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December 21, 2014

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Vocational schools help kids thrive but need money to keep flowing

During the 2007 legislative session, no educational initiative received stronger bipartisan support than career and technical education. But the money allocated to support the program is now at risk as the governor's 4.5 percent cut to K-12 education funding looms.

“We have to be practical,” said Assembly Minority Leader Garn Mabey, R-Las Vegas, one of the leading proponents of career and technical education during the past session. “If the revenue isn't there, reductions have to happen.”

It's still unclear exactly which K-12 programs will survive or will not be launched because of lack of money. Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes said he's not expecting any hard numbers until later this month, when the district's fiscal year is already half over.

The Legislature authorized about $7 million for career and technical education programs over the biennium, with about half the money going to Clark County. That's half the $14 million originally sought by Republicans in their education spending plan introduced at the session's start.

Districts have already received -- and in most cases, spent -- this year's career and technical education allocations. Next year's money is on the chopping block.

Clark County has two dedicated career and technical academies, as well as programs and specialized classes at dozens of additional high schools. The Area Trade Technical Center also provides supplemental training to students who attend comprehensive high schools throughout the district.

In addition to the traditional blue-collar trades typically associated with vocational programs, such as welding and construction, the district's career and technical schools offer classes in such fields as health care, computer programming and travel and tourism. Many students graduate with the certification required to immediately enter the workforce as a paramedic, cosmetologist or health aide. Others can enter college with their freshman-level credits already complete.

Career and technical education was one of the only educational initiatives to win unanimous support during the 2007 legislative session. Empowerment schools were considered by many lawmakers to be an untested model. And research is divided on the long-term benefits of full-day kindergarten programs. But the merits of career and technical education appeared indisputable.

A recent congressional study found such programs particularly benefit minority students and students from low-income and middle-income households. And results have been equally impressive at the state and local level for Nevada's students.

Nowhere is the success of the model more evident than at the Southeast Career & Technical Academy, formerly known as the Southern Nevada Vocational Training Center. The academy's dropout rate is less than 2 percent, compared with a dis trictwide average of just under 6 percent. In 2006, more than 85 percent of the school's seniors graduated, compared with 63 percent districtwide.

In traditional vocational programs, students split off from their college-bound peers. But nationally that model has largely given way to magnet programs in which academics and training in specific fields are given equal emphasis. Nevada has led the charge, particularly in Clark County, where the district is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the formula.

“We know when students are interested in what they're learning, and when we give them a choice, they come to school and work harder,” Rulffes said. “Our workforce needs their skills, and we need to make sure our students can take advantage of the opportunities that are going to be out there.”

The Northwest Career & Technical Academy, which opened in August, is the district's first magnet high school built since 1994. Four more academies are to open in the next three years -- in the east, Summerlin, the central valley and the southwest.

But is the district putting too many eggs in one basket? Is student interest in career and technical education strong enough to fill four more campuses?

Kathleen Frosini, director of career and technical education for the district, thinks it is.

There are waiting lists for the career programs at high schools throughout the valley, whether it's Advanced Technologies Academy or the aviation program at Rancho High School.

And it's not just student interest that's driving the decision to invest in career and technical education.

“Part of the reasons for the shift was to have more students stay in school,” Frosini said. “Our CTE (career and technical education) students have a lower dropout rate, do better on the proficiency tests and are more likely to graduate. It's a win-win situation.”

Student interest in such programs appears to be high. Nearly half the district's students take at least one CTE class in high school. And the opening of the new Northwest CTA hardly depleted the student body at the Southeast campus. Southeast CTA Principal Richard Arguello had predicted he would lose as many as 400 students to the school. But he also figured their seats would be quickly filled by newcomers, attracted by the campus's reputation and several new programs.

The Southeast CTA's official enrollment this year is 1,837, compared with 1,822 for the prior academic year.

The Northwest CTA opened with freshmen and sophomores only, and the enrollment currently stands at just fewer than 900 students, about half the total capacity. Students give up some opportunities, such as traditional varsity sports and some extracurricular clubs, to attend the academy. But some programs are offered.

“We had 70 students who would not come here unless we had music,” Frosini said with a laugh. “So now we have a 70-piece orchestra.”

To encourage students to consider academies beyond their neighborhood campuses, each school offers a handful of programs that can be found only at that site. And for the future schools, the district is taking into consideration requests by students for career paths not represented, such as veterinary technician and fashion design.

Jordan Thomas, a freshman at the Northwest CTA, said she's known since sixth grade that she wanted to be a neonatal nurse, and the new school offered her the opportunity to work toward that goal. She's found her teachers to be more hands-on with lesson plans than what she's used to, and expectations are higher.

The teachers “go faster through the material ... and expect you to keep up,” Thomas said, “but that helps you learn more.”

Emily Richmond can be reached at 259-8829 or at [email protected]

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