Four decades ago, Wilbur Palmer had a vision for a different kind of education in Hudson. The school should offer vocational courses in agriculture, Palmer decided. After dismantling and rebuilding a pair of greenhouses on campus, the school’s Career Technical Institute was born, and Palmer became its first director.
Today, the Wilbur H. Palmer Career and Technical Education Center offers much more than agricultural training. From culinary arts and digital media to veterinary science and welding, the school offers second- and third-year students a wide range of professional training options.
“We have incredible teachers,” said Eric Frauwirth, the current director of the vocational and technical training program. “We have an incredible facility with incredible equipment.”
It’s a progression common to many schools: Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs across New Hampshire have grown in recent decades, expanding from their agrarian origins to include modern industries such as health care administration, computer science and video production.
This year, as students return to school, the New Hampshire Department of Education is looking to further strengthen CTE programs. The state has accepted a grant to turn alumni of the programs into ambassadors, who can reach college students from all corners of the state and promote the programs. The Executive Council approved an extension of this grant on August 17.
The $20,000 grant will require the state to target messaging to students and parents, with the goal of “closing gaps in access and equity for families historically marginalized from participation in CTE programs,” says the contract. Grants are provided by Advance CTE, a national nonprofit organization focused on strengthening state programs.
“We strongly believe that CTE programs are not just about learning skills and choosing a particular career path, but also about exploring a career and figuring out what you do and what you don’t,” said Stacy Whitehouse, Senior Associate for Communications and State Engagement. at Advance CTE, in an interview. “And to be exposed to careers that rural students sometimes don’t have the opportunity to be exposed to until much later in life.”
With or without statewide outreach efforts, CTE programs are growing in popularity in New Hampshire, administrators say. Many programs have waiting lists and most classes fill up quickly.
The Palmer Center in Hudson already sends student ambassadors to colleges to share their experiences. Last year, the ambassadors met with seventh graders from across the region with a new theme each month, from manufacturing to science to criminal justice. Those efforts were aided by renovations the school made to its CTE spaces in 2021, creating a more modern environment, administrators said.
“Our enrollment is higher than it has ever been,” Frauwirth said.
At Pinkerton Academy in Derry, vocational education dates back almost to the school’s founding in 1815, said Jennifer Haskins, director of the school’s CTE. But it has increased dramatically in recent decades. The school now offers its students and surrounding schools 18 different programs, including accounting, cosmetology, marketing, and engineering.
Haskins attributes the growing demand in part to a shift in the way educators and officials have handled programs — and their role in K-12 education.
“Four years ago, five years ago in the state, there was a huge push from the Department of Education – and also post-secondary education – on how every child should go to college . “Are you ready for college?” Said Haskins in an interview. “And so it started to become ‘career ready’.”
Today, New Hampshire has 30 ETC programs, each serving different areas of the state. Although hosted by specific schools, each program can accept students from public schools in their area. Some regions have several programs.
Courses can vary in length, but most take place over two years for sophomores and juniors. Those who complete the courses can sometimes apply their credits to colleges. Some students go on to apprenticeship programs, some to associate and bachelor’s degree programs, and some go straight into the job market.
The programs are funded largely by the federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, passed in 2006. This act places a number of requirements on the schools it funds. This forces them to tailor selections to the needs of local employers and requires programs to focus on high-wage, high-skill industries.
Employers also have a say in the development of programs. Each CTE region in the state has an advisory committee made up of school district leaders and industry representatives, who can help inform the types of courses offered based on demand in the region, Frauwirth said.
“Workforce demand is the No. 1 factor when considering a new program,” said Deb Connell, CTE program director at Fall Mountain Regional High School in Langdon. “And then you want to look at student interest.”
At Fall Mountain, this labor demand informed one of the recent expansions of its CTE program. With a pandemic need for new employees at Monadnock and Upper Valley hospitals, Fall Mountain has created a “Healthcare Enterprise” CTE course to teach skills for use in patient management specialist jobs, the secretariat and the medical office. Completion of the course will provide the student with 12 credits at River Valley Community College and provide a Medical Administrative Assistant certificate.
“They’re all thrilled because this fills an important need in our area and across the state,” Connell said of the employers.
This course now joins the school’s other offerings in horticulture, animal science, natural resources, junior reserve officer training corps, and digital design.
Amid an ongoing labor shortage, New Hampshire lawmakers have also sought to bolster CTE programs. A bill signed by Governor Chris Sununu in June, House Bill 1661, allows vocational and technical education programs to incorporate “required course skills” for students, a change that could allow CTE programs to include English, math and science courses. These courses could allow students to complete additional credits in these subjects and could replace some of these courses.
“A student who demonstrates mastery of the CTE integrated course or program competencies and who is determined to have met the academic standards of the content area required by the secondary school will have those credits counted towards the program area required for an advanced degree. ‘high school’, the law states.
HB 1661 also requires schools that host CTE programs to align their schedules with the school districts that send students, a mandate that could help standardize programs and make them more appealing to students and families.
Haskins said she anticipates schools will use this new statutory authority to create more robust CTE courses.
“What we have to decide is what we pack into this vehicle,” she said. “Can we put an English credit in, and then we can put a science credit in here so we don’t have to take a separate car to do these things, or take a separate course?”
For Haskins, vocational and technical education is not likely to replace the traditional K-12 approach. Nor will it stop many high school students from continuing to pursue college or university degrees, she said. Schools offering CTE programs are always constrained in their budgets, and most have caps that would prevent the majority of students they serve from participating.
Still, Haskins says the pressures of the pandemic have created a shift in many students’ — and parents’ — thinking about vocational education.
“Since coming out of COVID, I’ve seen a big increase in (apprenticeship) trades,” she said. “More children are interested in it. I think parents can get started now. They understand that when we couldn’t repay our student loans for two years, we wouldn’t have had student loans if we had perhaps chosen another profession.