Dean McGee’s parents had his future mapped out: He’d finish high school, join the family’s carpet-laying business, and earn enough money to support himself.
But those plans changed after McGee took a vocational course in his junior year at South High School in Bakersfield, Calif., where about a quarter of the residents have only a high school diploma and more than a third did not graduate high school.
“I had to show up four days a week to a local banking and finance company, and everybody was wearing shirts and ties, and the ladies were dressed nicely—and that’s the first real exposure I had to a white-collar job,” said McGee, now the deputy superintendent of educational services and innovative programs for the Kern High School district, in Bakersfield.
“I got involved in education and decided to go to college because I saw there’s a whole other world out there beyond what I had experienced.”
That’s the kind of transformative experience McGee is now creating for low-income students and those with disabilities in the Kern High School district, where he has tripled the size, staff, scope, and number of students enrolled in career-and-technical education programs. The district offers nearly 40 career pathways, from finance and education to medical research and industrial robotics. All the programs provide paths to associate degrees and industry certification, and many have dual-credit arrangements with local colleges.
Kern, the state’s largest high school system, serves more than 42,000 students in the mostly agricultural area of the southern San Joaquin Valley.
The community faces entrenched poverty, and in more recent years, the school district itself has faced major challenges with school safety issues—in particular, incidents of sexual harassment and assaults and related lawsuits.
Against that difficult backdrop, McGee has become a powerful advocate for students who are often overlooked, no matter where they attend school.
“We want to teach students skills and get them excited about hands-on career opportunities to allow them to envision a future that they may not have followed because nobody in their family has gone to college,” McGee said.
A step up for students with disabilities
One of McGee’s signature achievements is expanding CTE opportunities for students with disabilities in vocational areas that would allow many to live independently after high school.
That’s critical at a time when a little more than a third of California adults with disabilities have full-time jobs, less than half the employment rate of their peers without disabilities, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities. By contrast, 55 percent of students with disabilities who graduated from Kern’s career-education programs last year are working full time.
The district has focused on helping students with disabilities—even those with moderate to severe ones like autism—get exposure to a wider range of career options and to learn to advocate for themselves in the workplace, McGee said.
“I can remember a time when students with special needs weren’t encouraged to go to our regional training program,” he said. “I think the most important thing for us is about that mindset paradigm shift, because special education is only a designation that identifies special supports and services to help those kids access their general education. Every teacher, every facility, every training program must be able to welcome all students into their class, recognizing that some students may need more support than others.”
Kern’s newest career center for students with disabilities, the 19,000-square-foot Journey Career Center, offers career tracks for students with moderate to severe disabilities in areas like culinary and graphic arts, welding, and construction, in class sizes no larger than 15.
“The whole purpose of [Journey] is to give [special education students] hands-on experience so that they can be successful working beyond high school,” McGee said. “It’s also an opportunity to orient them to that type of classroom environment.”
Students who develop workplace skills at Journey can also transfer to programs across the district’s other career programs. Nearly half of Kern’s more than 5,200 students with disabilities participate in all 38 of the district’s career-education programs.
The district partners with more than 100 local businesses and groups to place juniors and seniors in jobs in their fields, and Journey provides one-on-one support for each student as they enter the workforce, including assistive technologies for students with communication and physical difficulties.
Students with disabilities now make up more than 16 percent of students in the career tracks, compared with just over 12 percent of the district’s overall enrollment.
“Dr. McGee has been the driving force ensuring that students with disabilities are considered general education students first and foremost and given every opportunity to achieve the full social and academic experience,” said Principal Ryan Coleman of Centennial High School.
Building intergenerational careers
McGee spent 36 years working his way up the ranks in Kern, starting as a biology and English teacher, then moving to dean of students, principal, and, finally, district administrator.
In his first principalship, he supervised the same career-technical program that gave him his initial glimpse of the broader work world. But it also made him realize the drawbacks of the district’s existing CTE offerings. Only about 800 students participated districtwide in 2014, and most of the classes did not qualify for A-G certification—the system used by the California State and University of California campuses to determine if courses meet minimum eligibility standards for freshman admission.
By the time he was tapped to lead the newly created educational services and innovative programs office in 2016, “I hit the ground running, because I had probably 27 years’ worth of opinions on how we needed to expand career training and support students in those programs,” he said.
That year McGee helped usher through a $70 million bond to build Journey and expand CTE on other campuses. Kern also has expanded services for about 12,000 adults through adult education centers, which, in addition to diploma courses, offer courses leading to industry certifications, citizenship classes, and English-language instruction for the majority-Hispanic community.
McGee also used community surveys and focus groups to show that there was widespread support to expand CTE and use state funding to cover the programs’ ongoing operational costs.
I think the most important thing for us is about that mindset paradigm shift, because special education is only a designation that identifies special supports and services to help those kids access their general education.
But staffing the new programs was a big challenge.
“You couldn’t get a welding teacher because welders were making $80,000 or $90,000 a year,” he said. “They weren’t going to come be a new teacher for $40,000.”
McGee is developing a “grow-your-own” program that hires industry veterans and trains them to be teachers, with ongoing mentoring support during their first two years teaching. Kern also now provides pay-scale credit for CTE teachers’ time in their fields, not just in college or teaching.
“Our salaries have become competitive, and that was never the case before,” he said. “We’ve had close to 100 percent retention” of career-education teachers since the program started.
Bryan Campoy, the dean of students at West High School, praised McGee’s thoughtfulness.
“He’s just done so much,” Campoy said. “His creativity really drives him.”
Campoy noted, for example, that because school commutes can top an hour in some areas, McGee ensured buses transporting CTE students to and from their home schools have Wi-Fi and laptops to allow them to study or do homework en route.
The district is already considering building another career-education school—more than 1,200 students are wait-listed for CTE programs—but McGee is planning carefully to make sure there’s staff and space to support new programs.
“I think my biggest problem has been wanting to do too much, too fast,” he said. “We’ve been so successful in our expansion, and people want us to expand again, but there comes a point where you have to slow things down a bit, to create alternatives and rationales for those options. Success comes from acting on an opportunity that’s concrete, relevant, and timely for our kids.”
McGee also has moved from his own family’s carpeting business to a new one in education: All three of his children have also graduated from Kern; two now teach English in the district, and another graduated from college in May, with degrees in economics and vocal performing arts.
Coverage of students with learning differences and issues of race, opportunity, and equity is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as Building Skills for Independent Lives: A Leader’s Vision for Students With Disabilities