In a groundbreaking report issued three years ago, the NJSBA called for sweeping, revolutionary change in the way New Jersey educates its children and prepares them for life.
Sending students to college, especially with student loan debt in America now reaching a crippling $1.7 trillion, is not the only way to successfully find employment in the world, the report argued.
“The belief that, to be successful, one must earn a four-year college degree is simply not true, and the entire education community should work to dispel the notion that pursuing a technical-vocational pathway is inferior to obtaining a bachelor’s degree,” the NJSBA said in its October 2018 final report of the Task Force on Educational Opportunities for the Non-College-Bound Learner.
A month after the report was released, voters narrowly approved the Securing Our Future Bond Act in November 2018. Included in the measure was more than $275 million for projects at county vo-tech high schools.
In March 2020, the pandemic hit, and funding for the vo-tech schools was delayed. Finally, in a press release on May 28, the governor’s office announced a list of 17 projects approved for construction. The list was approved by the Legislature in June and can be found at www.njsba.org/VoTechList. The list includes projects totaling $222 million. A second round of funding, to award the remaining $50 million will come later, according to the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools (NJCCVTS).
The largest approved project on the current list is $40 million for the Atlantic County Institute of Technology (ACIT). The Atlantic County commissioners supported the project, adding an additional $13 million. The project, now valued at $53 million, will allow ACIT to build a three-story, 123,000-square-foot facility and offer three new programs — aviation maintenance; welding and advanced fabrication; and exercise science. The project will allow hundreds of additional students to receive career technical education (CTE), ACIT officials said.
Currently, 35,053 students are enrolled in career-focused programs at CTE or vo-tech high schools in New Jersey, according to the NJCCVTS. (The terms “CTE” and “vo-tech” are often used interchangeably. In an email, NJCCVTS Executive Director Jackie Burke maintained that “CTE” is a more modern term, and that “vo-tech” had “outdated negative connotations.” )
Typically, about 29,000 students apply to vo-tech high schools each year, but about 16,030 applicants are turned away because the vo-tech or CTE high schools in the 21 counties don’t have enough space for them. The issue with vo-tech education in New Jersey has not been about quality. Ninety-seven percent of the students enrolled in programs graduate. The main issue has been capacity.
CTE Challenges The new funding will help, but CTE in New Jersey still faces challenges. For example, advocates say there is still unmet need. In Camden County, Pennsauken Superintendent Ronnie Tarchichi calls the recent bond act “a drop in the bucket” toward meeting the needs of thousands of students who would sign up for career and technical education if it were available to them.
In his township, voters approved $36 million to build state-of-the-art welding, cosmetology, construction and auto repair shops. Currently, about 400 students are enrolled in Pennsauken’s local vo-tech program, which has been established separate from the statewide system of county vo-tech programs. If he were permitted to open his program to surrounding districts, he would easily double enrollment, Tarchichi says, but the state won’t permit it. Under current law, districts may offer local vo-tech education programs to their own students but not to others.
CTE advocates say the state should aggressively market career-focused programs to guidance counselors, parents and students to show them that careers in computer science, the health professions, and engineering are among the valuable skills being taught in CTE high schools. The NJSBA report called for the state to study the demand for career-focused education. CTE advocates say that parents need to understand that their children can have the best of both worlds. Their kids can learn a skill valued in the workforce, which may also help them in college.
“Parents need to understand that career and technical education does not preclude a child from preparing for college. In fact, the early career focus and opportunities to earn dual enrollment college credits can enhance their post-secondary success,” said Jackie Burke, the new executive director of the NJCCVTS. A majority of students enrolled in CTE programs do go on to college.
One source of conflict concerns funding for programs. When students enroll in county vo-tech programs, local districts can pay tuition to those county schools, and can also lose funding when their enrollment drops. That’s also part of the conflict between local programs, such as Tarchichi’s effort in Pennsauken, and county vo-tech high schools. “It shouldn’t be about the money,” Tarchichi says. “It should be about getting the kids the education they need.”
But Judy Savage, the recently retired executive director of the NJCCVTS, says that the “state should be concerned about costly and duplicative local programs that are not supported by labor market data.”
According to the NJSBA report, there are 90 comprehensive high schools in New Jersey with more than 45,000 students participating in CTE. One of the most highly-regarded comprehensive high school programs is in Vernon Township, Sussex County, whose officials worked with the NJSBA task force.
The Innovative Vernon Township Program Vernon Township Assistant Superintendent Charles McKay has spent decades building a program that offers an impressive array of options. Students in Vernon’s program study computer science, engineering, cosmetology, graphic design, construction, allied health and the hospitality industry.
By offering instruction by teachers with expertise in the fields they teach, and by partnering with local industries, students get the chance to try careers before they graduate from high school. If they like what they learn in high school, they can earn simultaneous high school and college credits in a career path. And if they don’t like their field of study, then they have learned what they do not want to do with their lives — which Vernon officials point out, can also be a valuable lesson that will save them time and money in the future.
The Genesis of Vernon’s Initiative In previous years, working with former superintendent Art DiBenedetto, McKay said that together they realized that the school was not meeting the needs of many students.
“We realized that 40% of our students, maybe 45% of our students, were heading to a four-year college immediately after school, another 15% to 20% were either heading into the military or heading into work, or they were undecided about their direction,” he said.
That left roughly 30% of the school’s students who attended school without having courses and programs directly aimed at addressing their needs. McKay said that too many students were slipping through the cracks, without getting a chance to learn about life — or how to make a living.
Building slowly, Vernon Township began to consider how to match career training opportunities with students who might benefit from them. That’s how programs in graphic design, engineering, allied health professions and others began to take off, he said.
“It doesn’t mean that every one of those programs was successful right away, he said. “You have to build those programs. But now right now, we have some of the healthiest programs in the state.”
Karen D’Avino, Vernon’s superintendent for nearly three years, is strongly supportive of the local vo-tech program and credits McKay for finding talented faculty with the necessary career experience who are willing to undergo the education training mandated by the state.
Vernon’s strong CTE programs convince parents and taxpayers that they are “getting the biggest bang for their buck,” D’Avino said, especially the students who enroll in CTE programs and earn simultaneous credit toward a college degree.
“We think that the future of the CTE program is really solid,” D’Avino said. The CTE programs “continue to meet the needs of our community and to anticipate the needs of our students after they graduate.”
Suggestions from the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools In a recent interview with School Leader, Burke, the new executive director of the NJCCVTS, offered suggestions about how the state might improve its career and technical education programs in the future. Among the key points she mentioned:
- Streamline Preparation Programs and Eliminate Unnecessary CTE Teacher Tests The shortage of career and technical education teachers is an obstacle to expansion of career programs, Burke said, so New Jersey needs to attract new teachers from industry. The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) should address barriers to recruiting new CTE teachers by streamlining preparation programs and minimizing non-essential testing requirements. It can be intimidating for a person who has worked successfully in a trade for decades to suddenly be required to take a timed test on a computer.
- Change the Focus of New Jersey’s High School Graduation Requirements New Jersey’s high school graduation requirements should emphasize career preparation as well as college readiness, Burke said. Rather than a single set of requirements for all students, New Jersey needs flexible graduation pathways that recognize the value of a rigorous career and technical education program and work-based learning experiences.
- Collaboration, Not Competition, Should Mark Discussions between County Vo-Techs and Local SchoolsLocal school districts and county vocational-technical schools should collaborate to advance career-focused learning, rather than competing for students or duplicating expensive career programs, Burke said. Open dialogue at the local level and through county associations is critical to addressing the goals and interests of students as well as the needs of employers.
- Involve Local Businesses The active involvement of employers — from small local businesses to global corporations — is the key to developing quality career programs and authentic work-based learning experiences that will prepare students with essential technical and work readiness skills.
Should State Regulations Be Changed to Allow Local Districts to Offer More Courses? In Pennsauken, superintendent Tarchichi says he believes that the state is missing a golden opportunity to directly serve a large population of students who would benefit themselves — and their local communities — by learning job skills while in high school.
If, for example, Vernon Township is correct in saying that as many as 30% of its high school students were not being directly served by the high school curriculum, there is potential for exponential growth in vo-tech education.
Currently there are about 412,700 students enrolled in grades seven through 12 in New Jersey public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. If 30% of them were enrolled in vo-tech education, that would serve more than 123,800 students.
Leaders of local programs and the vo-tech council agree that the state could serve many more than the students who are currently enrolled in career-focused high school programs. How much potential really exists remains to be seen.
It’s complicated. Job training programs in community colleges also serve many thousands of students, and dual enrollment programs allow students to simultaneously earn high school and college credits.
In 2018, the NJSBA called for the state to study the marketplace, determine the level of demand, and resolve the differences between local programs and the vo-tech council.
Tarchichi believes his district should be permitted to serve more students.
“We’re not allowed to get students to come in from outside our township from places like Collingswood or Cherry Hill,” he said. “That should be lifted, they should be allowed to come to vocational programs that are in other comprehensive schools. That should happen right away, because then students are immediately served.”
To encourage growth of local vocational programs, the state should offer “some sort of incentive for comprehensive high schools to build these vocational programs,” he said. Once schools build facilities, “you allow more students to be served, and more jobs to be filled that are really needed in the country, and it provides good futures for the kids.”
CTE programs don’t necessarily need to have an academic focus, or be aimed at filling high-tech jobs. Tarchichi said he is exploring a diesel truck repair program, for example, “because there’s a huge market for it.”
The whole idea, Tarchichi said, is to successfully prepare students for life. Especially with the high cost of college, it is better to allow students to attend a vocational program than to have them go to college without a clear idea about what they want to do with their lives.
The Full NJSBA Task Force Report When the NJSBA released its task force report three years ago, it called for its work to “prompt educational, governmental, labor and community leaders to reevaluate existing educational structures, assumptions and practices. The report represents a springboard for additional discussion and future research.
“Reform must take place,” the report concluded, “with a fresh eye and the willingness to anticipate a future in which workforce opportunities will be radically different than those of yesterday and today.”
The full final report of the Task Force on Educational Opportunities for the Non-College-Bound-Learner can be accessed here.