EUGENE, Ore. — As a freshman at Springfield High School, Leyah Krimbow dreaded going to class.
“I used to ask my mom every morning if I could stay home,” Krimbow, now a 17-year-old senior, said over the phone recently. “I hated coming to school. The classes were pointless and boring, and I didn’t see why I had to go.”
Because of scheduling conflicts, Krimbow, 14 at the time, was placed in an introductory automotive class titled “Small Gas Engines,” and her life changed forever.
Krimbow is just one of an increasing number of high school students in the Eugene-Springfield metropolitan area who have chosen to spend their high school hours taking classes in Career Technical Education, or CTE for short.
Examples of such classes, once known as vocational courses, include construction technology, business management, early childhood development, computer sciences, robotics, engineering, culinary arts and more.
After completing her first engines class, Krimbow, whose grade point average had been 2.8 out of a possible 4.0, enrolled in advanced automotive classes. She learned how to take apart and reassemble head gaskets, replace brakes on trucks and change flat tires as well as basic car maintenance.
Krimbow’s grade point average now is 3.5, and her dreams have soared as well. She wants to be an aeronautical engineer, reported The Register-Guard.
“Auto (class) has helped with everything, absolutely everything. It’s a big motivator. It gets me to come to school in the morning because it’s my first class. It holds me accountable to get good grades in my other classes, and it’s given me so many college credits,” she said. “These classes have changed my life completely.”
Career Technical Education courses help students to gain the skills, technical knowledge, academic foundation and experience needed to prepare them for high-skilled, high-demand, living-wage careers after high school, according to the Oregon Department of Education, which has pledged to invest more money in such programs.
Local educators say the state’s renewed interest in these programs is a recent development.
For many years, vocational courses were an essential component of the high school curriculum, Terry Harrison, Willamette High School design and manufacturing teacher, said.
“Believe it or not, in the 1970s and ’80s vocational programs were important, and then there was this sort of push to encourage students to attend a four-year college, and those programs were set aside,” Harrison said. “But what has come about in the last three or four years is an influx of retirees in fields like construction, plumbing, welding and electrical work, and with the economy back on track, there’s more of a need for people who are trained in those areas.”
Harrison said an increase in state funding for CTE programs also has played a role in expanding them.
$9 MILLION INCENTIVE
To encourage the growth of CTE programs, the Oregon Legislature appropriated $8.75 million for 2015-17 to motivate districts across the state to provide high-quality CTE programs to qualify students for living-wage, in-demand occupations.
The allocation of the funding is based on students who enrolled in such programs the previous school year and earned three or more credits in an approved CTE program. For example, if a student earns those three credits in a culinary arts program, the state would allocate a certain amount of money toward that culinary arts program.
Additional funds are allocated to programs that have students enrolled who are earning three or more credits and also are either historically under-served or who have earned an industry-recognized credential.
Mike Hodgert, an automotive, woodworking and shop industry and engineering teacher at Willamette, said he has about “27,000 reasons” why CTE classes benefit students.
“Well for one, they (students) like school, and they keep coming back, which means they graduate,” Hodgert half-shouted over the grinding of two table saws in the Willamette wood shop. “They also feel like they belong here. The kids who maybe feel like they’re not very good at math or writing, they can walk in here and learn something that empowers them, and they can walk out of here with a job offer.”
GRADUATES IN DEMAND
Hodgert, a 31-year Willamette High veteran, said that several students are offered well-paying jobs each year at the end of their senior year.
“I had at least 10 calls last year from people … who wanted to hire these kids,” Hodgert said. “It was a little too late in the year. They already all had jobs lined up, but the community shows consistent interest in students who come out of these programs.”
Mike Goddard is a production supervisor at King Retail Solutions, a design manufacturing company that specializes in business decor such as the signs that hang above a grocery aisle in Safeway. Goddard said he’s worked closely with Harrison to hire several of his students in the past couple of years.
“He recommends some of the students who have good attitudes and attend class regularly and have an interest in what we do and might want to do it in the future,” Goddard said. “It’s also a good way for them to get some experience.”
Four of Harrison’s former students currently work at King Retail Solutions, Goddard said, and their starting wage was $13 an hour. The four former students build and process all the parts for the store decor using table saws, chop saws and other wood shop materials.
Officials from all three districts said they keep in touch with local businesses and industry leaders to stay current on what kind of education, skills and training employers are seeking from job applicants.
FEWER DROP OUTS
In addition to helping students jump-start a career, CTE programs significantly boost graduation rates and lower dropout rates in Lane County and across the state.
In Oregon, students enrolled in CTE programs are 15.5 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school in four years than students who do not take the courses, according to data from the Oregon Department of Education.
Additionally, students of all races and ethnicities who are enrolled in such classes graduate at higher levels than the statewide average of 74 percent, ODE data show.
In the Portland Public Schools District, the overall graduation rate during the 2013-14 school year was 72 percent; among students who completed at least two CTE classes, it was 91 percent.
In the Springfield School District, vocational program students are 21 percentage points more likely to graduate in four years than students who don’t take those classes; 20 percent more likely in the Bethel district and 10 percent more likely in the Eugene district, according to the ODE.
In 2015, the state of Oregon had its highest high school dropout rate, 4.3 percent, in more than a decade. That seemingly small percentage accounts for more than 10,000 students. But local educators said that CTE programs can help to reduce that number.
Churchill High School Principal Greg Borgerding said CTE programs are some of the most popular courses at the school.
“These are the classes that a lot of kids love and connect with,” Borgerding said. “They help students stay passionate about school.”
Bordering said that expanded vocational programs such as the ones at Churchill also offer an alternative to the traditional four-year college path.
“As many kids that you have coming through the front door, you’re going to have that many outcomes for possible success,” Borgerding said. “For many kids it’s a traditional university track, but that’s not for every kid, and we’d be doing a disservice to kids who have a passion they’re trying to find a niche for if we assume they all wanted to go that route.”
Caitlin Hoover, 16, who is a junior at Willamette, said that she earned seven college credits just during her freshman year by taking several CTE classes.
Hoover was one of about 25 students in Harrison’s drafting class who were working to come up with graphic designs for various construction projects.
“First, we physically draw out what we want to design on a piece of paper and then we start creating it on the computer,” Hoover said. “It becomes one piece of paper that shows all of the project’s lines and dimensions.”
“It’s kind of like the directions,” said Tessa Guzman, 16, a sophomore in the same drafting class. “A lot of our projects turn into other class’s homework and projects. We map out the directions, and they use them to create something.”
Guzman and Hoover said they’ve designed chess boards, wooden tables, nuts and bolts in the drafting class so far, several of which then were constructed by Harrison’s design and manufacturing class, where students have built desks, bookshelves, large sheds and cutting boards.
Just outside Harrison’s door, Safety-goggled students worked in small groups to cut wood into various shapes and pieces in Hodgert’s beginning woods class. One student was putting the finishing touches on a coat rack; another worked to smooth the sides of a square piece of wood.
Meanwhile, across the courtyard, Chris McGowan instructed a Women in Engineering class, where students worked to determine how to best soundproof their teacher’s room. As the 36 young women searched the Internet for echo-reducing materials, they began listing items for McGowan to pick up: cork, Styrofoam and noise-canceling paint all were candidates for purchase; McGowan wasn’t revealing which one would work best.
“Part of the reason classes like this are so valuable is because they’re hands-on, and there’s a lot of self-learning,” he said. “I want them to discover things themselves, and to develop their own tests.”
McGowan, who’s in his second year of teaching at Willamette, said the discovery aspect of Career Technical Education classes has real-world value.
“If they can gain experience that helps them think on their own and solve problems, they’re going to be so much better off. Businesses want people who don’t have to be told to do every little thing. They want people who are self-motivating, and this class teaches those soft skills.”