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Technical Difficulties: Although on the rise nationally, career and tech programs at city schools face sagging enrollment, uncertain future

"If the numbers don't go up, it won't be possible to run programs for only a few"

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When the students in Carrick High School's health-careers technology program get their diplomas, they won't have to worry about what they'll be doing after high school.

"We have students that are graduating in June," Mary Kozicky, a registered nurse who runs the program, said during a tour of the school's facilities last month. "And I'm thinking they're going to enter the workforce with UPMC directly after graduating."

Post-high school opportunities like this are the main selling point of Pittsburgh Public Schools' Career and Technology Education program. But while the program gives students the chance to enter the workforce after graduation, several of the classes are under-enrolled. Some may face elimination as the district faces a projected $36 million deficit. 

"I'm definitely concerned," says Angela Mike, executive director of the district's CTE programs. "I'm concerned if the numbers don't go up that it won't be possible to run programs for only a few students. We are monitoring that closely."

Enrollment in CTE programs — once widely referred to as "vo-tech" programs — is on the rise nationally. But Pittsburgh Public Schools has struggled to fill classrooms.

According to district data, the CTE program's capacity is 700 students, but only 528 students are currently enrolled. Of the 35 sessions run district-wide, 29 are below maximum capacity, and eight of those are less than half full.

PPS Superintendent Linda Lane says the district is working to increase enrollment while also making the best use of its resources.

"If we have a CTE program that is severely undersubscribed and we can't fill a classroom, we're going to have to shift our resources to the programs kids want to take," Lane says.

The district is actively working to increase student interest in these programs. Throughout the month of February, it launched a series of CTE events, including a career fair and backstage-pass tour to give school counselors a look at CTE programs at Allderdice and Carrick.

Carrick has more CTE offerings than any other district school. Its six offerings include finance technology, culinary arts, health careers, information technology, carpentry, and business of sports administration. Other programs at Allderdice, Perry, Brashear and Westinghouse include engineering technology, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), auto body, machine operations, automotive technology and cosmetology.

A job in some of those fields can be a ticket to the middle class. A 2012 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics listed engineering technicians, makeup artists and registered nurses among the 50 highest-paying jobs that don't require a college degree. The average salary for an HVAC technician is $42,000 per year, while the average salary for sports business management is $60,000. But these two programs are among the most under-enrolled in the district.

During the Carrick tour, counselors heard from CTE instructors about how their programs prepare students for future careers. For example, the newly launched carpentry program has a partnership with the Greater Pennsylvania Regional Council of Carpenters Local 142. Students have been able to visit its facilities.

"It's a really good opportunity" for students, said carpentry instructor Carl Uccellini. "My goal is to make them workforce-ready."

Other programs give students a leg up when they enter college or another post-secondary institution. Students in the accounting program, for example, will already have completed courses that will be required in their first year of a college accounting program. And students in the health program who choose to pursue medical school will have already learned many of the basic skills they need.

"They come out of here, they go on to college and their first year of accounting, they're guaranteed to get A's," says accounting instructor Brian Hoelzle. "Business is the number-one major in college right now."

"There are some people that don't recognize [the CTE program] has changed," Lane says. "It encompasses all of the tech fields that weren't around before. There's been a huge shift, and we're trying to make sure our parents and our community understands both the opportunities in the fields and the salaries people can get."

Creating partnerships with local employers is a strong component of the CTE programs. Several employers serve on the district's Occupational Advisory Committee and are tasked with keeping CTE instructors up to date on changes in their field.

"The partnerships have really bloomed since I've been here," says the school district's Mike. "It's something I've worked really hard on, to cultivate relationships. I think it's part of connecting students to a career outside of here when they leave."

These partnerships, like the one between UPMC and the health careers program, will give students an advantage in the job market.

"It's a great pipeline for us," says Dawndra Jones, senior director of strategic initiatives for UPMC nursing. "We encourage them when they do apply to let us know they've been through this program, because that means they have a skill-set that someone else might not have. If I have two individuals right out of high school and I know one of them has been through this program, I'm more likely to hire them."

Still, the CTE program isn't cheap: The district spends $6.3 million on it annually. "CTE programs are very expensive," Lane says. "You're talking about equipment and facility needs that are well beyond what you need in the classroom." And CTE students face logistical challenges of their own.

In 2010, the district organized the CTE program into three regions: North, South and East. Students can take CTE classes within their region while still attending their "home schools" the rest of the day. But if they want to enroll in a program outside their region, they must switch their home schools as well.

But transportation may be one factor behind under-enrollment. Students taking CTE classes at a school that is not their home school but in their region can take morning or afternoon classes. If they take morning classes, they are given a bus pass and take public transportation to another school in their region. If they take afternoon classes, they are transported via CTE shuttle.

"We lost one or two kids this year from Brashear because travelling [to Carrick] really got to them," says Kozicky, who runs the program.

Mike doesn't agree. "Those who are really passionate about a program don't mind traveling," she says. "The ones I have talked to don't mind getting up earlier."

She says school closings and repeated district reorganizations have played a greater role in under-enrollment. When Langley was closed last year, its CTE programs were redistributed to Allderdice and Brashear. Only 13 students are enrolled in machine operations at Brashear High School; the previously popular program has room for 40. The HVAC program relocated to Allderdice, which has just 15 students enrolled, but room for 40.

The North Side merger of Oliver and Perry high schools may have also played a role. While the student body was consolidated at Perry, both schools' CTE programs are housed at Oliver, requiring CTE students to be transported there.

"When we merged Perry and Oliver, there was a lot of push to use the Oliver building over the Perry building," Lane says. "We're trying to work it out as best we can. I'm not saying it's a permanent solution."

Under-enrollment and cost aren't the only challenges. In a string of bad luck, the students in Carrick's culinary-arts programs have seen two teachers depart in the past two school years. Their first teacher retired in the fall of 2012, after 20 years with the district. On Feb. 14, another teacher resigned to take a new position. Without a certified culinary teacher, the students are unable to cook in the school's kitchen facilities, losing the hands-on experience the program was designed to provide.

It's difficult for the district to have a contingency plan when CTE teachers retire or resign, says Lane. Unlike in subjects like English or math, there aren't many substitute teachers who can fill in for CTE teachers.

"It is hard to find people who have the professional expertise and have the ability to work with students and get properly certified," says Lane. "There aren't a lot of options out there, so when you get a good person you want to hold on to them. People can make more money out in the private sector. And not everyone is good with working with kids."

Despite these issues, the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium says under-enrollment in CTE programs is not a national trend.

"We've seen a lot of increased enrollment around the country," says Evan Williamson, a communications associate with the organization. "So it's not really a universal symptom."

Williamson says CTE enrollment is growing in part because the programs have adapted to meet the demands of jobs in technology and other growing fields.

"CTE is growing in a lot of ways. The old vo-tech days are dead and gone," Williamson says. "A goal of high-quality CTE is providing a pathway to a career."

District officials say they're looking into expanding CTE offerings. But they admit the looming budget deficit could be a hindrance.

"We're looking at programs that are far-reaching," says Mike. "But we're looking at trying to do that at low cost. It's extremely costly to set up these programs."

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