During the past several years, Washougal School District’s (WSD) career and technical education (CTE) program has seen substantial growth.
The program currently has 201 students, an all-time high, and more than 100 business partners.
But in order for the program to expand its local partnerships to gain insight into the needs of industries, it must continually undergo self-evaluation. In this effort, Washougal High School CTE director Margaret Rice and her teachers are assisted by program advisory committees, which help to provide direction, set standards and access resources.
“Maybe we have been teaching something for a really long time and there’s no longer jobs available (in that industry),” Rice said. “We need to look at what we’re doing and what we need to change, and that’s part of what our advisories do. We put our courses in front of our advisories every year with economic data, and they help us to make that determination.”
Members of those committees, along with Washougal-area employers, business leaders and educators, came together on Thursday, Oct. 17, at Washougal High School to help WSD’s CTE program leverage existing offerings to prepare students for future employment.
“(Businesses) can help us by making sure that the standards that we’re assessing the students by are the standards that they are looking for, and we can help connect them with students that are leaving our system, graduating and looking for gainful employment,” Rice said. “It’s a win-win. The more we can work together with them, the better.”
WSD’s CTE program offers classes in business, marketing, finance, culinary arts, metals, wood manufacturing and technology, small engine technology, digital video and print communication, American Sign Language, STEM and health sciences.
“And I’m currently working on developing a pathway for education training and human services,” Rice said. “We’re always looking at the job trends and the students’ interests so that when we’re developing those programs, we have student (engagement) and we’re also putting them in classes where there are going to be jobs available when they finish. The hope is that as we build these pathways, we also provide students with the opportunity for dual credit so they can get college and high school credit and certifications.”
Keynote speaker Brock Smith, the executive vice president of business development at Utah-based Precision Exams, works with local and state education and workforce development agencies to connect workforce and CTE programs to help students make more informed decisions about their career options.
“I feel very connected to this program through (Rice) and to Washougal because of the level of engagement and participation that we have,” Smith said. “These types of events are top-notch because you’re getting real, local employers involved at the grass-roots, standard level. If an employer can identify with a set of knowledge and skills that’s applicable to their workforce, then everybody benefits.”
Smith said Washougal High has “one of the strongest career technical education programs” he’s seen.
“Especially considering the size of the school and the area, the fact that they’re able to get so many local partners involved, and they’re able to have so much success with the programs that they have, (Washougal) is clearly best-in-class in a number of different ways,” he said. “The leadership they have from the traditional programs all the way up through the district, just from my experience, they’re all on the same page and they all share the same vision and mission.”
Smith said the program aims to connect students with local employers who are looking for workers with certain skills or aspirations.
“CTE programs answer the questions that we all asked in school: ‘When am I going to use this? Why am I learning this?’ Our mission as a company is to answer (those questions),” he said. “We love to partner with rock stars like (Rice) because she has the partnerships and she brings everyone together, and she’s not promoting a single product or a single business. She’s doing what’s right for the students, which is also a win-win for workforce development because making sure that the right people end up looking at those local companies for future employment is huge for these partnerships.”
Precision Exams, which partners with schools throughout the United States to certify the knowledge, skills and aptitude that students gain in CTE programs, provides a “standards ratings tool” on its website that allows industry professionals to provide feedback on standards of individual certifications. Employers can also partner with Precision Exams to identify certifications that are valuable first steps toward a career into their industry.
“I think one of the things that makes it difficult for employers to get engaged is they’re all super busy, and they don’t understand sometimes that they can get engaged in a matter of five or 10 minutes online. They don’t have to come into the school,” Smith said.
“There’s an electrical company here (in Washougal) — Kitchen Electric. They have a really hard time finding employees, just like every company right now, unemployment being at all-time lows,” Smith said. “Just as an anecdotal example, they’re excited to go in and rate those standards and provide their company information through (our) website. We’ll then take that information, and (Rice) and her teachers will convey that to her students in those appropriate classes.”
WSD’s CTE program partners with local businesses in several ways, Rice said.
“Whether it’s with advisories or our pathway conferences or the career fairs at the middle school or volunteer fairs, there’s a variety of things that we do,” she said. “(Through) internships, we have students who are in worksite learning that are out working in businesses. We can reach out to a number of partners and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing X. Would you be interested?’ or ‘Would you be interested in talking to students about this?’ We also have folks (who) come in and do guest speaking in classrooms and things like that.”
The average high school graduation rate for students concentrating in CTE programs is 93 percent compared to an average national graduation rate of 80 percent, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education.
“Washougal already has an extremely high graduation rate, (higher) than the national and state average,” Smith said. “Part of the reason is career and technical education helps graduate more kids, and almost two-thirds of those (students) are going to go onto college as well. It’s not either-or. It’s not just vocational. These classes help students do well in all of their programs and help those going to college as well.”
WSD has adopted the Washington State Board of Education’s High School and Beyond Plan, which requires students to work with counselors and advisers over the course of several years to create and follow personalized, post-secondary and career “pathways.”
“Students are really having an opportunity to look at their interests, their aptitudes, what they’re good at, what they like, and connecting to those to careers,” Rice said. “Then we’re really being intentional about teaching around those things so they have intentional time to research not only what kinds of careers are out there, but what kinds of post-secondary education they need and what coursework would help them in high school as well. Students are being more intentional about what they’re taking and how it interests them.”