NEWARK, N.J. – The students control a robotic arm, guiding it as it lifts one plastic basket and dumps the contents into another. ¶ In a classroom a few miles away, groups of students layer tiers of recycled material to design green rooftops that can harness energy. Meanwhile, their schoolmates in a digital media course finish producing videos they scripted, filmed and edited. ¶ By the time they graduate from the Essex County Vocational Technical Schools in New Jersey, these students will possess skills they can use in careers ranging from engineering to digital production. Many will even leave high school with a professional license along with a traditional diploma. ¶ “There’s a lot of misconception that vocational education is for students who want a different route because they won’t graduate,” said Dicxiana Carbonell, the school system’s supervisor of curriculum and instruction. “What our students learn in the academic areas, they can apply to real-life projects. They see how the skills transfer.”
Across the country, educators increasingly look to vocational programs to better prepare students for the 21st-century workforce. Many educators – and business leaders – believe career programs engage students in school and show them how the material they learn in the classroom can be relevant in their future professions.
In Buffalo – which offers some career education, though mostly a few classes that count as electives, rather than comprehensive programs aligned to core subject areas – graduation rates stubbornly hover around 50 percent.
At Essex County Vocation Technical Schools in New Jersey, 96 percent of students graduate from high school, many also earning a professional license. About 88 percent of students go on to attend a two- or four-year college. About eight percent go straight from high school graduation to a job.
And that success comes with a student body similar to the Buffalo Public Schools. About 85 percent of Essex vocationl students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, the school system’s measure of poverty. Its student body is almost entirely minority students, many from high-poverty urban areas such as Newark.
At Essex, students enroll in an all-inclusive program that connects career skills with core subjects. Students spend part of their day taking traditional high school courses and the rest in career classes that range from nursing to engineering. Along with teaching professional skills, career instructors reinforce what students are taught in other subjects – and that will be included on state assessments.
That approach begins in classrooms such as the one at Bloomfield Tech High School outside of Newark, where Justin Williams, 18, and Kevin Antoine, 17, huddle over a triangular model of a building.
Too many young men their age already have given up on school, failing to grasp that the classroom material will benefit them in the future.
But these two young men see it differently as they wrap the model structure in plastic wrap, a green-energy technique used to cool buildings.
“It’s definitely an option,” Williams said of the possibility of working in a green-energy field. “This basically broadens your horizons of what options might be available.
“And there are a lot of jobs out there.”
Tenth-graders Daniel Dumbard and Duvonne Frails sit on a classroom floor, surrounded by boxes of plastic gears, wheels and funnels.
The object of the day’s lesson is simple: Figure out how to move a ball from one spot to another.
The students, however, must do this using an unconventional method: They must build robots.
The boys, dressed in shirts and ties, exude the same comfort with the equipment and electronic controls that most students have with paper and pencils.
“It wasn’t that hard,” Frails said of their creation of a robot with an arm that tosses the ball.
Another group designed a robot that carries the ball in a basket. One student had his robot drop the ball through a funnel, which he created using a 3-D printer.
The robotics program is one of the signature career programs at Newark Tech High School, one of the four high schools in the network of Essex County Vocational Technical Schools. Each county in New Jersey has a similar county-wide school system that offers vocational programs and operates independent of traditional schools, although still as part of the public school system.
The four high schools in Essex County offer career programs that range from automotive and welding to video production and engineering.
The schools emphasize college, offer advanced placement classes and use a curriculum built around the Common Core standards.
“When I went to school, they called them shops,” said Frank Cocchiola Jr., the interim superintendent. “Those technical schools used to be 80 percent technical and 20 percent academic. Now, I’d say they’re 60-40.”
In ninth grade, students sample their school’s different career offerings. They then select one area to focus on during their sophomore through senior years.
“That doesn’t mean you have to get into the business,” Cocchiola said. “But when you graduate your program you have those skills, and maybe even a professional license.”
And those professional courses reinforce the standards students need to master at each grade level.
In Robert Lorenzo’s robotics class, for instance, students might measure a robot’s movement or calculate the average time it takes to pick up a ball. They can then use those calculations to predict how long it will take to move the ball from one point to another. That applies academic concepts such as distance, rotation and time.
That kind of integration lays the foundation for students to be successful in a variety of careers, from manufacturing to engineering.
“I would say I’m more of a facilitator than a lecturer,” Lorenzo said of his role in the process. “You can see the kids put their thoughts into action.”
On one level, the push for career programs starts halfway around the world in countries such as India and China, where education systems with a strong focus on math and science fuel a competitive threat to U.S. industries.
Business leaders have long said that American schools do not adequately prepare students for today’s high-tech, global economy. Students leave high school, they say, lacking critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
And while countries with large populations can afford to operate with tiered education systems and still produce a large number of capable workers, to compete globally, the less populous United States must ensure every child is prepared to enter the workforce.
That means providing an adequate education for all students, like the ones growing up in Newark, where boarded up buildings and littered streets just a few miles from Newark Tech tell a story of neighborhoods and childhoods mired in poverty and violence.
At Newark Tech, senior Langston Tisdale II exudes the air of a rising young executive, with his confident tone and big-rimmed glasses. The hoodie and T-shirt he wears serve as a reminder that he is still just a teenager.
“When you hear ‘business,’ it really applies to everything,” he said. “Business is the foundation of all careers in America. It’s the foundation of a lot of things.”
When it came time to select a high school, Tisdale, 17, looked into some of the higher-performing options in the Newark Public Schools. But even the best options came with stories of fights, high drop-out rates and poor academics.
“Those aren’t schools with the best reputations,” he said.
Tisdale wanted better. He found out about Newark Tech and decided to try its career offerings.
Research consistently shows that students who can make connections between what they learn in high school and future careers are more likely to graduate. One study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation reports that 81 percent of high school drop-outs say that having relevant, real-world opportunities would have kept them in high school. Nationally, about 90 percent of students who participate in career programs graduate from high school, compared with about 75 percent overall.
In New York State, 84 percent of students enrolled in career programs finish high school, compared with 57 percent in the state’s large urban school systems.
That reality has encouraged educators in other parts of the country to make career programs a priority. Yet progress in that area has been slow in New York, despite support from some of the state’s top education leaders. The state’s stringent graduation standards, which require students to pass five Regents exams to earn a diploma, prohibit many students – especially those who are behind academically – from taking vocational classes. State education leaders have pushed for years to create a career pathways diploma in lieu of the Global Studies Regents. The Board of Regents has yet to approve that option.
The Buffalo schools offer some successful career programs, notably the Emerson School of Hospitality. But that school can’t keep up with the demand, and each year hundreds of students get turned away.
Meanwhile, at Newark Tech, Tisdale mulls his options for the future.
Tisdale benefits from a stable family life, including a father who holds a steady job as a corrections officer.
The son’s ambitions are far greater.
“Middle class is nice,” he said. “But I think I can do better.”
Driving through the run-down neighborhoods where many of his students live, Bickram Singh, the district’s supervisor of program accountability, rattles off test results for each of his schools. He cites performance trends for subgroups of students, and the best education practices and strategies used to reach them.
“All of them are reading at a fifth- or sixth-grade level when they come to us,” Singh said. “These kids are coming in way below grade level. It’s then up to the school to get them up to speed by the time they graduate a few years later.”
“We only have a few years to do this,” he emphasized.
Singh is passionate about this work. Where some educators see mounds of data, state mandates and testing controversies, he sees children. He talks fast, and each sentence comes with a new data byte or tidbit about the school system. He eases the harshness of numbers with his jovial air, exchanging pleasantries and laughter with everyone from principals to janitors as he tours the schools.
An immigrant from Guyana, with family origins in India, Singh came to New Jersey and through a connection got a job teaching math and science in the Essex Tech system.
His original plan was to absorb what he learned here, take that knowledge abroad and try to improve education in other places. But Essex Tech had other plans for him. He ultimately became a supervisor at the district level, overseeing data and accountability.
Singh orchestrated and now oversees a data-tracking effort that employs people from students themselves to district-level supervisors. They all monitor data and use it to assess students’ abilities and target their weaknesses.
Students have access to their own information, adding a layer of oversight that doesn’t exist in most schools. More often than not, students hold teachers accountable for posting grades and updating data.
Each school connects with a district-level supervisor who looks for trends within classrooms and even among teachers. That information not only helps target areas where groups of students need help, but can drive professional development for teachers. The district support team helps come up with strategies to get students on the right track.
“There’s nothing hidden,” Singh said. “We know exactly at any moment which kids are struggling. The transparency leads to accountability.”
The results of that work can be seen in the classrooms throughout Essex Tech, like the digital media class where seniors show Singh the music videos they produced.
To them, this marks the culmination of a semester spent learning to use technical skills like lighting and screen writing to produce movie trailers and television commercials.
To Singh, it is the product of a much greater effort.
“I always say, ‘Make complex things simple,’ and this is not that complex,” he said. “This, this is what schools should be.”
A glass atrium juts out onto the sidewalk, offering passers-by a glimpse of what leaders here consider the high school classroom of the future.
Students in one corner discuss their project on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They read the play and coordinate their own literature circles to discuss the content. The teacher may catch some of the discussion, but it’s also videotaped so it can be evaluated later and used to provide feedback.
Across the room a young man helps his classmate with a calculus assignment.
They call it the Technology Enhanced Active Learning Center – or TEAL Center. It is the product of a $4 million state grant to test out a place where students work independently on projects.
Teachers in five core subject areas rotate throughout the room, making themselves available if students have questions. They post their schedules on a wall in advance so students know when they can set up appointments.
But for the most part, students work on their own or in small groups on longer-term projects. The students must manage their own schedules, setting aside time to work with teachers and classmates and communicating via email and Google documents.
“Students have to take charge,” said Denise Calimano, a Spanish teacher who works in the center.
Newark Tech, where the TEAL Center is located, selected 40 seniors as its initial cohort to participate in the project. This coming school year, they want to make it available to another grade level.
For some, the newfound freedom was not what they thought.
“At the beginning of the semester, I thought I could just put things off and wait,” said Alana Diomande, 18. “Then the zeroes start popping in.”
Diomande learned to manage her schedule more carefully. She also found that her success or failure relied, to some extent, on her classmates.
The skills Diomande learned in the TEAL Center, combined with those mastered in her health career courses, give her a strong foundation for her future.
That might be a career in medicine, law enforcement or the military. Maybe even working as a forensic scientist. She is still trying to decide.
“I wake up with different ideas,” Diomande said.
Diomande’s path is paved with options.