Vocational education at the high school level, or vo-tech, as it's commonly known, used to consist of basic construction trades and perhaps some automotive repair, and the classes were sometimes viewed as a place for kids who simply didn’t want to participate in traditional high school classes.
Over the last few years, many high schools are realizing that vocational education is a tremendous opportunity for students to have focused pathways to real careers. Dodge City High School has embraced the pathway approach with its Career and Technical Education programs.
Rather than simply taking the traditional math/english/science/history curriculum, high school students involved in CTE career pathways integrate academics into rigorous, career-based courses that prepare students for the world of work by introducing them to actual workplaces and the activities and competencies required. Academic concepts are provided in a real-world, hands-on context that stretches education far past traditional curriculum.
Dodge City High School programs aren’t designed only for students planning to continue their education after high school. DCHS Assistant Principal and CTE Coordinator Cherry Deges said the philosophy in the past was to utilize advanced training only for students who planned to go to college.
“We’re preparing kids for their future after high school, whatever that may be,” Deges said. “It’s beyond the core curriculum. There are pathways if a kid wants to be a doctor and there are pathways if a kid wants to be a waitress. Career and tech education has expanded now, so we’re going to prepare you. If you want to go to college or you want to work right out of high school, we're going to help you get there.”
One helpful aspect of the CTE programs at Dodge City is that many of them are taught by real-world professionals. Deges said that the district’s Transition-to-Teach program allows people who have earned a degree and actually worked in a certain field but do not have a teaching degree to teach their real-world skills to high school students while concurrently earning teacher certification. Forty percent of the district's CTE teachers are in or have completed the Transition-to-Teach program.
Deges said these teachers with hands-on experience provide more than theoretical education for CTE students.
“There able to bring a different perspective to the kids,” Deges said. “They're able to bring situations and experiences to the kids that a teacher may not know beyond the content of the subject.”
Deges points out Trista Fergerson, who teaches video production at DCHS. Fergerson was a news reporter in Wichita and delivers more than the nuts and bolts of the profession to students.
“She has run the camera and edited tape but she’s also able to show them that it’s not just sitting at your computer,” Deges said. “She teaches them from a real application level and how she’s had to multitask and manage time and prioritize.”
DCHS Principal Jacque Feist said hiring professionals with more than abstract knowledge is key to the success of the CTE program at DCHS.
“We have these opportunities for kids here because we hire some of these non-traditional teachers,” Feist said. “That knowledge only comes from the business and industry world, it doesn’t come from within the education world.”
This year Dodge City High School hosted a “reverse” job fair in which 16 area businesses revealed their needs. Each teacher chose four different businesses to spend about 15 minutes with. Feist said teachers and staff discovered that within production or manufacturing companies there are myriad other positions that they need to be preparing students to fill.
Dodge City High School differs somewhat from state or national CTE programs in that it incorporates a vital interpersonal skills aspect that staff has come to realize is in short supply in the business world.
Feist said the most eye-opening piece of information that the teachers walked away from the job fair with is that employers today are not just hiring proficiency, but are seeking people with the complementing soft skills. Employers want to know if workers are competent and skilled, but beyond skills they are desperately seeking individuals who have less-tangible abilities.
“Businesses need to know that a worker can actually sit down and visit articulately with a client or a business. In school we may not take as much notice of those things because we focus on academics,” Feist said. “But there’s a balance. It doesn’t matter how smart you may be or how much knowledge of the job you have, if you don’t have those other skill sets you may not be a good option to hire. You’ve got to be a well-rounded individual.
“A 4.0 GPA doesn’t get you everything,” Feist said. 
CTE is generally designed with specific career clusters, with each cluster having one or more specific pathways into each career. Dodge City High School has nine clusters surrounded by 12 pathways. Students are encouraged to explore different pathways to find their potential career. 
Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson visited Dodge City High School specifically to see some of the school’s CTE programs and speak with teachers and students.
Watson has promoted CTE and career-focused programs since his appointment in 2014. Watson said schools should focus on preparing students for life after high school. He said there is a nationwide trend in K-12 education that shifts curriculum from a focus on test scores and graduation rates to longer-term student success.

“In Kansas, 70 to 75 percent of all job markets require high school diploma and another piece of paper,” Watson said. “What’s great about Dodge City’s program is that they show kids that connection.”

Watson described his vision of a broad re-design of schools where career and technical education are the core and academics feed into it. For instance, students would incorporate learning math skills with architectural and drafting training, or biology education with animal science.

Watson said students are more apt to continue their education when their high school years have been productive.

“What we know is that students who leave high school having found what their passion is, advance their education and still save time and money.”

Career and technical education programs allow students to finish high school with much of an associate’s degree or technical certificate completed. Students are far closer to being job-ready after going through CTE programs – saving time and tuition. Across the country most CTE programs are partnerships between high school and post-secondary institutions, as well as business and industry. 

CTE has been a growing movement across the nation and in the state of Kansas. In 2016, the Kansas State Board of Education adopted a new definition of college and career readiness, stating that "a successful Kansas high school graduate has the academic preparation, cognitive preparation, technical skills, employability skills and civic engagement to be successful in postsecondary education, in the attainment of an industry-recognized certification or in the workforce, without the need for remediation.”

The average high school graduation rate for students concentrating in CTE programs is 93 percent, compared to an average national freshman graduation rate of 80 percent. 91 percent of high school graduates who earned 2-3 CTE credits enrolled in college.

According to research in Texas, Colorado and Virginia, graduates with technical or applied science associate degrees out-earn bachelor's degree holders by $2,000 to $11,000.

Twenty-seven percent of trained people with less than an associate degree, including licenses and certificates, earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient.

In school year 2015-2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education, Kansas served 71,109 CTE high school students.

In 2015-2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 99 percent of Kansas CTE high school students graduated and 99 percent met performance goals for technical skills. Seventy-four percent of Kansas CTE postsecondary students earned a credential, certificate or degree.

To contact the writer email sedger@dodgeglobe.com