COLUMBUS — High school senior Emily McVay is invested in her future as an oncology student. She understands the extensive path ahead of her, including four years of college, four years of medical school and four to six years of medical residency.
For the time being, she finds herself in the Manatee Coast area of the Columbus Zoo, where she and fellow high school senior, Gwenen Hupp, are discussing Lucy, the endangered pitted-shelled turtle.
The two students are interning with the zoo through a Career and Technical Education, or CTE, program partnership with the Delaware Area Career Center, which allows them to work with and care for marine animals.
Their daily routine consists of food prep and feeding the animals, and on this particular day, they are watching needlefish in quarantine.
“They’re really small so they are in a holding tank, and we feed those in the morning,” McVay said.
They make sure the animals are eating and watch to see if they’re distressed, Hupp said. She added that they recently observed a manatee biting another manatee’s flipper, which they learned was a comfort behavior.
The students’ favorite mammal is Stubby, a 1-ton female manatee.
Stubby serves as a mentor for new baby manatees before they are released into the wild, Hupp said, adding that Lucy the turtle likes to stay in a corner of the large aquarium and watch people as they go by.
The CTE program at the Columbus Zoo is just one of many across Ohio offering students an alternative path to starting their careers. Once known as basic vocational classes, these programs have transitioned into something more.
Margaret Hess, executive director of the Ohio Association of Career Technical Superintendents, told Farm and Dairy that Ohio has some of the strongest CTE systems in the U.S.
It began in February of 2014, when then Ohio Gov. John Kasich gave his State of the State address.
“How did we ever lose our way on vocational education? he asked. “Why did we put it down? Why did we not understand its value?”
At the time, the Buckeye state had a fairly large skills gap where there were more technical job openings than there qualified applicants. Kasich signed House Bill 487 into law, which required schools to provide CTE courses in seventh and eighth grades.
At that time, Ohio became one of the only states to require the availability of CTE courses to middle school students. Kasich also endorsed and implemented a drug testing policy for CTE programs.
Gov. Mike DeWine has prioritized legislation for improving CTE since he took office in 2019. His 2019 budget included several policies intended to give high schoolers a head start. In his second term, DeWine has increased allocations for CTE. Budget recommendations for 2024 and 2025 are at $102 million and $106 million respectively.
That focus seems to be working
As education is transitioning out of old vocational schools into advanced career-focused programs, options for students are increasing, waiting lists are common and the competitive nature of the programs are surging.
According to Jay Poroda, superintendent of the Delaware Area Career Center, in Delaware, Ohio, the workforce demand has changed, and parents don’t necessarily think their children have to go to college.
“Parents just want their children to have meaningful careers, and they know not everyone is cut out for college,” he told Farm and Dairy.
There are opportunities for young people as older generations retire, Porda said. Either they can join the work force quickly or spend some time attending a two- or four-year college for additional education.
“The opportunity is there,” he said. “That’s pretty exciting.”
Vocational schools were once known for the trades but as technical skills change, the CTE programs are becoming more rigorous, while the trades are becoming more popular.
Ohio is leading the CTE trend “by making substantial efforts in developing a technically sound workforce,” Hess said.
There are 89 career technical planning districts and 49 of those are career centers, Hess said.
Over the last few years career training programs have reinforced academic skills and are incorporating more rigorous courses where students can experiment with computer technology, graphic design, construction, mechanical engineering and bioscience.
At the Delaware career center, for example, the dental assisting program allows students to become dentists, dental hygienists or dental assistants, depending on their aspirations — while students in the bioscience program can become optometrists, biomedical engineers or scientists.
One study by the U.S. Department of Education, completed in 2012, examined career and technical education.
“The new CTE is responsive to the demands of the innovation economy and grounded in the belief that the skills and abilities students need to succeed in college and careers are virtually identical,” the study said.
The Wayne County Career Center, in Smithville, Ohio, offers 25 CTE programs. Students in the culinary arts work in the school restaurant located on school grounds. They serve, prepare and cook food for not only the restaurant, they also participate in the catering business side of the program.
“I really wouldn’t mind running a business for myself,” said Carson Smith, who is a senior. “I’m really a people person so I like to be in the front of the house.”
Another senior Hannah Sattelmaier wants something a little different.
“I would like to write cookbooks and study the science behind baking and pastries,” she said. “Someday, I’d like to run my own bakery and cafe and have a tea room.”
The Wayne County culinary program also attracts students from outside of the school district. Culinary arts instructor Peter Kerling was an executive chef in several high end Cleveland restaurants and has high standards for the program.
“My goal is to get as many accolades for the students and the program as I can. I train my students in classic French preparation so that if they go to culinary school or work in industry, they can be recognized as classically trained,” he said.
The agricultural program at Wayne County Career Center offers full certification in artificial insemination and the students work with ABS Global, a Wisconsin-based company that handles bovine genetics, reproduction and other technologies. It has an international reach.
“The students learn about everything from hormones to the reproductive tract and the certification gives them a head start,” said instructor Alex DeWitt.
One out of every two Ohio CTE students are in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, programs. The Wayne agricultural program is one of them.
Admission into the zoo program is competitive.
According to instructor Emily Cunningham, the students are not only interested in animals; they may be interested in conservation, the environment or wildlife biology.
Admission to the program is by lottery and students take a biology test and write an essay in order to qualify. Roughly 50% of applicants get in and “the students are entrusted to be out and about doing their work,” Cunningham said.
McVay likes the program because she is learning how to research. Hupp’s future plans include attending the University of Tampa where she will double major in marine science and biology. She wants to do coral restoration in the Florida Keys, eventually.
The Portage Lakes Career Center hopes to duplicate the success of the program with the Delaware career center and Columbus Zoo. It is in discussion with the Akron Zoo to start the same type of program.
According to Hess, STEM is a critical subject area for Ohio’s workforce which has economic growth dependent upon innovation. This includes STEM-related subjects such as health science, agriculture, food, and natural resources. The most popular career interests are audio-visual technology and communication. This bears out at DACC where the biggest program is the digital media program.
Poroda highlights a significant advantage of CTE programs: they offer students a variety of alternative learning options beyond the traditional classroom setting. To further enhance these opportunities, the Delaware career center is launching a pilot program that provides flexible learning options.
Under this program, students will spend their days gaining on-the-job training, participating in mentorships, apprenticeships, internships (both paid and unpaid), practicums, job shadowing, co-op opportunities, clinical experiences and community service, while academics are offered after school.
“This is innovative. It changes the entire high school experience,” he said.
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