The POLYTECH School Districtmotto rolls smoothly off the tongue of Superintendent Dr. Amelia Hodges: “The Power of knowledge for Career and College.”
It’s a catchy phrase, but more importantly, a great way to look at how POLYTECH approaches its mission for its students. The goal is to create an environment of self-discovery that allows them to find professions that match their interests and talents. The end result is a collection of graduates that is prepared to enter the workforce immediately or pursue some other kind of academic or technical training. By providing a variety of opportunities and presenting an education that is both broad-based but also professionally specific, POLYTECH produces well-rounded students capable of moving confidently in a variety of directions.
“We are teaching ‘soft skills’ from the day students come here,” Hodges says. “They learn how to work together, problem solve and work in a team environment, along with exposing them to technical skills so they can walk into the workforce or move on to higher ed.”
Across Delaware, high schools are teaching students more than just the three Rs. While the basics remain extremely important for creating a curious mind capable of critical thinking, it is also crucial to help young people discern in what directions they want to travel after graduation. Asking a 16-year-old to chart the next 50 or so years of life is a bit much, but providing opportunities to discover possible career interests is vital in today’s changing work environment.
At schools like POLYTECH, skill development for career advancement is part of the stated mission. But every other high school student in the state has the option to take part in the Pathways program, which allows them to earn college credits or take part in apprentice programs that will give them advantages when they graduate. The state runs Pathways programs in 98%of Delaware high schools, and more than 23,000 students take part, which is53% of all kids in high school.
“What we want to do is to prepare students to make a choice,” says LukeRhine, director of career and technical education and STEM initiatives for the Delaware Department of Education.“Either they can continue their education or move into the workforce —or do both.”
Pathways: Helping student sexplore occupations
Pathways began in 2015, and Rhinereports that 71% of Delaware students in grades 9-12 take part in some form of career or technical program, including Pathways. They can gain experience and knowledge in fields like health care, IT, construction, engineering, and many others. Some are clearly on target to continue their educations in college. Others can begin apprenticeship programs while still in high school — and earn money while doing so — so that they are prepared to step into the workforce the day they graduate.
At the four New Castle County Vo-Tech schools, ninth-graders explore what paths are available to them, meeting teachers and doing some hands-on work, so that by the time they reach sophomore year, they are ready to choose a direction and follow it.
“That is how we differ from comprehensive schools,” says JosephJones, superintendent of the district.“Comprehensive schools offer three credits in Pathways programs, but our students will earn 10. When they are done at our schools, they can step into apprenticeships, right into jobs and into two- or four-year colleges.”
New Castle County Vo-Tech has a great relationship with DelawareTechnical Community College, andJones reports 55% of graduates who go on to college matriculate there. It also allows students to do two-week rotations during their entire senior years that feature two weeks in the classroom and two weeks on a job site.
“We don’t see them,” Jones says.“They don’t step foot in school. They are working full-time. It could be on a construction site, in an automotive garage, or at a long-term care facility.”
Other students work one half of the day and go to classes the other half. Comprehensive schools may not offer Pathways options as intense as that, but they still expose students to a variety of trainings. The goals for both types of schools are the same: give students strong ideas about what fields they want to pursue. This gives them starts in their careers, but can also save parents money when it comes to the next steps since their children will be more informed as to what they want to do. Also, credits in specific areas can transfer to two- and four-year colleges, or those who want to go that route.
“When a student completes a Pathway and applies to the University of Delaware, Delaware State or Wilmington, we flag the application to make sure the credits they have accumulated are applied,” Rhine says.“Our strategy is to build relationships with institutions of higher education.”
Rhine estimates that 30% of high school graduates attend Del Tech, another 30% go to UD, with DelawareState (15%) and Wilmington (5%)gaining the others who go to college in state. When they get to college or into an apprentice program or the job market, they are better prepared to succeed, he says: “We help students develop their occupational identity and be able to access the labor market more effectively.