Autumn A. Arnett 2018-01-05 00:07:09
email@example.com At the nation’s only Catholic vocational high school, a focus on preparing graduates to be Workers finds root in rigorous, faith-based instruction. CHRISTIAN Aument, a vice principal at Mercy Career & Technical High School—the nation’s only Catholic co-educational CTE high school—said he is amazed by recommendation letters written by teachers to accompany student applications that detail a student’s inability to complete work on time, lack of focus and motivation, and lack of interest in school as good reasons why the student would be a good fit at Mercy. “There are still some teachers out there who think that a career and technical education is for a student who couldn’t cut it anywhere else,” he said. But Sister Susan Walsh, who serves as principal of the Philadelphia high school, said “People’s long-time thoughts about career and technical education don’t hold now.” “It’s not that these students are unintelligent at all,” said Sister Rosemary Herron, who serves as Mercy’s president. “They’re very creative, but most haven’t been taught the way they learn best.” “There’s a lot of rigor to the theories in all of these shops,” Walsh said. Students can choose from cosmetology, building trades (like construction or electrical jobs), business, culinary arts, nursing or computer technology. Take, for instance, the cosmetology students’ anatomy and physiology coursework, and the formal business plans seniors create as their thesis projects, which have to include research on all of the appropriate laws and regulations, as well as cost and profit margin calculations and detailed proposals on running their own salons. What’s different, Walsh said, is Mercy’s approach to “combining the rigor with their creativity.” “There’s a lot of art and expression with all of these shops,” she said. But with increased attention on career and technical education from the federal government and a continual pushback from industry leaders against students who graduate from college unprepared for the workforce, the tide is changing around CTE. “There’s a push for career and technical education that wasn’t there for a long time,”Aument said. Embracing project-Based learning and Collaborative learning One of the keys of a new bill making its way through Congress this week is encouraging increased collaboration between secondary and postsecondary institutions as well as industry and community organizations. At Mercy, teachers say they wouldn’t be able to effectively train students if not for the partnerships with local universities, nonprofits and employers. Business students, for instance, partner with local university students to solve real-world problems in creative ways. One group of 11th grade students was planning a fashion show for dogs to raise awareness for a local animal shelter—until they ran into problems with permitting and liability insurance requirements. And last year, these same students designed and distributed scarves for homeless individuals in the city to store their belongings and keep them warm. Students in the computer technology program receive instruction in everything from how to troubleshoot end-user technical problems to graphic design. They recently presented a logo design to a major corporation headquartered in the city, and the company will soon unveil the student’s logo as part of its brand package. Participants in the building trades are leading the way on campus renovations, from wiring the networks and electricity in the new rooms to physically building out the spaces. And students in the culinary arts are pairing with one team from the business division, a local nonprofit, and a major grocer in the city to provide education to the city’s residents around healthy, inexpensive cookout options for the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. “Learning is happening, and it’s relevant to them,” Herron said. “You still have to do Shakespeare, you still have to do math and social studies,” but there’s the freedom to allow students to explore their passions and “support that passion and also give them transferable skills.” At Mercy, the faith-based mission of the high school adds special attention to character development, self-awareness, and connecting to something bigger than one’s self—all recognized tenets of strong social-emotional learning programs. In fact, said Herron, competence, compassion, and empathy are the three ideals on which all education at Mercy is centered. “We want to provide for our students not just skills to make a living, but life skills,” Welsh said. Freedom to Try New Things Despite seemingly very specific career tracks, Herron said it is important that Mercy is “preparing our students for jobs that don’t exist yet,” which means constantly reviewing curricula with career advisory counsels several times each year to make sure students are getting the most relevant, current, and, most importantly, well-rounded instruction. “Where some of our [students’] parents and grandparents are in one career path their entire lives, our students will not be,” she said. “I applaud the push the country’s going through now, wanting the students to be employable. Our students are marketable, they’re ready to be employees,” Walsh said. But despite the fact that all of the students graduate with both work experience and professional certifications in their fields, most actually go on to pursue some type of higher education, school officials said. Many choose to work while pursuing additional degrees or certificates—95% of the school’s population is considered at-risk and come from low-income families—but the majority enroll in community college or four-year institutions right after graduation. And that is exactly the idea, Herron said. “We don’t want their education to stop here, we want it to continue in some form,” she said, adding that most students will stay in the city of Philadelphia, and school leaders hope students will invest their skills into the city. Herron said one of the keys to success at Mercy is having faculty members who are “always looking for student success, and that’s what we’re about. Anything we can do around student success … if it’s legal and moral and we can afford it, then we can try it.” “That’s the beauty of an independent school,” she said: having the flexibility to say, “if it’s for the betterment of students, then let’s try it.” The “let’s try it” attitude permeates to students, too. “They’re going to be out in the workforce soon enough; we want them to be able to go out and take risks,” said Lori Aument, who co-leads the business program with her cousin, Mary Ruskey. As a result, she said, students show a lot more extra initiative outside of school. “I just feel like they’re taking these little incremental steps and getting more confidence,” she continued. “Those are the kinds of employees people want,” she added. But it isn’t just the students who are learning to take risks and learn, experiment, repeat. “We had to reconfigure the way that we teach,” Ruskey said. “We’re no longer the center of attention [in the classroom]. We’re now facilitators who are here to empower them to be changemakers.” “We’re all learning,” she added. “They’re all teaching us.” Autumn A. Arnett is the editor of Education Dive, an online publication that provides news, trends, jobs listings and resources for educators and administrators in higher education and K12. She has contributed to a number of publications, most recently Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, HBCU Digest and The Atlantic, largely around issues of diversity and access in higher education.
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