Meet Delaware’s Vo-Tech Schools
Specialized high schools provide a path into a vast variety of careers.
Even as their course offerings are adapted to meet changing workforce needs, Delaware’s vocational-technical high schools follow a tried-and-true progression to prepare their students for rewarding careers.
The state has three vocational-technical school districts, one for each county. There’s one vo-tech school in Kent (POLYTECH) and Sussex (Sussex Tech) and four in New Castle (Delcastle, Howard, Hodgson and St. Georges), and the curriculum structure is similar at all sites.
“Our sequencing has been consistent. It’s a model that works,” says Joe Jones, superintendent of the New Castle County Vocational Technical School District.
Ninth grade is an exploratory year — a nine-month educational buffet. “We rotate them through each of our 20 shops,” says Amelia Hodges, superintendent of the POLYTECH School District.
“We want them to explore all career areas,” says Clifton Hayes, principal of Delcastle Technical High School. “A lot want to be entrepreneurs, to run their own businesses. But the big concerns for freshmen are ‘how much will I make?’ and ‘what about upward mobility?’”
The process varies slightly by district but, at the end of the year, students choose two or three programs that interest them most, and then they’re placed in one based on their interests and the spaces available within each subject area.
In grade 10, students start learning the basics of the selected field. The work becomes more advanced the following year and, in many cases, results in earning a certification recognized within that field.
“That’s the goal. Every student can take the certification exam. Most take it. If they don’t pass it the first time, they have time to take it again,” Hodges says. “Having a certification gives them a leg up on getting a job.”
With certification in hand, many students can work full-time in their field in the summer between their junior and senior years. And senior year is usually a transition to co-op work — a half-day at school and a half-day at a paying job.
The co-op format differs in many construction trades, where it’s not practical to spend only a half-day on the job, Jones says. In these situations, co-op employers take on two students whose roles alternate throughout the year. One spends two weeks on the job while the other is in class, and then they switch.
Throughout their four years, vo-tech students are spending about half their class time on academic subjects required by the state — language arts, math, science and social studies — and half in their career shops.
PREPARING STUDENTS FOR HEALTH CARE, FINANCE, EDUCATION
Once upon a time, vo-tech schools were the training ground for blue-collar careers: auto mechanics, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and welders. That’s still true, but the range of career fields has broadened. Not only are health care fields popular, but so are newer additions to the curriculum, like information technology, finance and even education.
Also, vo-tech schools are encouraging their students to follow what once were considered nontraditional paths.
“More females are going into auto body. At one of our grade levels, it’s almost 50- 50,” says Hayes, the Delcastle principal. “And we’re encouraging more males to consider areas like surgical tech and dental assisting.”
In recent years, vo-tech officials have begun paying more attention to what postsecondary schooling will look like, recognizing that there are many job opportunities in fields that don’t require a four-year degree — or more, Jones says. Good examples, he says, are careers in health care, information technology and even business.
While vo-tech schools have historically aligned their legacy offerings — auto repair and building trades, for example — with employers’ requirements, now they’re working more closely with colleges to synchronize their curriculums so students who need a two-year degree or other post- high school certification can transition easily into a college setting, Jones says.
At Howard High School, Principal Kyle Hill says the most popular program is the Academy of Business and Finance, which prepares students for a variety of jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree, including work as bookkeepers, customer service representatives, payroll clerks, bank tellers, account clerks, credit analysts, financial product representatives, and in insurance. Students can earn a Principles of Banking certification through the American Institute of Banking.
Another popular new offering at all the state’s vo-tech schools are the teacher academies, which help prepare students for careers in either early childhood or K-12 education.
“We’re a minority majority school, and there’s a national teacher shortage and a shortage of educators of color,” says Hill. “We’d like to leave our footprint on both these issues.”
Students in the teacher academies, and in many other vo-tech programs, have the opportunity to earn college credits as well by taking “dual-enrollment” classes that are part of their course requirements.
Most dual-enrollment classes are the result of partnerships with Delaware Technical Community College or Wilmington University, vo-tech administrators say. Typically, the colleges train high school teachers to teach these classes. Depending on the academic program, dual-enrollment classes can
help high school students accumulate up to a year’s worth of college credits while earning their high school diploma, Hill says.
The dual-enrollment opportunities compensate for one thing the vo-tech schools acknowledge that they’re short on: the Advanced Placement classes offered at virtually every comprehensive high school and charter school. POLYTECH and Sussex Tech offer a few AP classes; New Castle County Vo-Tech doesn’t offer any, sticking to the traditional meat-and-
potatoes academic subjects with a few honors classes available.
“The way we look at it,” Jones says, “our career programs are our AP classes.”