Maryland students soon will likely be required to stay in school until age 18. The challenge is making them want to be there.
Bolstering career and technical education programs — ranging from computer science to cabinetmaking — could be a big part of the solution, some school officials and education experts say.
“One of the things that keeps students in school and learning is student engagement,” said Stephen DeWitt, senior director of public policy for the Association of Career and Technical Education. “Career and technical education classes offer that.”
The spotlight could shift to the career and technical education programs after the General Assembly last week approved legislation mandating that beginning in June 2014 students will be required to attend school until age 17. By July 2016, students will have to stay in school until their 18th birthday.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who has yet to sign the bill, has indicated his support for the measure, which includes some exceptions, such as for students who are married, pregnant, serving in the military, or in an alternative education program.
About 9,000 students dropped out of Maryland high schools in 2011, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education.
Lynne M. Gilli, the program manager of MSDE’s Career and Technology Education Instructional Branch, said 99.5 percent of the state’s class of 2010 who had enrolled in their third CTE class by their sophomore year went on to graduate, according to education department data.
“CTE is the hook,” Gilli said. “That’s what makes students say, ‘That’s why I need to be able to solve unilateral equations. ... I need to understand biology.’”
CTE programs often are more collaborative and hands-on and provide students with immediate skills, DeWitt said.
Prince George’s County already has implemented a five-year plan to expand college and career preparatory academies to its 22 traditional high schools.
By the 2016-2017 school year, each high school will have between three and five academies in which students can explore fields from hospitality and tourism to global studies.
But county school board member Donna Hathaway Beck (Dist. 9) said career and technical education offerings might need to be expanded further.
“These [students who want to drop out] are the ones who by age 16 want to do something else with their lives,” Beck said.
School systems need to offer an engaging curriculum that changes the perspective of students who are made to stay in school against their desires and ensures they can make a living, Beck said.
“What do we do differently to engage the students when they want to leave at 16?” she said. “How is the system going to restructure for the needs of kids?”
Though DeWitt said he hopes school officials see the value of career and technical education programs that reinforce academic skills, he knows not every school system can afford to invest in elective programs.
“It’s a fiscally difficult environment,” he said. “Some schools are cutting CTE classes, because they’re not purely academic.”
There’s not just one answer to the complex social problem of dropouts, said Montgomery County school board member Laura Berthiaume (Dist. 2).
Solutions include offering intervention for at-risk students as early as third grade and providing high-achieving students with challenging work, she said. Also, schools should not suggest struggling students withdraw.
Career and technical education programs could be part of the solution, as they provide “a more obvious direct connection between the work being done and an income,” Berthiaume said.
There will always be a demand for students with skills in more traditional career and technical areas, such as automotive technology or cosmetology, Berthiaume said, but Montgomery County Public Schools also is discussing the possibility, but with a steep cost, of building a technology-focused high school at Crown Farm in Gaithersburg.
The state Department of Education recognizes 10 clusters through which students can explore career pathways by being “actively engaged in high-end research, which they see as meaningful,” Gilli said.
Projects that examine real-world problems and require the 21st-century skills of communication, creativity and collaboration give students the experiences necessary for college and careers, Gilli said.
“Today, we really refashioned CTE,” she said. [Parents] see the future for their kids as they see them enrolling in these classes.
“Parents want their kids to be in these programs, and students want to stay in school to finish them.”