State wants to expand vocational education to younger students

Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio Department of Education have adopted a change in vocational education that would expand career-related courses to seventh and eighth grade students-focused on career technical schools-a move that will give students the ability to explore career options at a younger age.

Technical career classes were previously offered to ninth through 12th high school levels, but the expansion would let school districts allow seventh and eighth grade students to take courses too.

Kasich has said vocational education needs to be brought back to younger ages so that children can begin thinking about careers as early as possible.

John Charlton, media spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, said that although no funding is currently tied to the change, both career center schools as well as traditional schools would be able to receive funding if they were to adopt vocational programs from seventh grade and up, as long as they are accredited by the state.

“This is all about trying to find different pathways to graduation for students, and providing them even earlier,” Charlton said.

Local educators said there used to be more vocational options.

“We’re going full circle with this, because due to budget cuts, a lot of those types of courses that used to be available at the middle school level were eliminated,” said Kim Depue, Marietta High School’s career teacher and a former Marietta Middle School teacher. “Perhaps our government has realized we need them back.”

The rule adoption does not mean that technical schools and career centers are required to build programs for younger grade levels, but it gives educators the option to provide seventh and eighth grade students with career courses.

“They’re going to have a better sense of where they’re going if we allow our kids to enter those vocational schools and we’re putting more money in it,” Kasich said in his recent State of the State address. “But I think taking it down to the seventh grade and getting our school districts to work with us on this will be a big change.”

Depue coordinates the high school’s Building Bridges to Careers Initiative, which provides job shadowing opportunities with local businesses and industries to sophomore students. She hopes to eventually expand these classes to seventh and eighth graders.

“Those types of connections need to start earlier,” she said. “We have places that are begging for employees but no one has the skill set.”

Depue has made it mandatory for high school sophomores to visit the Washington County Career Center to at least consider its technical training programs.

“I did get resistance from students and parents because they thought there’s nothing there for their child,” she said. “WCCC is working hard to change that stereotype and image that all you can do is get two-year technical training.”

That resistance often comes because parents and students alike think that by attending a career center program, they are immediately put on the path to go straight to work after high school.

“Your kids can get that kind of training for a skill and a purpose, and it does not keep them from going to a two-year community college or the four-year school,” Kasich said in the speech.

WCCC currently offers programs for high school juniors and seniors only in addition to its adult education programs, but director Mike Elliott said that could very well change if this is the direction the state is going.

“It’s a positive thing, we just don’t have programs yet available for those younger grades,” he said. “But giving them more options is always good.”

WCCC begins recruiting students for its programs in eighth grade by going into middle schools and junior highs in Washington County to discuss the different options available.

“That could possibly be expanded depending on the popularity and how well it’s received in younger grades,” Elliott said.

That could mean that talking about technical career programs could start at the elementary level. For now, Elliott said it’s just too soon to tell, but there could be opportunity down the line to expand facilities and programs to younger grades.

“I don’t expect them to make up their minds in middle school. They can change their mind as many times as they want,” he said. “But giving them exposure to everything early is great, and if that turns into more options, I think that’s great too.”

Depue stressed that getting younger students more interested in these types of programs is important because the percentage of skilled labor jobs is increasing, while the amount of professional jobs has remained the same.

At Frontier Local Schools, Superintendent Bruce Kidder said the district already tries to focus on these types of classes early.

“We already have those vocational type classes in middle school-with agriculture, family consumer sciences and industrial tech-but this expansion could allow us to get more funding in the middle school level and provide more opportunities,” he said.

Dennis Blatt, superintendent of the career center, said the support for funding makes all the difference.

“If we can create a pathway for seventh and eighth grade courses and get those funded, that would be great,” he said. “There’s always great ideas out there, but if there’s not funding it can’t get done.”

Mary Lou Moegling, a former Teen Career Awareness Initiative coordinator, said this expansion is a key move, as middle school-aged students need to learn more about these programs before reaching high school.

The problem students face today, she said, is that many of these programs are being cut so that schools can focus more on core curriculum that is tied up in standardized tests.

“I’ve seen students who learn best hands-on, and we need those students to go into careers that are hands-on,” Moegling said. “Students need to be exposed to a variety of things early on so they make good choices for high school class selection.”