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NJ’s Made Great Strides in Expanding High School Career-Readiness Offerings

There’s a new awareness that innovative career and technical programs benefit all types of students, including those who are college-bound

Tim McCorkell
Tim McCorkell

February is national Career and Technical Education Month – and New Jersey has a particular reason to celebrate this year.

Our state is now a national leader in making career and technical education (CTE) an educational and economic priority, and our county vocational-technical schools are well-recognized for innovative programs that give all types of students a head start on college and career success.

Career-focused high school education boosts academic achievement by making learning more relevant. And it provides the technical and “soft skills” -- like teamwork, problem-solving and personal responsibility – that New Jersey employers so desperately need.

Five bills to expand CTE opportunities and increase New Jersey’s focus on career-readiness were approved by the Legislature with bipartisan support and signed by Gov. Chris Christie in late 2014.

The new statutes are already having a significant impact on how our state prepares all types of students for college and careers.

Some of these initiatives address the increased demand at county vocational-technical schools, which average about 2.5 applicants for every available seat, but they also have a positive impact for students at conventional high schools.

The NJ DOE’s School Performance Reports have traditionally based high school “college and career readiness” rankings solely on academic measures such as test scores and participation in Advanced Placement classes. But that formula ignored the “career readiness” part of the equation.

One of the new laws added career-readiness measures as a required element of the performance reports, and the state has already begun adding new indicators in this area. This will provide parents, employers, and local taxpayers with more information about what their schools are doing to prepare students for success in the workforce, as well as for admission to college.

A second law gives new teachers and guidance counselors a better understanding of career awareness, employability skills, and today’s career and technical education programs. The days of tracking students who were not academically inclined into vo-tech programs are over, and educators need to emphasize that all learning is ultimately preparation for a successful career.

Career and technical education helps all types of students: those who want rigorous academics and even college credits in a particular career area, those seeking employer-recognized certifications, and those searching for a career pathway that will unlock new opportunities. Guidance counselors should understand all of these options, and now they will.

In the past year, New Jersey has joined 16 other states in a national career-readiness initiative designed to engage employers and expand career programs that lead to industry credentials and college degrees. Meanwhile, the State Board of Education has adopted a set of career-ready practices that will be incorporated into the public school curriculum at all grade levels.

A third new law encourages all school districts and public colleges to develop dual enrollment agreements that will provide college-level instruction – and in many cases, college credits – to high school students.

County vocational-technical schools already have dual credit agreements with more than 40 New Jersey colleges and universities. Earning college credits while in high school expands access to higher education and reduces the time and cost of a degree. It also challenges students and improves college completion rates.

The school-funding formula adopted in 2008 addressed some serious equity problems, but in the process eliminated funding for adult high schools and post-secondary programs for adults at county vocational-technical schools.

That forced many vocational-technical schools to scale back or close their adult programs, dramatically reducing learning opportunities for young adults and others lacking a high school diploma or job skills, and those looking to launch new careers.

This year, the Legislature restored $4 million for adult high schools and adult CTE programs at county vocational-technical schools and certain other entities offering these programs. It’s a great first step in meeting employer needs and improving access to affordable, quality career and technical education to adults who need it most.

A keystone of the CTE bill package created a $3 million grant initiative to encourage county vocational-technical schools to develop innovative new programs in partnership with local employers, other school districts, and colleges and universities.

Seven county vocational school districts received grants to fund some of the most exciting new high school CTE opportunities in the country: a computer science and software engineering academy, three new partnerships with county colleges focused on advanced manufacturing and engineering, two law-enforcement and public-safety academies, and a local high school’s first CTE program in culinary arts.

And this progress will continue this year, thanks to the Legislature’s inclusion of an additional $3 million in the budget for more programs to open this fall.

That is quite a list of CTE accomplishments to celebrate this year.

It happened because New Jersey legislators, the administration, education and business leaders, and county officials all understand that career readiness is everybody’s business. An investment in career and technical education benefits all types of students and the state’s economic future as well.

Timothy McCorkell is the president of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools and the superintendent of the Monmouth County Vocational Schools District.

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