Vocational Programs Link Students with District Economy

IDEA PCS CTE Director Andrea Zimmerman (far L) poses with students in the Child Development Associate CTE program on a trip to the District’s Early Childhood Summit. Photo: Courtesy IDEA PCS

The DC skyline is dominated by cranes. The region patronizes its high-tech hospitals. And, its schools attract students from around the nation. Amazon is about to draw 12,000 additional tech workers to the DMV. DC Public and Public Charter Schools face a fundamental challenge in providing a path to the well-paying employment provided by these growing economic sectors.

Once thought of as the ‘company town’ for the federal government, growth in the District’s private sector now accounts for one out of every three jobs. Information technology, early childhood education workers and the construction trades are among the top listed jobs in the District Department of Employment Services (DOES) 2019 ‘Hot Job’ list of high demand occupations through 2026.

Here are three ways that District schools are ensuring that students can fit into the District economy through Career and Technical Education (CTE).

You can see the plumbing through open walls at Phelps ACE High School (704 26th St. NE). In spots, you can see where the electrical wires have been laid, and incomplete brickwork is visible in others. Students cluster around to examine these areas, pointing to places that of interest and talking between them.

These sites of incomplete work throughout the school are no accident. The design features are carefully planned to be used as lessons in construction best practices. When it re-opened in August 2008 after 17 years, the goal was to make the Phelps High School a leading proponent of high-tech education for the construction trades.

Despite all the cranes throughout the District, there is a construction labor shortage. According to the U.S. Labor Bureau, there were 434,000 vacant construction jobs in America in April 2019. The Phelps program is one way that District schools are helping to connect students with these jobs.

Computer Science students at HD Woodson listen to the instructor describe a problem. Photo: E.O’Gorek]

Students in the construction trades can get hands-on experience in carpentry, electrical, sheet metal, welding or in the field of Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) and refrigeration. Each program ends with a capstone project. Students graduate with a college prep diploma and industry certifications, ready to move on to an apprenticeship program that would prepare them for a career in the construction trades.

As part of their training, students do site visits and job shadowing with companies, receiving practical experience and training. For instance, Clark Construction worked with Phelps to develop some of the specialized programs at the school, implementing a safety training course through which students received certificates from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Staff have real experience working in the construction fields. Instructor Barry Walters was an HVAC technician for 21 years before turning to teaching.

Walters said this is the time to get into the construction trades. “We don’t have enough technicians. It’s a place to make money, work with your hands,” he said in a video interview Phelps student Paul Childs. “You’re going to get hot, you’re going to get cold, but you’re going to make money while you do it.”

He said HVAC involves aspects of many construction fields, including electrical, plumbing and carpentry and tremendous variety on the job.

Field said that while students should consider going on to college and furthering their education, he recommends that they get on the job right out of high school, even working as they go through college. “That’s when you’re going to learn the most,” he said.

Information Technology
It is dark in the sophomore computer science career academy class at H.D. Woodson (540 55th St. NE). The faces of the students are lit by their individual screens, but they are staring raptly at a projection at the front of the room that displays a mosaic of colors. It isn’t right, and the class has to make it work.

This is no art project, however. The students are learning to use a colorful block editor to program a mobile app. It’s the entry level class in the school’s Information Technology Career Academy.

Educational non-profit National Academy Foundation (NAF) partners with 21 DCPS high schools to offer NAF academies, small learning communities within the school focused on growing industries.

Over the next three years the information technology students will complete a three to four course career pathway in addition to their core academic courses, as well as to work-based learning opportunities, college prep, and internships beginning in the junior year.

The computer science pathway prepares students for careers as systems analysts, app developers, network administers, network architects and support specialists. Workers these with technological skills are needed in all of the economic sectors that drive District growth, including the government, which is the largest consumer of technological service in the world. They are also needed in private settings such as universities and hospitals. That need is only expected to grow in 2023, when Amazon will open its second HQ in Arlington.

Senior Michael Prather has a brother who works for Amazon, but he said he chose the Information Technology Career Academy because of his own interests.

“I just always had a thing for computers and games, so that’s why I was drawn to it,” he said. However, his interests have switched. “Right now, I’m taking cyber security,” he said.

There are few jobs in information technology that a student can take on right out of high school, and the Career Academies at H.D. Woodson include college tours as part of the curriculum, assisting students with applications. Prather intends to continue with his education, planning to major in computer science and minor in psychology at Morehouse College.

Child Development
A few weeks ago, students in the Child Development Associate (CDA) program at IDEA Public Charter School (1027 45th St. NE) went on a site visit to Educare Child Development Center (640 Anacostia Ave. NE). While they were there the tour guide pointed out a teaching assistant working with a group of young students, said IDEA’s CTE Director Andrea Zimmerman. The instructor was an IDEA graduate who had gone on to be hired by Educare after the internship, getting a job right out of high school.

The CDA program helps to address a significant need in Early Childhood Education (ECE) in the District. A recent report found that there was only sufficient space in ECE programs for about a third of the District’s children under three years old. At the same time, new licensing regulations for ECE workers went into effect at the end of 2016, requiring teachers at ECE centers to have an associate degree and Directors to have a Bachelor’s degree.

In order to help address the need, IDEA partnered with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to offer the First Step Child CDA Program. Students who graduate earn a nationally-recognized professional credential at the same time as their high-school degree and leave school ready to work as a home child caregiver or an assistant teacher at a childcare center.

Students are required to complete 120 hours of coursework and 480 hours of practical work at a childcare center. At IDEA, the students are also offered access to professional conferences and training. Recently, the CDA program students joined 4,000 early childhood professionals from all over the country at the District of Columbia’s Early Childhood Summit. “So, we’re able to take our students where they can sit, shoulder to shoulder with industry professionals understanding what the fields like, getting that first-hand look, and networking,” said Zimmerman.

The assessment costs for the CDA certificate are covered by the school. As part of their evaluation, students must complete a portfolio, a binder that includes questionnaires completed by families and teachers they’ve worked with, a statement of their educational philosophy, summaries of their teaching practices relative to six CDA standards, and letters from the school and internship providers.

“It is equally rigorous, if not a more rigorous program than a general academic degree,” said Zimmerman of the CDA training. “These students are walking away with more, with both a high school diploma and an employment credential.”

These students have received an academic education but also been prepared for a career, she said. “That is where the power of CTE is really demonstrated.”

Learn more about DCPS CTE Programs by visiting dcps.dc.gov/cte. Learn about the programs offered at Phelps High School at phelpshsdc.org and at HD Woodson at hdwoodson.org. Explore the programs at IDEA PCS by visiting ideapcs.org