Sara Parris is in her sixth year of teaching at Burlington High School, and she still has the gavel she made in Metals 1, a class she took in 2007 when she was a BHS freshman.

“I still have my gavel, I still have my class coin, I still have my table, I still have my jewelry box, my bookshelf that I put together,” she said. “One thing I always talk to people about CTE classes … you can leave with a real box. You can 3-D print your keychain. You can use the laser and laser something out. You get tangible items that you’ll end up having forever.”

Ms. Parris first discovered her passion for career and technical education in Joe Spillane’s class in the basement of Oak Street Middle School. She remembers well stamping her name into a wooden heart, making CO2 race cars, and moving her desk to accommodate for her left-handedness when using a t-square to hand draft letters.

“I just loved it. It was so much fun,” she said. “And that was 2006, and I heard you could take the classes at BHS and I signed up for all of them. … I didn’t take engineering classes. Joke’s on me because now I’m teaching engineering.”

Instead she took Metals 1 and 2 with Tom Buckman and Woodworking 1 and 2 with Pat Pickford.

“At that time, that’s all you could take,” Ms. Parris said.

“There weren’t the same options now as there were when we were here,” added James Flaherty, who also graduated from BHS in 2010 and now teaches music there.

Vocational education had held a prominent place in high schools throughout the U.S. until the late 1990s and early 2000s. Beginning in the 1980s, states had begun to increase the number of courses required for high school graduation and began mandating students take additional courses in core academic areas.

That, combined with declining funding and a growing trend in pushing young people toward four-year degrees, along with the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on learning to test, resulted in a sharp decline in CTE interest. According to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., the number of CTE credits earned by students in U.S. high schools dropped 14% from 1990 to 2009.

The consequences of that shift in focus quickly became apparent in the workforce.

“We don’t have the people who can do things with their hands,” Director of District Services Brian Johnson said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean pounding a nail or welding or baking a cake. It’s people who can do those skills plus design and those kinds of things, and the business people who can do some of those things well, plus practical skills.

“At the university level, you have a lot more theory and not so much practical stuff is taught, so you have that skill gap.”

And thus the pendulum began to swing back toward CTE.

“Now more businesses and industries are saying you don’t have to go to college to be successful and have a good-paying career,” Mr. Johnson said. “They would rather you probably get further education, whether that’s with them through their training program or whether it’s a combination of on-the-job with additional training through community college or technical school.”

Burlington further bolstered its industrial tech offerings and began adding more CTE pathways. BHS students now have 12 CTE pathways with robust course offerings they can pursue, with the possibility of more in the future.

Students are able to further dive into CTE by joining a number of clubs like National Technical Honor Society, DECA, Technology Student Association and HOSA — Future Health Professionals — that allow them to put their CTE skills to the test in competitions.

“The size of our school allows us to be a little bit more robust in our pathways because of our size and having the students and the teaching staff to allow us to do those things,” Mr. Johnson said. “Part of it is the ongoing support that our district has for those programs.”

Pathways are:

BHS’s most recently added pathways are Public Safety and Health Science.

“One of the reasons our Health Occupations program was added is because there’s such a need for healthcare workers in our area. Same thing with Public Safety,” Mr. Johnson said. “There’s such a demand for workers in those areas.”

Mr. Johnson also is looking at the possibility of incorporating industry-recognized certification and credentialing into existing programs.

“I think we’ve kind of just scratched the surface on the work we’re doing,” he said.

Students in Kyle Krieger’s Construction Trades class work on a three-car garage for an area resident. They started the project this past spring and completed it Nov. 1.
Students in Kyle Krieger’s Construction Trades class work on a three-car garage for an area resident. They started the project this past spring and completed it Nov. 1.

Unleashing passion & purpose with CTE

CTE does more than prepare students to enter the workforce. It gives them the hands-on training they need to apply academics to practical situations and shows them there are different learning styles.

“You can teach kids very book-smarty things and they’re really great at learning them, but then we’ll say, ‘OK, you’re going to go put this drywall together, you are going to plumb this toilet, you are going to fix this sink,’ and then on the engineering side, it’s important because kids learn how things are made,” she said. “In manufacturing, we talk about supply and demand, and we do that in woods (classes), too, like why is some wood more expensive than other wood? CTE does a good job of applying all of those core thoughts into it.”

There’s also plenty of math and science, like what happens if you mix polyurethane with sawdust and what happens if you mix and melt different metals.

Ms. Parris ticked off a long list of names of former CTE students who have gone on to study architecture at Iowa State University and engineering at the University of Iowa. Another is doing medical research at John Hopkins, and another is at Boeing Aerospace.

“We do have a good amount of kids who take our classes and find their passion,” she said.

One such student is Aiden Woodsmall, a BHS senior, who estimates he has taken eight Health Science classes in preparation for pursuing a nursing degree at SCC.

“That’s the main thing (CTE in high school) probably helps with,” Woodsmall said just before the start of his Medical Terminology class, explaining that BHS’s Health Science pathways has helped him decide on his career path.

A seventh-grader learns to use a power drill with some help from an expert in the industry May 9 at the Des Moines County Fairgrounds on Southeastern Community College’s West Burlington campus during the second annual Build My Future event.

SEIBA Build My Future event recognized for community impact

Burlington Community School District Director of District Services Brian Johnson and the Southeast Iowa Builders Association were recognized Jan. 26 during the Greater Burlington Partnership’s Annual Dinner with a Community Impact Award for putting on an event aimed at exposing middle schoolers to construction careers.

The SEIBA Build My Future event that took place this past May at the Des Moines County Fairgrounds on Southeastern Community College’s West Burlington campus drew between five and six hundred seventh-graders from multiple districts.

“A big part of SEIBA is getting people interested in going into fields related to construction, whether that’s builders to suppliers to bankers,” said Mr. Johnson, who serves on the SEIBA board as well as its education subcommittee.

Build My Future events are held throughout the U.S. and traditionally are set up more like hands-on career fairs for high school students. Mr. Johnson believed it would be beneficial to target a younger demographic.

“A lot of times, kids, by the time they reach high school, they already have the stereotypes of what construction is or what they think it is, so I said you’ve kind of got to catch them early, especially with construction,” Mr. Johnson said.

About 30 local companies who volunteered to be exhibitors were asked to develop and create a hands-on activity for the students. The resulting exhibits were split up into four categories:

“Educators were delighted to see students from all backgrounds actively participating and discovering career opportunities through hands-on learning,” the GBP said of Build My Future. “From hammering nails to cracking open geodes, these experiences made a lasting impact.

“Build My Future isn’t just an event; it’s an innovative and inspiring initiative, paving the way for our youth to explore promising careers essential for our community’s future success.”

Mr. Johnson expects this year’s event to be even bigger.

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