By Ashley Claire Simpson
“If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” This is advice we’ve all heard and hope to follow. And, perhaps, more of us would be doing what we loved had we started thinking strategically about our passions when we were kids.
This is the philosophy of Doug Wright, the supervisor of Career and Technical Education (CTE) for Prince William County Schools (PWCS). Now in his sixth year of managing Prince William County’s CTE programming, Wright has seen countless young people reap lifelong benefits from effectively exploring potential career options while still in high school.
“You’re going to work for 40 years, so the earlier you can find your passion, the better,” he said. “The ability to start looking for it during formative schooling years can be a game changer.”
Through a wide variety of CTE courses, PWCS students have the opportunity to target certain career paths and then use their time in school to discover more as they immerse themselves in relevant coursework.
“Career and Technical Education has been around in the public school system since the 1940s and 50s,” Wright said. “While it used to be vocational education, things have really changed, and now the focus with career and technical education is to prepare today’s students to be life-ready as well as ready for a career or college.”
Transferring (or Transporting) Academic Focus
Contrary to popular belief, Virginia public schools aren’t all about dotting i’s, crossing t’s, and satisfying state standardized testing requirements. Prince William County’s CTE classes are proof of this, exposing students to far more than core subjects.
There are two intensive CTE tracks for which interested students can apply: transfer programs and transport programs, both of which are available to students in Prince William County.
Students who apply for a Transfer program select one of the nine offered areas of focus, and if accepted, they will study this field as full-time students at a designated high school in the county. These programs are agriculture, auto technology, biomedical science, cabinetmaking, cyber security, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), plumbing, television production, and welding.
CTE transfer students take all their classes—even core subjects like social studies and English—at the one high school that provides their chosen specialty. For example, all HVAC program students take all their classes at Freedom High School. “Ninth grade students in these programs might just take one or two electives geared towards that specialty,” Wright explained. “For example, those in the welding program this early on might take a basic technical drawing class with a focus in welding as an elective. But the rest of their classes follow a typical program of study for a freshman.”
Potomac High School hosts the welding transfer program, for which Simon Bhagwandeen serves as the main instructor, teaching Welding 1, Welding 2, and Welding 3.
Currently, Bhagawandeen oversees 54 students in this program. “I’m now in my sixth year of teaching,” Bhagwandeen said. “We typically start students in tenth grade, and between then and the time these students graduate, they have the opportunity to have earned three different professional certificates. I teach courses at Northern Virginia Community College, so I get a good idea of what we are supposed to be teaching the adults. I’m able to incorporate that into what I teach the students at Potomac. When they graduate, they definitely know the latest standards.”
Unlike their transfer counterparts, who adopt an entirely new high school, students in CTE transport programs take all their core classes at their base school—whatever school is in their district. Then, for part of the day, the county transports them to a different high school for their specialty classes. More than 1,000 PWCPS high schoolers are transport students, studying one of the following specialties: building trades, cosmetology, culinary arts or practical nursing.
“Students apply for these programs during their sophomore year and then begin courses their junior year,” Wright explained. “The county provides the transportation to and from the transport program host schools so that they can focus on a real life skillset. When they graduate, they will earn a recognized industry credential. For example, cosmetology students will earn a Virginia Board of Cosmetology license.”
Both of these focused programs offer tangible benefits for participating students. “These programs are great for those who have discovered an interest, a passion—something they want to do as a career in some aspect,” Wright said, “This is true for kids who know early on, and for those who take a little longer to figure that out and who transfer into these programs as sophomores or juniors. We have students leaving high school that are ready for a career, and they are ready to step out with industry certifications that make them employable and highly desired in the local workforce. We are creating a workforce pipeline not just for jobs, but for careers.”
The advantages aren’t limited to those looking to jumpstart their professional careers after high school, either.
“Our engineering students follow curricula set forth by Project Lead the Way (PLTW), an organization nationally recognized for its STEM education planning, so interest there has been huge. Mostly all of those students go on to universities known for engineering, and they are very successful. I’m convinced that having PLTW referenced on their applications contributed to [them getting]accepted.”
Bite-sized Chunks of CTE
Students don’t have to go full-throttle to explore CTE. They can get a taste of this curriculum through one-off electives, available to them right at their base schools. PWCS actually offers some of these individual electives, like any technology or Family and Consumer Science (FACS) classes, beginning in middle school. Then, the selection of CTE standard electives expands in high school.
“The state requires every high school to have a minimum of 11 different CTE program electives,” Wright said. “Prince William County currently offers over 100 different CTE high school elective courses. In each individual CTE class, students get hands-on application and learning that they can apply to their everyday lives.”
The subject matter of established economics and personal finance classes proved to be so relevant and applicable that it became required learning. “Learning how to manage your finances and being able to budget is a lifelong skill,” Wright said. “Now it’s a required class for all students in the state of Virginia in order to graduate.”
Bringing in the Pros
There is certainly a science to putting each new CTE specialty in place. “We are like a business because our courses are electives, which means that students can choose whether to take them,” Wright said. “Kids are either going to take classes because they like the subject matter or because they like the teachers. In our world of career and technical education, if kids don’t sign up for classes, then we are out of business; we can’t offer that class. Teachers have to really recruit and promote for their programs.”
Before Wright so much as thinks about implementing a new CTE track, he considers a number of factors. “We have to look at the labor market, economic development and also what’s happening in the business world,” he said. “We look at where the jobs are now, where they will be in the future, forecasting out to 10 to 15 years.”
Then, naturally, the only way for students to learn the best tricks of any trade is from someone who has truly mastered it. “For many CTE teachers, who teach in the specialized trade areas, we’re looking for someone who has been in the industry for a while —someone who is a professional,” Wright said. “When we can qualify them as career switchers we can hire them and arrange for them to earn a teaching license within three years through a continuing education program.”
Simon Bhagwandeen was one of these desired professionals, a career welder who started with this trade in the Marine Corps and then also excelled in a civilian capacity. His accolades are a huge benefit to his potential protégés in a multitude of ways. “When you talk about having a job as a career, it’s always been about welding for me,” Bhagwandeen said. “I’m a Certified Welding Inspector (CWI), so in addition to the other professional certifications my students can earn through my curriculum, I’m also able to issue CWI certifications to kids on the spot.”
The incredible fruits of the welding program account for only a fraction of the life-changing results yielded by CTE programs as a whole. “I see so many former students who come back to see me after they graduate,” Bhagwandeen said. “These are kids who are gainfully employed, doing what they really like to do, and working with reputable companies. Over 50 percent of these welding students end up employed in welding, and for those that decide it isn’t the field for them, they can graduate high school with college credit, which is great for any way they want to further their education.”
So Much to Learn and Decide in So Little Time
Regardless of the degree, CTE education allows students important opportunities to explore potential directions without any kind of commitment. Even transfer students can exit their programs at any point to return to their base schools and a more traditional curriculum.
“We service roughly 30,000 students,” Wright said. “And it makes sense because sometimes kids think they know what they want to do after high school, but then, after taking a CTE class, they realize that previously assumed direction isn’t for them. What a great experience that is to have in high school! I can think of one student right now, off the top of my head, whose family was sure he would become a surgeon. Through a CTE class, that student learned he didn’t have the stomach for surgery and knew to go the research route instead.”
Not only do CTE programs enrich the high school experience, but they likely keep many students in school that may not otherwise see the value in seeking a diploma.
“For some kids, staying in school is a struggle, but CTE programs do help,” Bhagwandeen said. “I have had students who had been in that situation, and they are now gainfully employed in the welding industry. I have students on the honor roll, too. There are a variety of different individuals coming through these programs. [Students are] going to fulfill their potential when they are genuinely interested in what they’re studying every day.”
Ashley Claire Simpson ([email protected]) is a corporate communications professional by day, but her real passion is learning more about this community and the world by writing. She has been crafting features and human interest stories since her college newspaper days at the University of Virginia.