For the second straight year, Catawba County Schools Career Technical Education (CTE) Program has finished number one in overall CTE performance indicator comparisons among 15 North Carolina school systems of similar size (affinity group).1
In conjunction with great performance, our CTE program has facilitated the growth of one of the largest high school work-based learning programs in the nation (735 students during 2015-2016 placed in 130 local businesses) while adding and expanding programs like computer science, aquaponics, robotics, and welding.
As CTE director for Catawba County Schools, I am often asked to share our experiences and to shed some light on the secret to our success. I believe there are many things that contribute to the success of our programs, the least of which is me personally. However, if I had to narrow things down to a short list, there are five critical elements that cannot be ignored.
1. Build a Community
In its most basic form, a community is a group of individuals living in the same geographical area sharing a certain set of common traits. This is not the type of community that tends to make a needle-moving difference in CTE. The type of community one needs to build in order to get things done is a “feeling” of fellowship based on common attitudes, interests, and goals.
Most geographical communities have educational, business, and political silos that rarely work together to achieve a common goal. This causes communities to never truly identify the “why” in why we educate. I believe the overriding purpose of education is to ultimately create opportunities for our students. These opportunities will typically be tied to some form of monetary reward. Therefore, whether it is curing cancer or working in advanced manufacturing, our goal is to prepare students to someday secure highly skilled, high-wage careers.
If connecting students to careers is our “why”, we must build a community around that objective. We have to reach out to businesses in order to understand and identify labor needs and demands. We then have to work closely with our local community college to see how we can align career pathways with multiple exit ramps to multiple opportunities. We then must work with our own administrators, teachers, and staff to develop an understanding of local business demands and how we can bring it all together through our CTE programs. Finally, we MUST educate parents and students about how to take advantage of these opportunities.
It is important to understand that building a community is basically creating a movement driven by influencers, not controllers. Community building cannot be forced and cannot happen behind a desk, or via emails, brochures, and flyers. You have to get out and build relationships. You have to listen to people and focus on meeting the needs of the community.
2. Serve the Community
As CTE director I truly believe that my job is to serve much more than to direct. Some believe directing implies controlling. On the contrary, leadership is about influence, not control. As leaders we have to understand that what we do is never about personal gain, its about meeting the needs of the community. Our job is to invest time in painting a vision of where we are going based on multiple inputs from community members.
If time is taken to paint a clear community vision, people will buy in because people want a challenge and care about the community.
They want to do something significant and they are eager to help. CTE Programs must reflect the needs of the local community. If needs change, then the programs must change. Programs can’t be built on models from other communities. We must develop our own model to serve the our own local needs. This doesn’t imply that we should not have a global focus. In fact, most communities need to think globally in order to draw new businesses and citizens into the local economy. Serving the community requires forward thinking by all to address current and future community needs.
3. Give Students Ownership
Put students in the driver’s seat. Make them understand that the program belongs to them and treat it as such. Recently our local economic develop board asked us to participate in attracting a new business to our area. Knowing that we were up against stiff competition, we decided to let a group of students from Bunker Hill High School tell our story. They told about our community and our programs in ways that we could not have imagined. The students owned it and as a result, the business chose to move to our community for that very reason.
Students are pretty amazing when they take ownership of programs. We see this every day in the CTE classroom and student organizations. Like teachers, students want to be challenged and make a difference. Sometimes we just have to get out of their way.
4. Reject the Naysayers
This is possibly the hardest of all to overcome. Over the years I have tried to develop an understanding of naysayers, but I will confess, it is a challenge. Naysayers says, “This is not how we do things” or “This is not how it has always been done in the past”. If your community has needs, focus on the needs and not the Naysayers. Naysayers are passive and will eventually come around. Collaborate with stakeholders and stick with the vision. A great friend of mine once told me that it is much easier to go around stumps than to try and dig them up. Naysayers are usually scared of change or have other motives unrelated to the needs or vision of the community. Time spent battling naysayers is valuable time that can be directed towards more productive outcomes.
5. Appreciate People
Finally we must appreciate people and their individual talents. Our community is made up of people choosing to be involved because they want a better community. Even paid employees volunteer a lot of personal time for a good cause. Saying “thank you” means more to folks than you can imagine. I am thankful for all of our students, parents, teachers, and leaders that work everyday to make our CTE programs the best in the country. Never forget to recognize and appreciate those around you. Thats how communities work best.
1-Overall affinity group performance was calculated by ranking each of the eight CTE performance indicators from 1 to 15 by proficiency score then totaling those scores to determine overall rank order.