BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – National data shows that students taking career and technical education courses in high school are faring better in earnings and career readiness that those who excel academically, but stay away from the CTE offerings.
February is national CTE Month, a public awareness campaign from the Business Professionals of America in conjunction with the Association for Career and Technical Education.
Fort Madison Principal Greg Smith will be holding a breakfast on Feb. 22 to recognize those leaders in the area that have helped contribute to one of the leading CTE schools in the state.
Fort Madison High School has had welders, building trades, and family science classes compete and win awards at the state level for demonstrated skills in CTE coursework. Smith said it’s been the support of the board and the district’s ability to attract skilled instructors that is setting it apart from other schools in the area.
He said the district’s vision is success for every student after they graduate and the CTE programs help target that goal to a higher percentage of the students.
“Look at the vision of the FMCSD that everyone is successful post high school. Well, we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” he said. “We want all kids, we don’t care what your GPA is necessarily, if this is something you’re interested in, let’s do it.
“And if we don’t have it, and this is another thing I’m working on, is let’s get you out so you can get that experience. I want my juniors and seniors out half a day everywhere exploring, learning, getting some contact time. If you want to be a vet, spend time with a vet, whatever. Get the course work done and caught up, and get outta here and get that experience.”
The district has 240 students in CTE programs and currently has 30 courses in the curriculum.
According to a report in the American Educational Research Journal in 2017, national statistics show students who are engaged in rigorous Career and Technical Education courses have a lower drop-out rate and increased on-time graduation.
Those same students also see higher earnings, including a 3.2% wage increase in CTE concentrations. Another statistic that stands out is that 80% of students taking a curriculum that includes CTE coursework met college and career readiness benchmarks that only 63% of students with the same academic core work had, but didn’t include the CTE courses.
Smith said the district’s been able to hire top notch quality instructors like Building Trades Instructor Clint Kobelt, whose construction students have taken state titles in skills competitions. The district also recently hired Chris Bolander, after the closure of Dresser-Rand in Burlington, who has 16 years and a complete list of certifications in welding to replace Jim King in that department. A new automotive instructor fully certified by General Motors has also joined the staff.
With Governor Kim Reynolds touting Future Ready Iowa programming at every stop in the state, Smith said these efforts lead straight to those goals, but funding is still the highest hurdle in reaching more kids.
“I’m really frustrated that there’s such a need on every side you talk to. If it wasn’t for funding, I’d have four or five more programs going,” he said. “The (Fort Madison School) board is very supportive, but it’s a money issue. Everyone of those guys you bring in has 16-20 years experience but we put them on a teacher’s salary level. Even though they don’t have the education at the master’s level, we still try to give them credit for the years in the field. That’s where they’d be if they were still in the private sector.”
He said some of the CTE instructors come in at $50,000-$60,000 a year. But when he talks with local legislators they ask what they can do.
“It’s not a lack of support. I talk to (Rep.) Jeff Kurtz and (Sen.) Rich Taylor and those guys, they ask what do you need from us and I hate to say money all the time, but what I need is a way to hire these guys that level the playing field a little. We want to do what you want us to do, the governor’s all about it, so let’s get together and figure out how we do this. I don’t know what the answer is, but it always seems to come down to dollars.”
Internal data from the district eight years ago said the curriculum was upside down as far what students needs were. Smith said everything was still focused on collegiate paths, yet 40% of the students weren’t going to college and had no concrete plans after high school.
“If we don’t have curriculum that fits our needs, are we doing what’s best for our kids or what’s best for a slim majority,” he said.
Smith recently sat with the board of the Southeast Iowa Builder’s Association to figure out what certifications graduating seniors should have if they want to get their resume on top of the pile.
“We approached them to help us to determine what certificates are important. To make a long story short, we’re going to meet with HR folks in those industries and say, if you want to look at a kid right out of high school, he’s gonna be green, but what else do you need. Would an OSHA 13 certification help, or an ACI concrete national certification, there are all kinds out there,” Smith said.
“They were excited and couldn’t believe we were asking those questions, because that’s what they’ve always wanted.”
He also credited the Lee County Economic Development Group’s Grow Lee program for helping him with contacts and and finding subcommittees to continue to advocate and learn about what industries are looking for from the educational community.