ABINGDON, Va. — During her junior year at Patrick Henry High School, Madison Booth, a student athlete with numerous accolades, took advantage of an educational opportunity that not all college-bound students are willing to try.

Madison enrolled in a pharmacy tech program at the Washington County Career and Technical Education Center.

“It was great. I learned a lot,” Madison said.

As a high school student, she attended the education center every morning. “When I got back to school I resumed my online college classes for the rest of the day, so it really fit my schedule well.

“I’m using my pharmacy tech credential as a job opportunity during college because there are a lot of pharmacies around here, and it’s a good way to pick up a few work hours while I’m away at school,” said Madison, who is being considered for a job at a local pharmacy while attending Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Madison is among numerous students who are discovering that their local career and technical education center is not the same vocational school their parents attended decades ago.

Educators no longer refer to the skill-based education as “vocational.” Instead, the name “career and technical education” is a better fit for all students, particularly those who may want to further their education after high school.

“Career and technical education is for everyone, whether you’re a college-bound student or not,” said Brian Johnson, principal at Washington County Career and Technical Education Center. “We have many students who have intentions of going to college.”

Johnson explained that programs at the center were more vocational decades ago.

“We had the basics — things like plumbing, welding, electricity, auto body and masonry. It was primarily designed to prepare students to find jobs as soon as they graduated from high school.

“While those important skills are still offered, we’ve added programs that are increasingly sophisticated and prepare our students for science and technology careers that often require education after high school,” he said.

Lifting the stigma

Years ago, vocational education was sometimes viewed as a placement for students who struggled academically in the classroom.

“I think the stigma is changing,” said Johnson. “We as a school have worked hard to shift that mindset. In fact, our own students are helping us change that image.”

Johnson credits presentations in the local schools, PTA programs, student tours and word-of-mouth for boosting enrollment.

“We’ve had more than 600 students enrolled here in the past eight years. That’s almost doubled in the past 12 years.

“All it takes is one or two students to spread the word,” said the principal, who has created a student ambassador program that allows current students to take part in recruiting efforts. The program helps the students build leadership skills while showcasing their school.

Cole Barr, a junior at Holston High School, is an ambassador for the auto body program. “I like to represent what we do here at the school. I was a freshman when Mr. Johnson came to talk to my class. The longer I’ve been here, the more I like it.” Cole hopes to find a job as soon as he graduates from high school.

High-demand jobs

After decades of high school guidance counselors and teachers pushing bachelor’s degrees, the country is in need of skilled vocational workers.

Johnson said he receives calls all the time from local businesses that need welders, electricians, and other vocational jobs.

“Our current generation of plumbers and electricians are getting older. The younger generation is needed to carry on with these jobs that are in high demand,” said Mary Walker, career specialist at the center.

“We have a national shortage of welders,” added Johnson. “There are at least 15 local welding opportunities every year for our students to take immediately after graduation. There is also a demand for plumbers and carpenters.”

Canan Large, a senior at Abingdon High School, has been in the building trades program for two years, after taking carpentry when he was in ninth grade.

The Career and Technical Education Center has helped to point him in the right direction for his career. He plans to further his education at Virginia Highlands Community College, where he will enroll in heating, air conditioning and ventilation and refrigeration maintenance.

Boosting curriculum

To accommodate a larger number of students, many of whom are college-bound, the Career and Technical Education Center has ramped up its curriculum throughout the last decade.

Out of the 18 programs offered at the center, seven are dual-enrollment courses, which allow students to transfer their credits to Virginia Highlands Community College and sometimes to four-year schools.

Johnson said offering new programs has helped to boost more interest in career and technical education.

Advertising design took the place of a printing program; networking and cybersecurity replaced electronics. Building trades became a combination of electricity, masonry, framing and plumbing. Criminal justice, culinary arts, pharmacy tech and cybersecurity are some of their newest programs.

Johnson believes presentations in the local middle and high schools are also helping to boost enrollment.

For the first time this summer, the Career and Technical Education Center hosted a summer camp with nearly 100 elementary and middle school students attending. Students learned math skills during baking lessons, built race cars, programmed robots and even cut hair.

Johnson said a new one-year program is allowing more students, particularly college-bound students, to attend career and technical education.

Students can complete certain programs in one year rather than a typical two- or three-year study.

“That’s allowed us to pull some of the higher academic students over here because otherwise they can’t afford to attend here for three or four years in order to complete an advanced diploma,” Johnson explained.

“But all of our students are successful and accomplishing good work.

“We’ve had students here who are [nurse aids], licensed pharmacy tech, and [have] one year of licensed practical nursing under their belt while getting their high school diplomas at age 18,” he said.

“That’s pretty remarkable.”

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Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at news@washconews.com.

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