When students enter Perry High School’s cosmetology classroom, they probably wonder whether they’ve stumbled into an actual salon instead. The first thing they see is a front desk and a waiting area, and beyond that, there are rows and rows of salon chairs and mirrors.
It’s a Friday morning in the first week of May, and a few of the students in Corina Bonsall’s cosmetology class are watching her demonstrate how to properly do a manicure, some are working on hairstyling and haircutting on training mannequins, and others are working on a financial management course on their laptops.
“We get to do a lot of hands-on stuff,” said Sarah Redwood, a 9th grade cosmetology student. “It’s much more interesting [than other classes] because I’m doing what I want to do in life [while] in high school. I already know what I’m going to do once I get out of high school because we graduate with our cosmetology license.”
Cosmetology is just one of 16 career and technical education pathways in Pittsburgh Public Schools that prepare students for careers in high-demand fields. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment of barbers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists is projected to grow 11 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations.
Pittsburgh’s career and technical education students gain hands-on experiences as they learn the skills needed in those 16 career pathways, and they earn industry certifications and college credits. They also participate in paid internships or other work-based learning opportunities that are often outside of regular school hours.
Across the country, school districts and states are expanding CTE programs as more Americans say schools should put a higher priority on preparing students for careers and basic life skills. So far, 42 states have signed the Common Career Technical Core, a commitment to expand CTE programs and make them more rigorous, according to Advance CTE, a national nonprofit that represents state career-technical education directors.
The most popular career clusters, or groups of similar career pathways, were health science; agriculture, food, and natural resources; business management and administration; arts, A/V technology, and communications; and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in 2020-21, the most recent year with available U.S. Department of Education data.
In the Pittsburgh school district, the most popular fields are health care, cosmetology, carpentry, culinary arts, and automotive technology. The district’s 16 career pathways were chosen from an approved list provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Education based on what’s in demand in the Pittsburgh area, according to Angela Mike, the executive director of the program. For example, the newest pathway the district added four years ago is early-childhood education, which is in high demand in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the United States. The CTE department drops a career pathway when there’s low enrollment and less demand for those jobs.
CTE jump-starts postsecondary plans
In Pittsburgh, every CTE student graduates with at least one industry certification and has a post-graduation plan, Mike said. In the CTE class of 2023, which has 118 students, 86 percent are planning to attend a 2- or 4-year college, 8 percent are going straight into the workforce, 5 percent have been accepted to a trade union, and 1 percent are going into the military.
“I tell [the students], you cannot leave me unless you have a confirmed plan,” Mike said. “I cannot let you go out the door still trying to figure out what your next move is.”
The mission of the program is to make sure every CTE student leaves with a clear understanding of how they will make the most of their skills in the workplace and how they will advance their education, Mike said. Having industry certifications could give students a leg up on other applicants. And in Pittsburgh, CTE courses can also count as college credits so students can bypass certain classes if they decide to go to the district’s partner colleges, such as Community College of Allegheny County, Carlow University, and Rosedale Technical College, or community colleges that have partnered with the state of Pennsylvania.
Mike, who graduated from the district’s cosmetology pathway in 1988, knows firsthand the benefits of going through the CTE program. In 10th grade, she earned her manicurist license and was able to start working at a nail salon. In 12th grade, she earned her cosmetologist license and started working as a stylist at a hair salon, where she eventually became the manager. But after her cosmetology teacher encouraged her to come back and help other students like her, Mike got a degree in education and began teaching in the same school she attended.
The requirements for every student to graduate with at least one industry certification was not in place when Mike was a student. In the 2010-11 school year, her first year leading the program, only 6 percent of students earned industry certifications, Mike said.
Pittsburgh’s approach on industry credentials is a significant step beyond most CTE programs in the country, said Kate Kreamer, the deputy executive director of Advance CTE. Typically, programs simply encourage, but do not require, students to get industry certifications.
Kreamer did caution that not all certifications are created equal. “There are a lot of certifications out there that have really different qualities in terms of whether employers actually value them—are they using them in hiring decisions and salary decisions and advancement decisions?”
Even though students graduate with the hard skills—or job-specific knowledge—needed for a certain career, some of Pittsburgh’s business and community partners have noted that students need a lot of work on their soft skills, such as communication, collaboration, and other social skills.
The CTE department is planning a few professional development sessions next school year to tackle this challenge, Mike said. The sessions will focus on building effective communication through written, verbal, and non-verbal skills. They will also work on critical thinking, time management, and cultural knowledge. Teachers will then use project-based learning to help students learn and practice these skills in their CTE classes.
Teachers are the ‘heartbeat’ of the program
It’s a lively atmosphere of collaborative talking and the sounds of buzzing tools at work in the automotive technology classroom at Brashear High School as students work on different hands-on tasks under the supervision of their teacher, Stephen Szumetz. There’s a student changing the brake pads and rotors on a Dodge Caravan, another student is cutting a brake rotor to the right thickness, and some students are working on wheel alignment and tire balancing.
While CTE staff members do everything they can to ensure the program has the resources it needs to succeed, it’s really teachers like Szumetz who are “the heartbeat of this program,” Mike said.
The CTE educators come from the same industries that they’re teaching. For instance, Szumetz worked as a mechanic for Ford and Mazda prior to becoming a teacher. They keep up with what’s happening in those fields, they keep their certifications updated, and they keep their curriculum fresh to ensure students are learning what they need to thrive in those careers, Mike said.
The teachers’ expertise in their fields means that they know best when students need new equipment to learn on. When teachers tell Mike that they need a new tool, she and her staff figure out a way to get it.
For example, the automotive technology class recently got a hybrid 2022 Ford Escape so that students can start learning how to work on electric and hybrid vehicles. The class also has other high-end machines that are not available at some automotive repair shops, said Szumetz. Hands-on practice with those machines prepares students for automotive mechanic jobs that increasingly rely on digital technology, he added.
The teachers’ connections in the various industries also help provide students with internships or other work-based learning opportunities. Thomas Lipovsky, who teaches the automotive body repair course, has hundreds of contacts in the auto industry. He uses those contacts to match students with job opportunities.
“I know my kids pretty good. I have a good rapport with them,” Lipovsky said. He ensures the student and the business are a good fit, because “one bad fit and the chances are they won’t take any more students.”
Students emphasize that teachers are a big part of what makes the program successful. In fact, when asked what they like most about their CTE program, their teacher is usually at the top of the list.
“It’s a lot easier, especially when you’re struggling on a certain subject, to be able to get personalized teaching [in the CTE classes], rather than just generalized for the entire class,” said Robert Catone, a senior in the engineering CTE pathway who is waiting to be accepted into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ apprenticeship program.
Recruiting students is a challenge
Robin Campbell runs her health careers classroom like a real-life hospital. Her students sign in on a timesheet, they grab their clipboards with their tasks for the day, and then they change into their scrubs. Toward the back of the classroom, there’s a makeshift emergency room with mannequins on hospital beds for students to practice their skills. But it’s the end of the school day and some of her students are just waiting for the bell to ring so they can get to their after-school jobs as patient-care technicians or certified nursing assistants at nearby health-care centers, such as Allegheny Health Network and Presbyterian Senior Care Network. Those kinds of after-school jobs are available to students in the CTE program.
At the Allegheny Health Network, “at first, they show us the ropes and then we get to do it ourselves. And after the program ends, we still get to work. So it’s a learning opportunity and it’s a job,” said one health careers student, who plans to work full-time as a patient care technician after high school.
While a lot of the students said they picked their CTE pathway because they wanted to be in those careers, there are students who appear to have just stumbled into it or picked whatever was the most interesting option. For instance, a student in the automotive body repair pathway said she was not especially interested in cars but learning how to repair cars was intriguing to her.
Mike said that recruiting students to attend the program can be challenging because they have to overcome the stereotype that CTE is just for students who don’t have the academic skills or financial resources to attend college.
“One of the biggest myths about career and technical education students is that they do not go on to postsecondary,” Mike said. “That is so far away from the truth. Most of them start in an industry, and then they do have to get some type of additional postsecondary training to move up that [career] ladder.”
CTE students say they’re tired of hearing people reinforce that stereotype. While Mike was talking about the stereotype, one automotive repair student overheard her and said “yes, I’m tired of hearing that.”
It’s a stigma that plagues CTE programs nationally, Kreamer said.
To change the perspective of parents, students, and even staff within the district, Pittsburgh CTE officials ensure that they highlight the CTE students’ achievements: their certifications, their grades, and their postsecondary plans.
Julius Romano, 23, graduated from the district’s multimedia production and coding CTE program in 2018. Now he works as a web developer for a marketing company in Warrendale, Pa., just north of Pittsburgh.
“Everything I do for my current job, I can do with the knowledge I learned from that class,” Romano said.
The class simulated a work environment really well, Romano said. Students could run ideas by each other and help each other with projects. Most importantly, the class taught him how to learn, “which is so important once you’re in the workforce,” he said.
“When I first got hired, I had pretty much zero training,” Romano said. “Coming from the [multimedia production and coding class] environment, I was pretty prepared for it.”
Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2023 edition of Education Week as Everyone Earns an Industry Certification and Most Go to College in This CTE Program