Career and technical programs being reimagined by urban school districts


When Chef Samantha Jones arrived at Juarez High School in Chicago six years ago, she discovered a shell of a culinary program.

Jones set about to change that: She created a curriculum, arranged regular produce deliveries, and sought opportunities for students to show off their skills outside the school’s kitchen. When the pandemic shuttered the school building, she crisscrossed the predominantly Latino neighborhoods on the city’s Southwest Side to drop off ingredient kits at students’ homes.

More recently, Jones has taken students to meet chefs at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards downtown, shuttled them to contests where some earned thousands of dollars in culinary school scholarships, and planned a trip to Italy next year to visit a mozzarella maker and olive tree farm.

“Those hands-on opportunities have created buzz for our program,” Jones said. “In terms of students who actively want to be here — that’s changed dramatically.”

The resurgence of the culinary program at Juarez coincides with a rising national profile of high school career and technical education, or CTE. Large urban districts, including Chicago, are rethinking and expanding these programs in the wake of the pandemic as students look for more direct, debt-free routes to in-demand careers.

That push comes on the heels of a reckoning over the past decade’s college-for-all mantra, which propelled more students to campus but didn’t always lead to a college diploma. In Chicago, for example, 73 percent of the district’s students still either don’t go to college or don’t finish it, according to the University of Chicago’s To & Through Project, leaving many with murky career prospects.

Across the country, school district officials are increasingly banking on revamped CTE programs to set more teens on a clear path to post-high school employment — and prepare them for advanced training and college. New York Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks have held up CTE as key to reengaging students. Los Angeles announced this month new high school CTE pathways and middle school career labs.

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But for large urban districts, shifting gears on CTE can be a heavy lift. Chicago has CTE powerhouse schools like Juarez, with strong programs rich in hands-on opportunities — and CTE deserts, neighborhoods with few offerings. Data on student outcomes is spotty, but it suggests a relatively small portion of the district’s roughly 15,000 CTE students — 45 percent of whom are Black, compared with 35 percent of all students in CPS — get the work experience, college credit, and credentials considered the gold standard for high school career programs. That’s because programs across the city offer uneven access to these opportunities, which require partnerships with employers as well as qualified instructors, who are in short supply.

Pedro Martinez, a national champion of CTE who took over Chicago Public Schools last fall, says he wants the district’s programs to send students off ready to toggle seamlessly between building careers and returning to school to gain more skills.

“This is where I see education going in the future,” said Martinez, the former superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District. “I see a convergence of pre-K-12, higher education and industry all coming together.”

Janice Jackson, who stepped down as Chicago Public Schools CEO last year, had focused on building a college-going culture in the district, whose students are predominantly Latino and Black, and low-income. With the focus on college, several CTE programs — some under-enrolled and outdated — closed during Jackson’s tenure. But Jackson said in an interview with Chalkbeat after she left the district that she came to better appreciate career education’s value.

“We went from not having a college-going culture almost to the extreme, where that’s all we talked about,” she said. “What we learned is the same skills that students need to successfully complete high school, they need to access trade programs.”

Now, a national shift is underway, with a tangle of factors giving CTE a boost.

On the cusp of the pandemic, the passage of the federal Perkins V law increased CTE funding and ramped up requirements for school districts, said Rachel Rosen, co-director of the Center for Effective CTE at New York-based nonprofit MDRC. A growing body of research has shown some CTE models pay off for low-income students and boys of color, giving momentum to a push to help these teens gain entry into the middle class without a stint on a four-year college campus.

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The pandemic has put an even starker spotlight on inequitable educational outcomes, says Kyle Hartung, associate vice president at Boston-based Jobs for the Future. And amid crippling worker shortages, employers are eager to build diverse talent pipelines, while students want more direct access to well-paying careers in high-growth fields.

“The needs of employers and the needs of learners are starting to align,” Hartung said. “We’re not talking about your grandfather’s vocational education.”

A string of states and districts have stepped up their CTE offerings — or are pledging to do so.

Inspired by studies showing promising gains in high school graduation and earning potential in New York City, Dallas has bet big on the P-TECH high school model: In these schools, students cultivate both academic and workplace skills with the goal of graduating with industry-recognized associate degrees. Martinez, the Chicago schools chief, recently traveled to Dallas with Juan Salgado, the chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, to learn more about how that school district works with local community colleges and employers.

In Delaware, 50 percent of high school students are on career pathways, sequences of classes and training that prepare them for postsecondary learning and jobs. The effort — a partnership of state leaders, school districts, community colleges, employers and philanthropy — is on track to reach 80 percent of students in the next two years, Hartung said.

During the coming school year, Philadelphia, where district leaders tout a markedly higher than average graduation rate for its 6,000 CTE students, will review all 43 CTE programs to ensure they are attuned to employer needs and student demand. The district also joined the Talent Pipeline Project, a partnership between Pennsylvania districts and the local maritime and defense industries that has connected students with apprenticeships and jobs. The efforts reflect a break with the idea of CTE as a dumping ground for students who struggle academically.

“It was always viewed as a program for those who ‘can’t, won’t, and don’t’ — for those not going to college,” said Michelle Armstrong, Philadelphia’s executive director of CTE. “We view CTE as giving our young people options.”

New York City, where 60,000 students attend almost 300 programs, crafted a five-year strategic plan for CTE last year. Innovative programs are springing up across the city, from a new teachers academy in Brooklyn where high school students will help teach middle-schoolers, to an urban farming program in the Bronx, complete with opportunities to earn college credit.

Reimagining CTE can be a heavy lift

But experts say significant hurdles stand in the way of revamping high school CTE programs.

In Chicago and other districts, a shortage of data on student outcomes can hamper overhaul efforts. There’s little comprehensive data tracking whether students land jobs after high school or go on to college.

In Chicago, data on certifications shows the portion of CTE students earning these credentials dipped even before covid hit. School-level snapshots of CTE outcomes mid-pandemic suggests some campuses do much better in giving students opportunities to engage in work-based learning and earn college credit.

Nationally, districts also face a shortage of educators qualified to teach CTE courses. Meaningful partnerships with employers and community colleges — key to strengthening programs — can remain elusive.

Chicago recently signed an agreement called Chicago Roadmap with the City Colleges of Chicago, the local community college network, hailed as an unprecedented effort to work more closely.

Martinez has also signaled that CTE will loom large in a three-year blueprint for the district he is slated to unveil in the fall. He said in an interview he wants the district to embrace the P-TECH model and enlist large employers in the CTE push, mentioning recent conversations with Accenture and Amazon.

“The goal is to bring internships and job shadowing opportunities, especially for younger children — even exposure at the middle school grades,” Martinez said. “I’m telling industry partners, ‘You get to shape your workforce while they’re still in high school.’”

In the meantime, Jones, the culinary teacher at Chicago’s Juarez High School, is forging ahead. For the coming school year, the culinary program has a wait list; students who did not get in angle to join the after-school cooking program.

Sophomore Jah Pagan said he was shocked to find out how popular the culinary program is and feels lucky to be enrolled. He is already eyeing higher-stakes cooking competitions and summer jobs.

This spring, Pagan and his classmates squared off in a clash between two imaginary restaurants for their class capstone project. They hustled to finish sumptuous brunch spreads: French toast, yogurt parfaits, biscuits, sausage-and-fruit breakfast skewers and more.

In a corner, atop one of the industrial freezers, cooking competition trophies towered — a reminder of the program’s goal to jump-start students’ careers.

Mila Koumpilova is a reporter at Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news outlet focused on education. This story was supported by the Higher Education Media Fellowship at the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, which backs reporting into issues related to CTE.

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