Leading in Career and Technical Education
A national spotlight now shines on CTE education. But Gaston County has the edge.
In recent decades, trends in education and employment have not aligned, showing areas of need – but also opportunity. Students graduate with record college debt—American students now hold more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt—even as employers struggle to fill high-paying skilled trade jobs that do not require four-year degrees. Yet high school Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs which provide such skills—often at no cost to the student—are underutilized. Nationally, students in CTE programs have declined during recent decades, even as demand for their skills has increased.
Gaston County, however, has focused successfully on CTE for years. Gaston County Schools' educational innovations have propelled it to become a leader in CTE, with statistics that prove the success of its program.
“Workforce Development is a key focus area for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation,” noted Mark Cramer, of the Greater Gaston Development Corporation who is on the Foundation’s advisory board, “and I am very proud that Gaston County has already implemented many of the best practices in Workforce Development and CTE from around the country.”
Community involvement is a core factor of Gaston County’s CTE success. The schools collaborate with local businesses and professional leaders to create an extended classroom that reaches beyond campuses and into corporate offices, job sites, and hospitals. With an innovative curriculum within schools and a devoted community beyond it, Gaston's CTE students graduate with the academic skills, the experience, and the connections necessary to succeed.
Here are four factors that give Gaston County Schools an edge in CTE:
Last year, Gaston County Schools' CTE program had the greatest technical attainment out of the top 10 largest school districts in the state. A credential is the building block of CTE education. Credentials are certifications issued by professional organizations, vendors, and employers that show that the student has the skills and knowledge needed to perform a job successfully. Students who graduate with credentials usually find jobs faster and begin those jobs at higher wages than students without them. Students with credentials hold the proof: They’re career-ready.
Gaston County is a leader in CTE credentials. Last year, 7,135 students enrolled in a credentialed course; they earned a total of 11,524 credentials. Gaston County Schools had the highest credential rate in the region and the second-highest in the state. In comparison, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools earned 3,622 credentials and Cabarrus earned 3,791 last year. In fact, Gaston County is the only county in the state that has experienced consistent annual gains in the number of CTE credentials that students earn.
Too often, schools ask students what they do after graduation. Too rarely, schools show students what their options are. Gaston County believes in showing students how many fields they can choose from and what modern work environments are like before asking them what they’d like to study.
That's the idea behind Students@Work, a collaboration between Gaston County Schools and the Gaston Regional Chamber of Commerce. All eighth graders—more than 2,300 students—are invited to visit local businesses, learn about operations, and tour facilities. Students visit companies in healthcare, construction, energy, media, finance, law enforcement, and more. They learn about many different career and job opportunities and the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.
“It is important for young kids to get a snapshot of the real work world at an early age,” says Joel Long, the CEO of GSM Services, which participates in Students@Work. “There are so many options in today’s world to pursue a valuable career. We no longer need to push all of our kids to go to four-year schools to be successful, and these programs offer kids a glimpse into different paths at an early age.”
In addition, Students@Work shows student that they might have even more options than they realize. Brett Buchanan, the director of Gaston County Schools’ CTE program, recently attended Students@Work with a group of students when he overheard a comment that showed him just how important the program was.
“During a visit to Mann+Hummel, I heard one girl say, ‘Hey, I didn’t know girls were working here!’ She learned that the industry wasn’t male dominated like she expected it to be, and it opened her thought process to consider careers she hadn’t thought of.”
In addition to Students@Work, middle and high schoolers are invited to attend a Manufacturing and Career Expo at Gaston College, Gaston County’s community college which collaborates heavily with the Gaston County School system on CTE initiatives. The expo shows students how they can apply science, math, technology, and art to technical fields such as advanced manufacturing, and then introduces students to representatives of regional companies who are leaders in that work.
Nationally, only 35 percent of CTE students report that they’ve had exposure to future employers as part of their curriculum, and only 12 percent go on site visits, according to the Student Research Foundation. Gaston County Schools gives its students an edge because they believe that inviting students—all students—to professional settings is imperative to their success and confidence.
It’s not just Gaston County students who leave the classroom for real-world connections. Each year, its teachers and guidance counselors go on site visits to corporate offices, construction sites, police stations, healthcare facilities, and more. Through the Educators in the Workplace program, they tour facilities, talk with business leaders about job opportunities, and learn what skills are needed for those jobs. When teachers return to the classroom, they can speak with students about a variety of fields and roles.
In addition, faculty who dedicate themselves to supporting their students are rewarded for their efforts. Just last year, Gaston County Schools awarded more than $80,000 to faculty in teacher credential bonuses.
Encouragement and Support
Gaston County Schools give students the skills, the connections, and the expert instruction. But they also believe that students deserve community encouragement and support. That’s why they recently hosted their first Career Signing Day. Just as athletes get the limelight when they sign to professional teams, students get the limelight when they “sign” with employers for jobs after graduation. Career Signing Day allows students to celebrate their accomplishments, and it allows the community to celebrate with them.
“There are great jobs and great career opportunities right here in Gaston County,” says Todd Hagans, Chief Communications Officer of Gaston County Schools. “This shows students that they don’t have to go to some far-away place. By partnering with local businesses, students can see what career opportunities are out there waiting for them.”
To learn more about CTE education at Gaston County Schools, visit the Career and Technical Education web page. To learn how your business can participate in activities like Students@Work and Educators in the Workplace, please contact James Allen, Gaston Regional Chamber’s Director of Workforce Development and Finance, at firstname.lastname@example.org.