Career PATHS: Portland tech school pushes for more students

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PORTLAND — There are times Michael Johnson wonders why Portland Arts and Technology High School isn’t bursting at the seams.

If he had it his way, the school director would have a waiting list for every program as students jockey to get into classes that prepare them to enter a skilled trade after high school.

“This country needs to do better putting emphasis on skills for trades,” Johnson said late last Friday morning as students arrived by bus for the afternoon session.

Portland Arts and Technology High School, or PATHS, offers 21 different programs for 506 students who travel to Portland from as far away as Wells, Yarmouth and Gray. Programs range from automotive technology, plumbing and welding to health science careers, dance and fashion merchandising.

The school can accommodate nearly 100 more students.

Johnson said more than 300 students have recently visited PATHS and the school plans to host 75 student visits per week for the next month.

“These are unprecedented numbers,” he said.

The goal, Johnson said, is to reach full enrollment of 600 students and have a waiting list for each program within the next three years.

Johnson’s push to increase enrollment comes at a time state legislators are considering a bill that would expand access to career and technical education for students who attend one of the 27 CTE centers across the state. The changes proposed would break down barriers that often prevent students from attending CTE centers, Johnson said.

Changes on the horizon

The Legislature’s Education Committee has been working with LD 1865, “An Act to Enhance Career and Technical Education,” the first of four bills that are part of Gov. Paul LePage’s education agenda.

The Education Committee voted 10-1 Monday in support of the bill, which now moves on to the full Legislature for consideration.

The legislation requires school districts that share a career and technical education center to develop a common school calendar with no more than five dissimilar days. The change is based on feedback from school officials – including Johnson at PATHS – who say scheduling conflicts interfere with students’ ability to attend CTE classes.

The bill also ensures students will receive credit from their high schools for courses taken at CTE schools. Under the legislation, sending schools would have to ensure bus schedules don’t prevent students from participating in the full number of hours of instruction at the CTE school.

This is particularly important as schools move to fully embrace national industry standards that may require a minimum number of instruction hours, according to the Maine Department of Education.

The bill also requires the community college system to review courses and award college credit to students who complete college-level work at a CTE school.

On Monday, the Education Committee made minor amendments to LD 1865 to delay implementation by one year and to initiate conversations with the University of Maine system about awarding college credit.

Consideration of the bill follows recent unanimous Education Committee support of legislation that moves the state’s CTE programs toward full adoption of national industry standards. That bill was passed by the House and Senate.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen testified March 13 before the Education Committee in favor of LD 1865. He said changes proposed by the legislation “will expand access to our CTE schools and ensure that students completing CTE coursework have greater access to post-secondary opportunities.”

“We know that these programs provide students with knowledge and training that is not only important to the students themselves, but is critical for Maine’s economic future,” Bowen said. “We know that there are employers out there right now, prepared to hire, if only they could find the skilled workforce they need.”

Donald Cannan, executive director of Maine Administrators of Career and Technical Education, also testified at the Education Committee public hearing in favor of LD 1865. He said in an interview last week he supports the legislation because expanding access to career and technical education is a priority for the organization, which oversees the 27 CTE centers in Maine.

“I think CTE has real strong promise for our kids the learn the math and literacy skills they need specifically to go to work,” Cannan said. “… We don’t have any skilled workers any more.”

A Harvard Research Institute study, “Pathways to Prosperity,” recommends educators place a stronger focus on vocational education instead of aiming to send all students to college. According to the study, 63 percent of the 47 million job openings in the decade ending in 2018 will require some college. Nearly half of those positions require an associate’s degree or less.

The study says “virtually all of the sub-BA jobs will require the kinds of real-world skills students master in career and technical education.”

Cannan said it is more common for high schools to focus on college prep, which allows students to graduate without the technical skills needed to go directly into the workforce.

“I think one of the travesties in education is we don’t talk about the world of work,” he said.

Ready to work

Johnson is all too happy to talk about the world of work.

As he walks through the cavernous trades building that houses the automotive, welding, plumbing and other programs, he watches students work to shingle a shed, fix an engine and remove rust from a bumper.

“With this economy, kids are graduating from four-year colleges and can’t find jobs. Guidance counselors, parents and kids are beginning to see people in trades – plumbers, nurses, chefs – are working,” Johnson said. “People are saying, ‘I want to graduate high school with a skill.’ When you graduate from PATHS you have a skill and you’ve opened doors for yourself wide open.”

Johnson said PATHS would like to expand its programs to include pre-pharmacy and pre-engineering options. He called a pre-pharmacy program a “no-brainer” considering the close proximity of the University of New England’s new College of Pharmacy.

Many local students are heading to college engineering programs and would benefit from getting a jump start on their studies, he said.

“It would be a great opportunity to get their hands dirty,” he said.

Though many students earn national certification in their chosen industry while attending PATHS, that does not mean they won’t further their education after graduation, Johnson said. Many students choose to earn an associate’s degree, a process that becomes easier if they earn college credit for work they’ve already completed, he said.

Johnson said one of the biggest barriers to educating more students at CTE is trying to make schedules that allow them to come to PATHS while still completing diploma requirements at the sending high school. Allowing students to earn credits for traditional courses – math, science and English, for example – will encourage more students to consider CTE programs a viable option, he said.

“I know there is as much science under the hood of an automobile than in the classroom of any high school,” he said.

Johnson said added flexibility in scheduling would make it easier to attract students like Donald Morrell of Buxton. The Bonny Eagle High School student is attending a semester-long program at PATHS to learn more about his desired career as an auto mechanic.

“I wanted to do an auto class because working on cars is something I like to do” but is not offered at Bonny Eagle, Morrell said as he helped fellow student John Cogswell remove an oil pan from a car.

Seeing students enjoy their education while preparing for their future is something that continually amazes Johnson.

“When I walk through this building it is extremely rare to not see 100 percent of the kids 100 percent engaged. The beauty of that is they’re 100 percent engaged in something that is authentic and something they’re passionate about,” he said. “It’s a school full of electives – every kid wants to be here.”

Gillian Graham can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @grahamgillian.

Sidebar Elements

Zac Gillette of South Portland removes rust from a car bumper at Portland Arts and Technology High School. Career and technical education programs available at the school range from automotive collision technology to fashion merchandising.

John Cogswell, left, and Donald Morrell, both from Bonny Eagle High School in Buxton, remove an oil pan from a car at Portland Arts and Technology High School. Morrell said he enrolled in a semester-long automotive technology class because he wants to be a mechanic after graduating from high school.