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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:

What you might find in a vocational or CTE school or classroom

That may well depend on which day you go! Many vocational programs are part of a student’s daily schedule, with one or two periods devoted to hands-on, project-based classes. Other schools may have off-campus training sites where students spend chunks of time learning and honing vocational skills.

Other vocational high schools might alternate weeks between academic and vocational instruction. In an academic week, you will find students in the classroom much like any high school. Students are responsible for passing the state’s high-stakes tests — and with a one-week-on/one-week-off schedule, they are doing it with half the classroom time. During a vocational week, students are at work learning their trade.

Typically, schools will have a variety of “shops” or specialty programs to choose from, usually a dozen or more, that take place in working replicas of what students will find at a work site. In some cases, shops are actual, off-campus job sites. Some examples include electrical wiring, health technology, cosmetology, graphic communication, auto repair, plumbing, information technology, dental assistance, and culinary arts. Plumbers hook up toilets and hot water in a fully framed “house,” accounting students balance books in a computer lab, culinary students train in a professional kitchen, while cosmetology students cut and color hair in a fully equipped salon. Schools in rural areas may have agricultural work sites as well.

No matter how they’re set up, vocational programs typically have extracurricular student clubs called CTSOs (Career and Technical Student Organizations) that students may join. These academic and social outlets allow students to use the skills they’re learning in various ways, such as entering competitions, attending conferences, and socializing with students with similar interests. Kids in business programs might join their school’s Future Business Leaders of America club and do mock PowerPoint presentations. Students in the Future Educators Association might create energy-themed lesson plans, practice filling out job applications, or give an impromptu lecture. It’s a wonderful way for your child to meet people and see how they might apply their vocational skills after graduation.

What to look out for

There are many factors to consider when choosing a vocational school.

  • First, of course, make sure they have a course of study in your teen’s field(s) of interest. Since not many 14-year-olds know what they want in a career, ask how well the school introduces incoming students to their options. Is there an orientation that cycles students through all of the shops to make sure students are exposed to a variety of offerings before choosing their specialty? Once your child has picked a program, find out whether he’ll have the option to switch, too.
  • Check out the vocational programs your child is interested in. Are they well equipped? Are they using the latest equipment? Talk to the teachers — your student will be spending a lot of time with this training team, so make sure you like what you see and hear.
  • Ask how often students get their top-choice CTE classes. If your teen is interested in a competitive area, make sure she has a strong second choice.
  • Don’t forget the academic side of things! Check the school’s state test scores to see how they measure up to the other local high schools. Ask what students tend to do after graduation and ask to see a list of intended work, training, and college plans for this year’s graduating seniors.
  • Chances are you won’t have a lot of choice in which public vocational school your child goes to unless you live in a city with several schools to choose from. But before you give up, ask if there’s another vocational program nearby that offers CTE classes that interest your child. If so, your child may be eligible to go to a school in another district.

What supporters say

Why spend (or borrow) thousands of dollars for a two- or four-year college education when students can learn a trade, graduate, and start earning top dollar years before their college-going classmates? If they’re good, vocational high schools offer career guidance, job placement, and try to give students a leg up in the job market. Public vocational schools may also offer — free of charge — professional training without having to go to a postsecondary vocational school.

What critics say

Vocational schools offer a limited educational experience and track students into a trade rather than exposing them to the world of ideas. If students decide to go to a four-year college, they won’t be academically prepared to compete with traditional high school graduates. As with any career choice, it’s important to research the future prospects. Make sure the particular vocational skills your child is learning will have value in the short term and over the next few decades.

Final word of advice

Don’t write off CTE schools if you haven’t seen one lately. Spend time in your local school and see the variety of training and the level of skills the graduating students have. Vocational schools offer up-to-date training as well as strong academic instruction that can have students either on a college-to-career track or in the working world years ahead of their classmates. As always, don't take anyone's word for it that a school is great: visit any school you are considering for your child to see it for yourself.

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.

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