Many high schools have banished their old "vo-tech" programs for students not aiming for college. Now the education world is embracing the marriage of classrooms with partners in business and industry — both sides spurred by economic realities.

Share story


Peggy Hinzman stands in the heart of today’s industrial-minded, technology-driven high school. She teaches in it. And even she has trouble getting the next word out of her mouth.

“Pharmacogenomics,” she says after a couple of tries.

“We get people into careers no one has ever heard of,” said Hinzman, who teaches at Summit Technology Academy in the Lee’s Summit School District.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

But it’s the hot thing.

As students begin heading back to school this month, some 14.5 million of them nationwide will be participating in career- and technical-education programs. And that doesn’t count the millions more entering general high-school programs that organize their curricula by career and industry themes.

For the most part, school systems have banished the stigma that used to follow the old “vo-tech” programs, which were blamed for targeting students not aiming for college.

Instead, the education world is embracing the marriage of classrooms with partners in business and industry — both sides spurred by economic realities.

Already, more than half of the jobs waiting for graduates require some education after high school. And that number, according to research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, will grow to two-thirds by 2018.

“We (public schools) are finally getting the message from the community and business and industry that we’re not producing what’s needed for the workforce,” said Linda Washburn, who directs a consortium of career and technology programs for six Missouri school districts.

At Summit Technology Academy, Hinzman and her students focus on bioscience — medicine and genetics.

Medical researchers are probing nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, to understand when and why medications work for some people but not for others.

To do it, she and her students are copying DNA with a 10-year-old thermal cycler.

It’s out of date, which is the rub when it comes to the high-tech high-school revolution. Consumables can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, and school districts struggle to keep up.

New kind of focus

But students like those finishing up summer internships this month at Cerner Corp. have grown up in the new reality.

Ask them whether they ever thought they had to choose between career education or college prep, and they’re confused by the question.

They’re all going to college. They’re all in career education.

“I’m learning about leadership,” said Elizabeth Chau, 19, a graduate of Winnetonka High School and a sophomore at Truman State University. “I’m learning how to drive meetings, how to ask for opinions.”

Said 18-year-old Ruskin High School graduate Austin Terry, who’s bound for Missouri University of Science and Technology: “You have to learn to prioritize.”

Working in teams on real problems for real industries completely changes the dynamic of learning, said Blue Valley North High School senior Patrick Hutfless, 17.

“In high school, I didn’t see a point,” he said. “I didn’t see why something had to be done on time.”

Now he’s designing a phone app that could help alert nurses to medical emergencies.

Motivation for learning

Career and technical education, or CTE, now plays the role of motivator, propelling more students to schooling after high school, said Sarah Topp, a lobbyist for the Missouri Association for Career and Technical Education.

Missouri has embarked on an ambitious education goal of ranking among the top 10 states in the nation in all major performance measures by 2020.

“We’re not going to meet that goal without CTE,” Topp said.

While industry shares the goal, it is driven by practical needs as businesses seek homegrown talent to meet future workforce needs, said Laura Evans, who directs Cerner’s talent-development program.

“We’ve got to go faster,” she said of the school-business partnerships. “We’ve got to take it to scale.”

It’s not an easy task, said Washburn, the CTE consortium director.

Teachers and administrators in core subjects have to teach how they apply to the work world, and incorporate team projects and problem solving. And on “the flip side,” Washburn said, career and technical instructors have to make the connections back to what students are learning in science, math and English.

Obstacles remain.

Schools tout career education even as they power through more state tests and embrace increased graduation requirements that squeeze the flexibility students need to leap into work-experience programs.

Broad ties with industry

Although the economy has been limping for several years, the Blue Valley School District leveraged an array of resources to launch its $15 million Center for Advanced Professional Studies.

The district went to industry at the outset, Executive Director Donna Deeds said. The program now has about 240 business partners.

“They’re the end-users,” Deeds said. “They help lead the development design. They help write curriculum. They’re teachers here. They’re mentors.”

The program opened in the building last year and is drawing on state funds that help support growing districts.

But donations of talent and equipment are keys to the success of a program that takes $1.4 million a year to operate, Deeds said.

They don’t even call it career and technical education. The idea here is to create the kind of professional environment students will encounter after they graduate from college, she said.

Students sit in board rooms. They wear suits and ties, and business dresses. Teachers are more like project managers, bringing students and industry mentors together.

Three patents are pending among its students. Some students spawned a limited-liability corporation. The school is even raising issues of who owns intellectual property. There are almost no textbooks because the curriculum often changes, even daily.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Deeds said.

As more schools work to modernize their programs, the effects should help both the students and the economies of their home states, said Steve Kearney, the executive director of the Kansas Association for Career and Technical Education. Schools have been “re-branded.”

“Students come out with a higher level of understanding what the good-paying jobs are,” Kearney said. “Research shows they tend to stay in the state of Kansas. You stop the brain drain.”

The logic makes sense to the students who earned Cerner internships.

“You need to find out (before you’re in college) what you like,” said Taylor White, 18, a Grandview High School graduate headed for the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

You also need to get away from having things handed to you, said Raymore-Peculiar High School graduate John Butler.

The 18-year-old, who is choosing between specializing in hardware or software at Metropolitan Community College-Longview, was looking for a way to explain the resourcefulness and responsibility demanded in work-based education.

T.J. Blogumas of Lee’s Summit North High School piped in.

“In school the teacher tells you how and why computer A has to talk to computer B,” the 18-year-old said. “Here, you’ve got to make it happen.”

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.