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Breaking the Mold: How High School Graduation Signifies Different Journeys

Kaden Ryback, ASBA Intern

When Kimberly Cullinane was a student at San Tan Foothills High School, she loved animals, but she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do for a career. Then, one day, she heard about an amazing opportunity to get hands-on experience to become a veterinary assistant.

“I was like, ‘Oh, this is so cool!’” Cullinane said. “I always wanted to work with animals and this was an amazing stepping stone for me to get into the field.”

Cullinane enrolled in Central Arizona Valley Institute of Technology’s (CAVIT) Veterinary Assistant Program, where she learned new skills and made connections that led to a fruitful career. Now, Cullinane is a veterinary technician at Johnson Ranch Animal Hospital.

Career technical education programs (CTE) prepare students to enter the workforce by putting them in professional work environments before sending them out into the real world. Students in CTE programs get hands-on experience in their areas of interest, with the goal of paving the way for them to have purposeful and economically viable careers.

Through CTE programs, Arizona high school students are learning culinary arts, interior design, veterinary assisting, health care roles and much more. The skills students learn in these programs can prepare them for multiple jobs – including those that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, filling in crucial gaps in the labor market.

“There are many rewarding careers that don’t require a traditional four-year degree, and thanks to CTE, our students are never limited to an either/or option,” said Greg D’Anna, Pima Joint Technical Education District’s (JTED) director of public relations.

This school year, more than 150,000 Arizona high school students are reaping the benefits of the 61 CTE programs in the state. According to the Arizona Department of Education, the graduation rate for students who concentrate in at least one CTE program is 93 percent, which is significantly higher than the state average of 77.5 percent in 2023.

For some of the 76,000 Arizona high school students expected to graduate this May, graduation marks the beginning of their post-secondary educational experience, but CTE-program graduates will take the skills they’ve learned from CTE programs to go directly into the workforce or use the college credits they’ve earned from CTE programs to get a head start on their college degrees.

CTE programs were devised knowing that the best way to get students to succeed in today’s workforce is by giving them the chance to experience its responsibilities. Each CTE program is built on work-based learning strategies, where students go beyond the classroom and into the community to develop their skills, like apprenticeships, health care clinicals or internships.

CAVIT’s Veterinary Assistant Program is a stellar example of how work-based learning strategies positively impact student employment opportunities. As part of the two-year program, students operate a school animal clinic on CAVIT’s central campus where people from the local community come with their pets for veterinary services, putting students in real scenarios that help them develop their skills.

“The unknown aspect of a pet coming through the door that you don’t know anything about and you have to use your problem solving as well as team building skills to perform services on an animal is where the real learning can take place,” said Mike Glover, CAVIT School Superintendent.

The program’s students are mentored by Pinal County Animal Care and Control employees and area veterinary offices as part of the program’s 120-hour work-based internship component. The students’ experience working with organizations in their community makes them appealing to employers, and data shows that each year, students are offered employment before their internship is completed, validating the program’s quality instruction and the students’ mastery of skills.

CAVIT’s Veterinary Assistance Program was the first in the state to receive national veterinary assistant accreditation. Students who complete the program have the opportunity to test for a credential certificate as an Approved Veterinary Assistant, giving them a leg up when applying to jobs.

“Those students can leverage that certification to gain entry level employment,” Glover said. “It gives them a jump over other candidates that may not have that.”

While working at the student-run clinic, Cullinane, who completed the program last year, got a job as a veterinary assistant from a connection through one of the program’s instructors.

“My teacher gave me a cool opportunity, she was like, ‘Hey, I know you want to get (into the workforce) already,’ and I was like, ‘Yes, I’m totally ready for this!’” Cullinane said. “She was able to reach out to a doctor and get me hired.”

According to 2019 data from the Department of Education, nationally, students who took a CTE program while in high school were employed full-time 5 percent more than students who did not eight years after their expected high school graduation. Additionally, CTE program students had higher median annual earnings than their non-CTE peers.

For some students, CTE programs are a way to enter new career or education paths, changing their life trajectories. But the only way schools can deliver these amazing programs is through a joint effort.

To offer CTE programs to students, school districts form Career Technology Education Districts (CTED) – in Arizona, there are 14 CTEDs composed of over 100 school districts. CTE programs are offered at the participating schools in the CTED or at a central location.

Formed in 2002, the Northeast Arizona Technological Institute of Vocational Education (NATIVE) is a CTED composed of eight area high schools. However, these schools face a major challenge: the average distance between NATIVE schools is 101 miles, and 78 percent of the roads between sites are unimproved dirt roads.

Due to the distance between schools, and because the schools are located in two of the most economically disenfranchised counties in the state, Apache and Navajo County – which, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, have an average median household income 44.8 percent and 29.9 percent below the state average, respectively – the CTE programs NATIVE offers are vital to providing students with technical education that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

To give students the future they want, each NATIVE school does a needs assessment of what students are interested in to determine the CTE programs they will offer. Popular programs include welding technologies, agroscience, culinary arts and construction technologies, said Jeremy Curtis, NATIVE governing board member and ASBA’s Navajo County Director..

”It’s really something for our kids to look forward to participating in to see what a CTE program can do for them to get to the next level,” Curtis said.

Many of these programs create pathways for students to pursue vocational careers. Curtis said that his daughter took an agroscience CTE program in high school, leading her into an unexpected career path: welding.

“When (my daughter) graduated, she said, ‘I want to go to welding school,’ and I said, ‘When did you learn to weld?’ She told me she learned it through the agroscience program,” Curtis said with a laugh. “The agroscience and welding programs kind of worked together through her CTE adventure, so she ended up going off to Tulsa Welding School.”

Enrolling in college is a great way for students looking for employment in highly skilled sectors, but it is not the only path to a good-paying, valuable job. Many students who pursue vocational jobs opt for apprenticeships and trade schools over a traditional college education, and CTE programs provide many students with the skills they need for these jobs.

Vocational jobs may be more appealing now than ever as higher college education costs and the price of living may be driving more students into the trade sector. Although college enrollment rates have risen in Arizona, nationally, there’s been a 5.5 percent decrease in enrollment per 100,000 people from 2018 to 2023, according to a study by EssayPro.

However, CTE programs are valuable for all students, including those aiming for post-secondary education. For example, all six of Pima JTED’s CTE health care programs offer college credit through dual enrollment, which helps high school students get ahead in their college courses.

Students who take Pima JTED’s health care programs, like Licensed Nurse Assistant, Medical Assistant and Physical Therapy Technician, are likely to go into post-secondary education. Out of the students who complete Pima JTED’s nursing program, 93 percent go to nursing school, said Beth Francis, health care professions manager at Pima JTED.

The value of CTE programs is not going unnoticed and investments are pouring in to expand them. Pima JTED received approximately $18 million in private support and Federal appropriations for its new medical high school, the Mel and Enid Zuckerman Center for Health and Medical Careers, which will house the CTED’s health care programs, D’Anna said.

The 50,000 square foot facility is the second building of the Innovation Technology High School, and is located at the University of Arizona Tech Park at The Bridges. Francis said the goal is to continue growing Pima JTED’s healthcare programs while giving students a space to complete them in a more immersive environment than at a traditional high school.

“Each class, or any type of activity or program that this young person may get involved in will be something that will begin to prepare them for their future,” Francis said.

Part of why CTE programs are so effective in increasing student’s employment opportunities is that they provide students with skills for jobs that are in high demand, like health care jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses and nurse practitioners’ employment is projected to grow 6 percent and 38 percent respectively from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations.

“What can we do in an innovative way to get our new learner, Gen Z, to want to be a part of this high school and walk away with one certification to multiple certifications to pipelines to employment, more advanced training or post-secondary education,” Francis said.

High school students that graduate with a CTE program experience are better prepared to chase their dreams, no matter the path they take after graduation. CTE programs meet students where they are at and provide them with the skills they need to succeed.

Glover said CTE programs guide students with “purpose and direction toward their future,” providing them with “rigorous” work-based learning experiences and potential college credits that give students “lots of options for employment once they graduate high school.”