In his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump called on America to invest in the workforce by improving job-training programs. “Let us open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential.”
Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) has already incorporated this philosophy into its teaching with Rindge School of Technical Arts (RSTA), the career and technical education program. In many Massachusetts school districts, students wishing to pursue technical education must apply to attend a regional vocational school offering the program of interest. However, CRLS is one of several combination high schools offering both traditional academic courses and technical education programs, giving its students many of the benefits of technical education within a traditional high school environment.
The district has been offering tech programming for at least 130 years, dating back to the opening of the Cambridge Manual Training School for Boys (later to become Rindge Tech) in 1888, part of the English High School.
“When the two high schools, Cambridge High and Latin School and Rindge Technical School, later merged in 1977 the technical programs that were part of Rindge Tech survived,” said Dr. Michael Ananis, executive director of RSTA.
This year, seven students from outside the Cambridge School District are enrolled at CRLS to take courses in its technical education program. Likewise, Cambridge students (three this year) interested in one of the programs not offered by CRLS, such as agricultural science or animal science, can apply to attend a school such as Norfolk County Agricultural High School in Walpole.
Adjusting to a changing job market
As needs and jobs have evolved over the decades, so have the tech programs.
“Every two years we do a deep analysis of employment trends and workforce needs based on data we get through the regional employment board, the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, and the Massachusetts labor statistics,” said Ananis. “That has helped us in creating our most recent program in computer science and it is actually our fastest growing program.”
This year, approximately 43 percent of CRLS students are involved in a Career and Technical Education program. Courses include automotive technology, carpentry, computer science, hospitality, engineering, health assisting and media technology, among others.
In addition to developing new programs, faculty and staff also adjust existing programs to reflect the needs and opportunities existing in the job market today. For example, there are well over 100 biotech companies located in Cambridge alone. CRLS is preparing its students to meet that hiring need.
“Our instructor for the biotechnology program is developing a biomanufacturing and regulatory compliance pathway that would … really prepare students to have real robust options in terms of career paths,” said Dr. Kenneth Salim, superintendent of Cambridge Public Schools.
Not just ‘blue-collar skills’
In addition to teaching students the industry skills they need to begin a career, the Career and Technical Education program also strives to teach basic workplace skills, such as collaboration, leadership, personal responsibility, and the importance of showing up on time and completing tasks.
While these are valuable lessons for everyone, Ananis and his students still come up against the commonly held stereotype that technical education is just teaching blue-collar skills to students who don’t plan on attending college. In fact, according to Ananis, students in the Career and Technical Education program graduate college at a higher rate than the general population at the school.
“We don’t use the v-word, ‘vocational,’” said Ananis. “We call it Career and Technical Education, but we still get parents who say, ‘Oh, no, my kid is going to college.’ We recognize that many of our students do go onto four-year colleges and graduate schools … but we are not limiting our programs to those folks. We need all of them.”
Ananis believes that some of the opportunities within the RSTA department — such as career counseling — should be available to every student at school. “After all, we are expecting every student here to work at some point in their lives,” he said.
Students graduating from the Career and Technical Education program leave with three years of experience in a specific field to give them a leg up in whatever job training or post-secondary education they go on to do.
“In Cambridge, we talk about a vision of rigorous, joyful, and culturally responsive learning. Part of that is making sure the learning is relevant and engaging,” said Salim. “I think some of these lessons from the technical education world can be applied to how we think about high school education for all our students.”