalls a job fair held last year at the Wilson campus that included unions representing the trades.

“After the fair was done and they met the seniors, no one was offered a job. I felt a disconnect understanding why,” Cox says. “If people are saying we need more tradespeople, then why is it when I give you people to meet, they’re not meeting whatever standards you have set?”

One hurdle for students: a driver’s license requirement for high schoolers. While it may be required for construction or other trade jobs, it can be difficult for RCSD students to earn a license. Cox says driver’s education courses—with a largely electric fleet—are now offered at every high school.

Still, Cox believes his students’ passion and knowledge should be enough to earn an offer.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding about the abilities and the work ethics and the kind of kids coming from the city school district,” he says. 

“Just as much as (employers) want to be respected, (students) want to be respected too,” he observes. “Every kid I’ve shown even the smallest amount of respect to has just been fantastic.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

4 thoughts on “The CTE opportunity

  1. Imagine that! Why didn’t I think of that? It’s so simple, yet so difficult for the RCSD/RCSB to realize the value of an Edison Technical and Industrial High School of old. We had one of those schools….remember? Now we are discussing and possibly bringing it back. WOW. I’ve only been pounding on that subject for 16 years. And now its being introduced as if it never existed. It was there folks. It was graduating in the high nineties. It was job placement on steroids. It was the finest school ever! It was the crown jewel of Rochester and the county. Now that we call it CTE it’s new. No it’s not new. It dates back to 1965.

    • Hi Josh:

      It is interesting if you are old enough to watch each subsequent generation “discover” things anew without any awareness of history. I, too, remember the old Edison Tech and out in the suburbs, what is now being called CTE was called Voc Pro or simply BOCES.

      We, as a society, are enamored with the “new and improved”, when, often, the old stuff not only worked just fine, but in many ways was better. However, as human beings we are enchanted with the novel.

      Rebranding is the technique of marketers to get people’s attention and to make them think that new and novel is better.

      In the end, training in the trades is a good thing for the student, the teachers, the trade and the society it serves. So call it what you want as we work together to improve the quality of life in our community. It is a good thing for younger generations to discover for their own what works and gets good outcomes.

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