Dean McGee has been pushing to boost the workforce readiness of the 42,000 students in the Kern High School district in Bakersfield, Calif., where more than half of adults have a high school education or less.
“The southern San Joaquin Valley is one of the lowest-educated populations across the country, and that’s why it’s imperative for us to create opportunities for students to envision themselves going to college,” said McGee, 54, Kern’s deputy superintendent of educational services and innovative programs and one of Education Week’s 2023 Leaders to Learn From.
The district massively expanded career pathways for general and special education students and ensured its programs help its mostly first-generation college-goers earn associate degrees and industry certification while still in high school.
McGee explained to Education Week how he has overcome funding and staffing challenges to make career programs a reality.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How does the career-technical education program work?
We added nearly 200,000 square feet of technical-training facilities, more than tripled the size of the staff, and, now, every single class we offer through the regional occupational programs is A-G-certified [approved by the University of California system], which means students earn college-preparation credit. Most, if not all, of the classes are articulated with a local community college or bachelor’s college program. Several also offer dual-enrollment, which allows students to envision going to college, which they may not have thought about before.
We’ve also expanded into nighttime classes for students who can’t come during the day and online hybrid classes for kids who need core classes to open up their schedules to take the career training. Because we’re drawing kids from 19 comprehensive high schools, we can take advantage of economies of scale and we’ve been able to expand to nearly 40 different career pathways.
How did you pay for such a rapid expansion in both buildings and programs?
I can remember as a principal wanting more career- and technical-training programs for kids, and the belief at the time was it takes too much money to build it and ongoing revenue to fund it, to be supported.
We attacked that. In community forums, people said they wanted kids to have more vocational training, and our kids told us in a survey of 21,000 high school students that they wanted more career-training opportunities. We were able to go after bonds and tell voters, “We believe expanding career training is critical—because you told us.” We got bonds and went after and received state grants to build facilities.
The second obstacle was ongoing operational cost. Through California’s new local-control funding- and accountability-plan formula, we were able to say our parents and our community want more career training; so, we can allocate some of our LCAP funding to pay for the operational cost.
We want kids to learn from experts who have the credibility to teach the class.
How have you found and kept qualified staff?
This was the biggest paradigm shift for us, because back when I was a teacher and administrator, we would only hire vocational-ed. teachers from the local university to come teach on our campuses. They went to college to be a teacher; they often never were really career professionals in their [industry] field.
Now, we’ll advertise that we want to hire, for example, a welder and we look at the applicants and pick the best, even if they are not a teacher. We’ll hire them in the spring and put them through a teacher-induction program over the summer so they can begin teaching in the fall. We want kids to learn from experts who have the credibility to teach the class. We give them credit in their salary schedule. For example, if we hire a new diesel-mechanics teacher with 10 years’ experience working in diesel mechanics, we grant that person 10 years of experience on the salary schedule, just as we would grant a math teacher coming to the district with 10 years of experience. That has made our salaries much more competitive with industry. We’ve had almost 100 percent retention of our teachers.
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