Career and technical education programs in high demand throughout the state
The Wilbur H. Palmer Career and Technical Education Center in Hudson began with vocational courses in agriculture. (Courtesy)
Four decades ago, Wilbur Palmer had a vision for a different type of education in Hudson. The school should offer vocational courses in agriculture, Palmer decided. After dismantling and rebuilding a pair of greenhouses on campus, the school’s career technical institute was born, and Palmer became its first director.
Today, the Wilbur H. Palmer Career and Technical Education Center offers far more than agricultural training. From culinary arts to digital media to veterinary science to welding, the school offers high school sophomores and juniors a broad menu of career training options.
“We have unbelievable teachers,” said Eric Frauwirth, the current career and technical education program director. “We have an unbelievable facility with unbelievable equipment.”
It’s a progression that’s common to many schools: Career and technical education (CTE) programs across New Hampshire have expanded in recent decades, broadening from their agrarian origins to include modern industries such as health care administration, computer science, and video production.
This year, as students return to school, the New Hampshire Department of Education is seeking to boost CTE programs further. The state has accepted a grant to turn alumni of the programs into ambassadors, who can reach out to middle school students in all corners of the state and promote the programs. The Executive Council approved an extension of that grant on Aug. 17.
The $20,000 in grant funding will require the state to target messaging to students and parents, with an objective to “close access and equity gaps for families historically marginalized from participation in CTE programs,” the contract states. The grants are provided by Advance CTE, a national nonprofit focused on boosting state programs.
“We believe strongly that CTE programs aren’t just about gaining skills and picking a particular career path, but it’s about career exploration and figuring out what you do and don’t like,” said Stacy Whitehouse, senior associate for communications and state engagement at Advance CTE, in an interview. “And to get exposed to careers that sometimes maybe students in rural areas don’t have the opportunity to be exposed to until much later in life.”
With or without statewide outreach efforts, CTE programs are increasingly popular in New Hampshire, administrators say. Many programs have waitlists, and most classes fill up quickly.
The Palmer Center in Hudson already sends student ambassadors to middle schools to share their experiences. Last school year, the ambassadors met with seventh graders in the area with a new theme each month, from manufacturing to science to criminal justice. Those efforts have been made easier by renovations the school made to its CTE spaces in 2021, creating a more modern environment, administrators say.
“Our enrollment is higher than it’s ever been,” Frauwirth said.
At Pinkerton Academy in Derry, vocational education dates back nearly to the school’s founding in 1815, said Jennifer Haskins, the school’s CTE director. But it’s grown substantially in recent decades. The school now offers its students and surrounding schools 18 different programs, including accounting, cosmetology, marketing, and engineering.
Haskins attributes the growing demand in part to a shift in how educators and officials have treated the programs – and their role in K-12 education.
“Four years ago, five years ago in the state, there was a huge push from the Department of Education – and also post-secondary education – about how every kid has to go to college. ‘Are you college ready?’” Haskins said in an interview. “And so that started to transition to being ‘career ready.’”
Today, New Hampshire has 30 CTE programs, each serving different regions in the state. While hosted by specific schools, each program can accept students from public schools across their regions. Some regions have multiple programs.
Courses can vary in length, but most take place over two years for sophomores and juniors. Those who complete the courses can sometimes apply their credits to colleges. Some students head into apprenticeship programs, others to associate and bachelor programs, and others directly into the workforce.
The programs are funded in large part by the federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, passed in 2006. That act imposes a number of requirements on the schools it funds. It requires them to tailor the selections to local employers’ needs, and mandates that the programs be focused on high-wage and high-skill industries.
Employers have a say in the evolution of programs, too. Each CTE region in the state has an advisory committee consisting of leaders in school districts and industry representatives, who can help inform the types of courses offered based on the demand in the area, Frauwirth said.
“The workforce demand is the No. 1 factor when you’re looking at a new program,” said Deb Connell, director of the CTE program at Fall Mountain Regional High School in Langdon. “And then you want to look at student interest.”
At Fall Mountain, that workforce demand informed one of its CTE program’s recent expansion. With a pandemic-driven need for new employees in Monadnock and Upper Valley-area hospitals, Fall Mountain created a “business of health care” CTE course intended to teach skills for use in patient management, secretarial, and medical office specialist jobs. Completing the course will provide a student with 12 credits at River Valley Community College and provide a medical administrative assistant certificate.
“They’re all excited about it because it’s responding to a significant need in our region and across the state,” Connell said about employers.
That course now joins the school’s other offerings in horticulture, animal science, natural resources, Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, and digital design.
Amid a continual workforce shortage, New Hampshire lawmakers have also sought to bulk up CTE programs. A bill signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in June, House Bill 1661, allows career and technical education programs to incorporate “required course competencies” for students, a change that could allow CTE programs to include English, math, and science courses. Those courses could allow students to complete additional credits in those subjects and could take the place of some of those classes.
“A student who demonstrates proficiency in the embedded CTE course or program competencies and who is determined to have met the content area academic standards required by the high school shall have such credits counted toward the required program area for a high school diploma,” the statute states.
HB 1661 also requires schools that host CTE programs to align their calendars with the school districts that send the students, a mandate that could help to standardize the programs and make them more attractive for students and families.
Haskins said she anticipated schools will use that new statutory authority to build out more robust CTE courses.
“What we need to decide is what we’re packing in that vehicle,” she said. “Can we pack in an English credit and then we can put a science credit in here so we don’t have to take a separate car to get those things done, or take a separate class?”
To Haskins, career and technical education is in no danger of replacing the traditional K-12 approach. Nor will it stop many high school students from continuing to seek college or university degrees, she said. Schools offering CTE programs are still limited in their budgets, and most have caps that would prevent the majority of the students they serve from participating.
Still, Haskins says the pressures of the pandemic have created a shift in many students’ – and parents’ – thinking about vocational education.
“Since coming out of COVID, I’ve seen a great increase in (learning) trades,” she said. “More kids are interested in it. I think parents can get behind it now. They’re understanding that when we couldn’t pay our student loans for two years, we wouldn’t have had student loans had we maybe chosen a different profession.”
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