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'Not your grandfather's BOCES': Vocational training returns with a different look

A vocational education is in vogue again.

Only now it’s called "career and technical education" — CTE, for short — and it looks a lot different than what you, your father or your grandfather might remember from high school.

For example, machine shop is out.

Advanced manufacturing is in.

Auto body repair, cosmetology and nursing are still around.

But now, there’s also cyber security, computer-aided drafting and aviation technology.

Not interested? How about studying forensics or exercise science?

“This isn’t your grandfather’s BOCES anymore,” said Melody Jasen, executive director of instructional services for Erie I Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which provides career and technical education programs for students in 19 districts across the county. “The nature of business has become global and computerized and high-tech.”

This re-emphasis on preparing students for the workforce has been percolating for a few reasons, educators say.

From the industry side, there’s an aging workforce. Employers need a pool of workers with diverse skills for a variety of jobs. And the skill set needed in today’s labor market has changed, too.

“The technical competency people have to have in the trades — the reading skills, the numeracy skills — are a lot more demanding,” said David O’Rourke, superintendent of Erie 2 BOCES, which offers career and technical programs for 27 districts in southern Erie, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties.

From the education side, the “college for all” movement has petered out as the high cost of college and low four-year completion rates have students and parents rethinking their options.

What’s emerged is sort of a new educational track for high school students: A wider variety of career and technical training opportunities aligned to a post-secondary degree or certification program often needed for that better-paying job.

“Sixty percent of our graduates go on to some kind of post-secondary education, so there still is the college option,” said Clark Godshall, superintendent of Orleans Niagara BOCES. “We’re delivering students who have the skills employers want.”

This rebirth of vocational education is also changing the negative connotation that once came with it, Godshall said.

“I think we’ve seen a small increase in the number of students moving in that direction,” O’Rourke said, “but the momentum is building.”

Some  examples:

More variety

At Erie 2 BOCES, programs include criminal justice, culinary arts and emergency medical services.

At Orleans Niagara, there’s web development and game programming, early childhood education, fashion design and interior decorating.

At Erie 1 BOCES, there’s cyber security and digital media.

“We have an aviation program. We’ve gone into animal sciences, which has been hugely popular. There’s baking and pastry arts — not just your standard hospitality program,” said Michael Capuana, director of career and technical education for Erie 1 BOCES. “We want to diversify as much as possible, not only to meet the interest of the students, but the needs of business and industry.”

Buy-in from New York State

The state Education Department changed graduation requirements in recent years to give high school students more opportunity to explore career and technical programs.

Instead of having to pass five Regents exams — one each in math,  science and English and two in social studies — students now have an option to pass four and select a fifth “pathway” from a menu of choices.

That menu includes a career and technical training option which requires students to pass a vocational exam.

A reboot for Buffalo

Career and technical education has been a key component in efforts to reform the Buffalo Public Schools and offer programs that interest this generation of students. Several of the high schools have been revamped over the past couple of years.

At Bennett, there’s computer coding and graphic animation.

At Riverside, there’s ecotourism and health and wellness.

At Burgard, there’s advanced manufacturing and at South Park, there’s advance manufacturing of solar panels.

Creation of a second Emerson school of culinary arts and hospitality is underway.

In fact, the number of career and technical education programs in the Buffalo schools has jumped 29 percent over the past few years, said Kathy Heinle, director of career and technical education for the district. Almost two thirds of Buffalo's high school students are either in a four-year career and technical education program or take one of the classes as an elective, Heinle said.

“It also gives students a real reason to come to school,” Heinle said. “CTE answers the age-old question: ‘Why do I need this math or English class?’ We show them why you need math to build a house or English to do the storyboard for graphic animation.”

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