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Delaware Excels at Career Training

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Pathways program gets high school students ready for trades

From Ground Zero in 2015 to serving more than 15,000 high school students in the just-completed school year, Delaware’s Pathways program has become the largest and most prominent initiative to strengthen the state’s economy through improved secondary education.

With 25 career-themed courses of study touching virtually every high-growth component of Delaware’s economic environment, Pathways demonstrates the power of collaboration between the public and private sectors in creating a workforce development program that meets the intertwined goals of making graduates both college- and career-ready.

Plumbing students at Hodgson Vocational Technical High School | Photo courtesy of New Castle County Vo-Tech School District

Pathways has the potential to improve the performance of the state’s high schools, give students a jumpstart on their college educations and create a pipeline that helps fill vacancies in financial services, health care, manufacturing, construction and many other professions.

Due to the state program’s rapid expansion through partnerships linking business, education and government, “we think of Delaware as the poster child for Pathways nationally,” says Robert B. Schwartz of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, who has worked with the Boston-based Jobs for the Future program to help launch similar programs in 15 states in the past decade.

“The labor market is evolving quickly and the education system has to keep up” to provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to go on to higher education or move directly into the workforce, says Luke Rhine, whose role as director of career and technical education at the state Department of Education places him at the heart of the Pathways initiatives.

Pathways is transformational in several respects. First, it expands the reach of career training from vocational-technical schools into traditional high schools. Second, each three-year curriculum, based on industry-endorsed standards, enables students not only to earn professional certifications in career fields but also at least six credits toward a college degree. Finally, it establishes partnerships involving K-12 education, the business community, Delaware Technical Community College, the state Department of Labor and nonprofits that are designed to strengthen the program in the years to come.

Here’s a look at some of the most popular Pathways programs.

Financial Services

While Sussex Central High School is more than an hour’s drive from the big banking and finance businesses in greater Wilmington, its students find teacher Jeff Peet’s message compelling. “Every business has to have someone responsible for handling their money,” says Peet, who guides the finance Pathway that enrolls 120 or so students.

The three-year curriculum starts with fundamentals of finance, such as checking and savings accounts and credit cards, and moves into the basics of mortgages and financial planning. The second year focuses more on accounting and emphasizes the importance of financial decisions in business management. The third-year curriculum digs deeply into banking and investments, and includes the work-based learning experience that is an essential component of all Pathways programs.

One of the more popular workplaces, Peet says, is Avalanche Brands, a Selbyville-based reseller on Amazon.com. His students have gotten experience in marketing, finance and accounting at Avalanche, doing tasks like analyzing sales data to determine how to promote products online.

Health Care

The allied health Pathway, which enrolls up to 140 students at Smyrna High School, prepares students for a wide range of employment opportunities, from medical billing and coding through nursing and technology specialties, says Amie Campanicki, who heads the program there.

The first-year class covers medical terminology and the second year serves as an introduction to specific health care careers. Third-year students take a Delaware Technical Community College class in anatomy and physiology. Work-experience options include assisting ambulance teams, helping at physical therapy centers and supporting Campanicki in her role as the school’s athletic trainer. Students who complete the sequence can earn as many as nine credits toward completion of a health care major at Delaware Tech.

“Health care isn’t just doctors, nurses and surgeons,” Campanicki says. “This Pathway shows students that there’s so much more that they can get into.”

Manufacturing

At Caesar Rodney High School, students start both the advanced manufacturing and architectural engineering Pathways with a class in fundamentals of technology, says Chris Harris, who oversees both programs and teaches the architectural engineering classes.

The third year of Caesar Rodney High School’s manufacturing program focuses on robotics | Photo courtesy of Caesar Rodney High School

In the second year, the architectural engineering program emphasizes computer-aided design (CAD) while the manufacturing students dig into the design thinking process that engineers use to solve problems. The third year of the manufacturing program stresses work in robotics — learning how to build robots and to program them.

“It’s project after project, very hands-on,” Harris says. “You have complete control. You design it, hold it, feel it, look at it. If it’s not working the way you want, you learn how to change it.”

Students in these programs can earn up to 10 credits that they can put toward a degree at Delaware Tech, Harris says, although some students choose to go directly into the workforce after graduation.

Construction

The state’s vocational-technical schools have been serving career-minded students for 50 years and the New Castle Vo-Tech School District is a prime example, with a menu of specialties that includes carpentry, plumbing, HVAC, electrical, sheet metal, welding and technical drafting.

The district’s curriculum starts with an exploratory year in ninth grade, exposing students to a broad range of careers before they move into their area of specialization. Each year in the sequence becomes more intense. “We start with safety, and we continue to drive it home,” says Dan Boone, cooperative employment coordinator at Delcastle Technical High School.

Students spend part of their senior year in a cooperative employment program, essentially splitting their time between the classroom and a job, Boone says.

The prime benefit for students is that most employers in the construction trades consider the vo-tech diploma as the equivalent of one year’s work experience, so graduates save a year on their apprenticeships and start earning at the second year on the pay scale.

A lot of well-paying jobs don’t require a college degree, Boone notes. “You can go to college and come out with $100,000 in debt and no certain job prospects,” he says, “or you can jumpstart your career, complete the equivalent of a year of apprenticeship and use your co-op experience to find your first job.”

By Larry Nagengast

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