Some states succeed in improving rural CTE

Some states succeed in improving rural CTE

(Md.) Despite the numerous challenges in offering high-quality career and technical education in rural communities, three states have made significant strides through strengthening local partnerships, according to a new report from an advocacy group supporting non-college bound students.

Nebraska has brought together education and business leaders to design programs that are aligned to industry needs; Idaho gathers high school and postsecondary faculty to align student learning outcomes and ensure students have access to high-quality career pathways; and South Dakota Department of Education officials provide grants, technical assistance and professional development to rural districts to improve program quality.

While those states may have larger rural populations that other, more urban regions, Advance CTE noted that every state has some rural communities–and those communities serve more than 9 million K-12 students.

“Expanding access to high-quality CTE in rural communities in an imperative for all states,” authors of the report wrote. “(Career technical education) helps learners gain the real-world skills they need to be successful in their chosen careers and is a powerful strategy to boost rural economies by closing critical skills gaps that harm local employers.”

Districts throughout the country have begun developing pathways that do directly target community needs. High school-level firefighting programs were introduced last year in Maine to help train and recruit young people for short staffed stations. A new school focused on preparing students for comprehensive health care professions in Texas is in the works as a need for primary care doctors has emerged. And Massachusetts schools are partnering with local farms and community colleges in order to teach students about sustainable agriculture.

Even in urban areas, however, schools are still struggling to find qualified educators to fill CTE classrooms or even measure student proficiency. Earlier this year, lawmakers in Minnesota introduced bills aimed at a fast-tracking the credentialing program for CTE teachers, and education leaders in California are still without a meaningful method to determine career readiness beyond identifying the number of students that have completed a career technical education pathway, despite years of discussion.

But rural districts face additional challenges in offering high-quality pathway programs that meet the needs on local employers. According to Advance CTE’s report, more than half of K-12 school districts operate in rural parts of the U.S., but those same regions are home to just 16 percent of the two-year postsecondary institutions that offer advanced career technical training. Many of the programs also have high start-up costs, and schools have access to fewer resources.

In Nebraska, state leaders established the reVISION initiative, which requires state, district, business and community leaders to identify CTE pathways that would meet local labor needs and develop a plan to expand student access to high-quality programs. Schools and districts that complete the reVISION process are then eligible to apply for competitive, one-year grants to support ongoing work.

Between the state’s launch of the initiative in 2012 and 2017, two-thirds of districts served have been rural.

Recipients of South Dakota’s Workforce Education Grant also work to create strong partnerships with higher education and business leaders to align CTE pathways to community needs. Schools awarded the grants can use the money to upgrade or expand CTE programs and work-based learning opportunities, form concurrent credit bearing partnerships with local colleges, improve facilities or purchase new equipment.

When the grant process began last year, nine schools were awarded $800,000–after the first year, lawmakers boosted funding to $2.5 million and expanded eligibility to include non-profits that offer CTE programming.

And in Idaho, similar efforts have been made to improve and expand CTE in rural schools and better align pathways to the needs of the local business community. Last year, 55 high school teachers received training from the state’s Division of Career and Technical Training Education program in analyzing student data to identify and address specific learning competencies in CTE courses. Officials expect training participation to grow to more than four times that by the 2018-19 school year, according to authors of the report.

Districts in other states aiming to improve CTE pathways in rural schools should leverage federal and state funding, but it is up to decision-makers at the state-level to ensure local education agencies have the access to resources, according to authors.

“State policymakers have a critical responsibility to ensure that all learners–regardless of their geographic location–benefit from the high-quality career pathways that prepare them for success in a career of their choice,” the authors wrote, noting that giving students the means to engage with experts in the classrooms and workplace is recommended in ensuring high-quality.