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Vocational and CTE schools

Is a vocational or career and technical education (CTE) program right for your child? Learn how some high schools integrate apprenticeship-like training into curricula.

By Valle Dwight

Flames are flying, hair is being clipped, planes are being welded, soup is simmering, a newsletter is being designed, houses are being wired. It’s just another day at the local vocational high school, where students are just as likely to be on their feet, getting their hands dirty as sitting, listening to a lecture.

Unlike a traditional high school that focuses only on academics, vocational schools (which exist in various forms and might be called Career and Technical Education (CTE), career academy, area CTE school or program, vocational technical school, trade school, or other variations) offer a blend of academics and hands-on training to prepare graduates for careers in fields as varied as nursing, marketing, auto repair, fashion design, architecture, computer science, agricultural science, aircraft mechanics, hospitality management, plumbing, manufacturing, protective services, and library science, to name a few.

Is a vocational school right for your child?

If your child has an interest in a particular field, wants to jump-start a career, would thrive in a hands-on learning environment, or isn’t planning on college, a vocational or CTE school could be just the ticket. By attending a public high school with a vocational element, your child can get training (and maybe even certification) in a trade or other field. If your child wants to continue to college — as the vast majority of CTE students do — she may be able to apply credits earned in a vocational high school program toward a two-year or four-year degree, too.

Depending on the vocational program, the sacrifice may be in the depth and breadth of academics your child will be exposed to, so consider the vocational or CTE program’s structure, the school’s academic offerings and rigor, and your child’s needs and desires. For example, some programs may operate like a school within a school while others may be off-campus and held inside or outside regular school hours. Some vocational schools offer fewer electives, arts, or foreign languages; others may include vocational education as yet another option amid extensive electives and honors options including IB and AP classes. Still other schools may require students to earn a certain number of vocational or CTE class credits to graduate. If your child is set on a vocational or CTE high school program but wants to take academic classes not offered at her school, ask about the possibility of taking classes at another local high school or community college.

Vocational schools: then and now

Dating back to our colonial days, vocational high schools have their basis in the apprenticeship style of learning a trade. They really became a force in the early 1900s as the U.S. grew into an industrial power with a crying need for skilled workers. Until about 30 years ago, vocational schools stressed trade skills over academics, with the majority of students going straight to work after high school, but as of 2004, almost 80 percent of CTE graduates have been continuing on to pursue college or other postsecondary education.

As a result, today’s multifaceted CTE schools are not your grandfather’s pre-factory training, though some of that remains available. Career prep has progressed with the times and now students can take courses that teach skills for a wide array of occupations ranging from the likes of engineering or marine biology to computer animation or business finance. Typically, students take a full slate of academic courses and are required to pass state tests to graduate. Only five percent of public high schools are full-time CTE schools, which means the majority of vocational programs will be embedded within a larger high school or be offered as an additional course of study. As a result, it’s important to determine what electives, languages, and honors, AP, or IB classes are offered so that after graduation, students may continue to a two- or four-year college if they choose.

Depending on your school district, you might find a good (or paltry) selection of vocational schools. Some well-known CTE schools include:

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.