Seventeen-year-old Jasmine Bailey is learning how to install electrical boxes and frame windows, but what she really wants to do is study sharks as a marine biologist.
“I know, it sounds crazy, and it’s the total opposite way, but I’ve always wanted to become that,” said Bailey, a junior at Oak Park High School, “and sometimes you have to build your own equipment, your own shark tanks, your own tracking equipment. If you know how to wire it, it takes the middleman out of it.”
Bailey is in the inaugural class of the Kansas City Construction Career Academy, a partnership between North Kansas City Schools, Metropolitan Community College and JE Dunn Construction. Students spend their last two years of high school learning a trade while taking college classes at the MCC-Business & Technology campus. Bailey and her classmates will graduate next spring with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in building maintenance and construction.
“This was industry-driven,” said Kyle Anderson, who oversees career and technical education for NKC Schools. “This was JE Dunn identifying in their workforce, they’re aging, and they’re to a point that there aren’t a lot of young people entering these skilled trades.”
In Kansas City, workers don’t necessarily need a four-year degree to get a good job, but they do need post-secondary training.
That’s why North Kansas City and other districts are trying to close the gap between a high school diploma and a living wage with career and technical education.
About 8.3 million students were enrolled in career and technical education classes during the 2016-17 school year. That’s almost a million more than in 2007, nearly half the U.S. high school population.
Career and technical education is having a moment, thanks in part to the rigorous academic standards most states adopted a decade ago. The Common Core State Standards promised to prepare students for college and jobs, but few high schools offered robust vocational education. Most of those programs disappeared in the 1980s amid concern that low-income and minority students had been unfairly funneled into the trades.
If schools wanted more college-bound students to take career classes, then they needed to rebrand. So vocational education became career and technical education, and schools added classes for high achievers. Vocational education taught students how to weld an airplane. Career and technical education taught them how to design one.
At the same time, state education officials were going to workforce development conferences, where employers told them CTE needed to close the “skills gap” between a high school diploma and an industry certification.
“That doesn’t mean you substitute the degree for the credential. That means maybe you don’t have the four-year degree when you get your first credential out of high school, but you have a career pathway,” said Clyde McQueen, president and CEO of the Full Employment Council.
The Full Employment Council offers job training for people who are unemployed or underemployed, and it works with employers in the Kansas City region to solve labor force issues.
Kansas City has what McQueen calls a “24-hour economy – transportation, distribution, advanced manufacturing and information technology” are happening around the clock. Most of these jobs don’t require a four-year degree. In fact, a 2013 Georgetown University analysis of census data found that only half of Missouri workers who made a living wage of $45,000 per year had bachelor’s degrees.
“A lot of companies – and parents – have been trained to think that the four-year degree is the ultimate objective, but you can be a good contributor in your local economy and be a good example for your kids” without one, or as you work toward one, McQueen said.
McQueen helps develop job training programs for the Kansas City region. He says if schools want to adequately prepare students to enter the workforce, then their career and technical education needs three components. First, the curriculum should be competency-based, developed in partnership with local employers. Second, schools need to teach soft skills like teamwork and leadership. And third, students need to graduate with some kind of industry credential.
The Kansas City Construction Career Academy has all three components. JE Dunn, NKC Schools and MCC worked together to develop the two-year program of study for tenth and eleventh graders. They work in teams of two or three in the construction lab, which builds interpersonal skills. In addition to an associate’s degree, students earn a Level 1 Building Maintenance and Construction certificate at the end of their junior year and the Level 2 certificate at the end of their senior year. That way, they get a credential even if they exit the program early.
Anderson, the director of advanced studies and post-secondary readiness for NKC Schools, thinks there’s another necessary element if the paradigm shift is to be successful: supportive teachers.
“I think teachers have a really hard time understanding the opportunities that students have out there because they were good at school. They liked school, so they pitched it to kids,” Anderson said. “But there’s so much more than going to college to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or one of the more traditional ways that teachers encourage students.”
Anderson isn’t just saying that. Back when he taught high school history, he encouraged a lot of students to go to college. And he still does.
But he also encourages students to explore other options because the one that’s right for them might be totally different than what worked for him.
“We have a lot of students that providing high school (for them) in a different environment is the key to their success. For whatever reason, maybe they weren’t as successful in high school, but here, they ... are able to get students up and doing something, and that’s what a lot of our students were missing in the traditional environment,” Anderson said.
That’s what made the Kansas City Construction Career Academy appealing to Trenton Swinford. The Oak Park junior didn’t hesitate to leave his high school to come here to work with his hands.
“(High school) was more geared toward sitting at a desk, and you couldn’t move around,” Swinford said. “Here, I’m learning how to put windows in, electricity, circuits, parallel and series. Everybody needs someone in the trades because there’s not many people in them anymore.”
Swinford wants to join the Seabees, the Navy’s construction battalion, when he graduates next spring. Some of his classmates will take JE Dunn up on the offer of a paid apprenticeship with a partner contractor.
Others will continue their education.
Bailey, the aspiring marine biologist, plans to get another two-year degree before matriculating at a four-year university.
“I plan on doing two years of community college to get an associate’s degree in diesel technology,” she said. “So after this, I’ll go to school for six more years total. Two years for diesel tech, four years for marine biology.”
And that’s exactly how McQueen and other workforce development experts want students to see trade school: as training for whatever they do next, whether it’s college or their first job.
This week KCUR is publishing stories about career and technical education. You can read more stories about how schools are preparing students for the jobs they’ll have after graduating here.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.