Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Schools Embed Classes in Cutting-Edge Businesses

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 04, 2020 8 min read
Andrew Grashof, a senior at Marcellus High School, works in a radio studio at WCNY-TV in Syracuse, N.Y., as part of an “embedded” career-technical education class at the PBS multimedia affiliate.

It’s an idea so intuitive that it’s a wonder it isn’t more widespread: If you want to better align school with the jobs of the future, why not teach some K-12 classes partly on the same sites as the businesses that are on the cutting edge?

Over the past six years, a regional educational collaborative serving three upstate New York counties has developed a unique set of these “embedded” career-technical education programs, bringing them close to the model of a teaching hospital.

Students can work on brand-new makes and models of cars at Driver’s Village, a huge car dealership and service center in Cicero, N.Y., or on multimedia broadcast programs run by WCNY-TV, a state PBS affiliate. The collaborative opened an engineering program this past September with none other than defense giant Lockheed Martin. And this coming fall, it will open up a heavy equipment operation and repair and diesel-technology program with Tracey Road Equipment, a supplier of road-construction machines.

The programs are designed so that students get the most realistic apprenticeship possible. But more than that, they also provide a glimpse into industries that are now rapidly transforming, like automotive technology, media and communications, and health care, among others.

“We wanted the most authentic learning environment for students—that was the driving force,” said Colleen Viggiano, the deputy superintendent of the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Collective Educational Services, or BOCES, that runs the programs. “The thought is that the more authentic the learning environment, the greater students’ ability to truly experience the career field and determine if that’s what they want to do.”

The OCM BOCES is one of 37 regional collaboratives in New York that provide educational programming to small districts that couldn’t otherwise afford special programs on their own.

It was already a pioneer in certain CTE best practices—like using national and local labor-market data to help determine which CTE programs to open.

But as of about a decade ago, most of the programs still were held in traditional classrooms at BOCES centers rather than at actual businesses. As the skilled trades grew increasingly sophisticated, it became difficult and costly to obtain the most up-to-date equipment for students to tinker with.

Viggiano, along with the then-superintendent of the BOCES, Jody Manning, and its CTE director, Phil Grome, started reaching out to major businesses in the counties with an unusual proposition: If the businesses could supply a classroom, dedicate some staff time, and help develop the curriculum, the BOCES would take care of hiring a teacher, providing bus transportation, and handling all of the other details so the programs could be taught on site.

The first partnership, with Driver’s Village, began in 2013 as Syracuse car dealers were fretting over a shortage of skilled automotive technicians, which they anticipated would triple in size over the next few years.

High school students in the media program observe operations in the control room at WCNY-TV.

Automotive technology still inevitably conjures up pictures of grease and spark plugs, but the cars of today, with autonomous steering, integrated electronics systems, and back-up cameras demand a much different, and more sophisticated, kind of training.

“One of the perks of having the classrooms here is they have an endless supply of used cars they can look at. It’s not an old clunker 20 other classrooms have used,” said David Hall, the fixed-operations director at Driver’s Village, who manages its repairs division. “It’ll be a 2016 Ford Explorer with real-life-scenario issues, and they can work on that car for a week or a month. If they’re done with that car, they can pull in a Toyota.”

Power of Partnerships

The bulk of the hard work of developing these pathways actually happens on the front end. OCM BOCES leaders spend a lot of time ironing out the details of the partnership, from professional expectations for students while they’re on site to liability insurance. Much of that work means assuring employers that there’s a net benefit to the partnership.

“Some of the first concerns that we get from businesses is: Is this going to be taxing for my employees? How much time is it going to take away from them? Is it going to be a burden or not allow them to do their work as efficiently as possible?” Viggiano said. “What we found out is that the employees have ended up loving it, and they feel like they’re making a legacy, leaving an impact on the next generation, and sharing the love of their craft—and it’s actually helped with their workload.”

If wary at first, most businesses quickly come around. David Hall calls the program his secret weapon; he gets an in-depth look at the students’ work skills and professionalism and the first crack at hiring the best when they’ve wrapped up their senior years. About 35 people now employed there formerly participated in the program. For WCNY, the program offers a constant supply of young people—a coveted market legacy news organizations have struggled to engage—whose generational insights they can tap as they design content and programming.

Generally speaking, students are on site either in the mornings or afternoons, and they have both regular classes and twice-a-week, hands-on experiences, which require a particular flexibility among the BOCES teachers. Kathleen Labulis, who teaches the media and communications class at WCNY, specializes in preparing students in the Adobe suite of instruments for print layout, radio editing, and video production, all skills students may encounter at the station. During their internships, for example, students can contribute columns to the station’s magazine, which have to meet the same editorial standards as other articles. They hone their radio voices on ReadOut, a radio program in which they read out selected news stories on a program for the visually impaired. That means there’s no “typical” day on site.

Kathleen Labulis, who teaches the media marketing communications class at WCNY-TV, works with Olivia Chapman, a senior from Liverpool High School.

“It absolutely depends on what is happening in the studios here,” said Labulis, who teaches the on-site classes. “We will compare and contrast what we’re learning in the classroom to what they’re actually doing. ... I try to be flexible with my curriculum as far as what’s going on in the classroom: Is the magazine going out? Are there any deadlines that we have to meet?”

All of the programs also award some college credits as well, as students get some introductory English and other typical college prerequisites taught by visiting faculty from nearby colleges.

Over the course of his time at WCNY, Alex Ladstatter helped plan a fundraiser, was an on-air host of a pledge drive, and got tips about how to project confidence on air from a local anchor he’d long looked up to, Liz Ayers. One of the projects that his cohort of students collectively spearheaded was a promotional spot for the Regents’ Review, a public television program featuring educators who help high school students get ready for the state’s all-important Regents Examinations, a graduation requirement.

He credits Labulis for having coaxed some of the shyer students out of their shells and steering them to opportunities she knew would stretch them.

“A student who never even thought he’d be on-air talent was sort of our actor for the shoot. People who had never stepped into a position of authority were directing and producing this. And some without experience editing went into that position for that project,” said Ladstatter, now a broadcast journalism major at SUNY Plattsburgh with several other news station internships under his belt. “We all were able to find these talents that we never really knew we had.”

44 percent of educators say their districts offer academic credit for internships, but most students don’t do them.

Source: EdWeek Research Center survey, 2019

The embedded programs are available to students in 23 area districts served by the BOCES. They’re generally open to all students, though students do have to meet minimum academic requirements and submit an application and references so that the BOCES can select the most interested students.

For students, there are incentives to work hard while on site, too. While all students in the embedded automotive-technology pathway will get to do some job-shadowing, the best students will get longer, more in-depth experiences—for example, on German cars or Audis or some other specialty.

‘Dreams and Aspirations’

Communication is the key to establishing good programs, the BOCES officials said. Only one of the embedded programs hasn’t worked out so far, Viggiano says, and that’s because that partner treated the BOCES as a tenant, rather than a true co-developer of the educational programming.

Where it works, though, the program not only serves local needs, but has promise for overcoming some of the lingering stigma casting CTE programs as designed for less academically strong students or those who aren’t “college material.” Telling family members that you work part-time at Lockheed Martin helps dispel some of those ideas. So, too, does informing parents of the high salaries, in the mid-$50,000 range, that automotive technicians can be making within a few years, sans college debt.

“We actually ask the parents to come to shadow and have Day One orientation, and they will come to see it and get a view of the shop and see what they’re putting their child into,” Hall said. “And we start telling the kids what type of salary they can make and every parent in the audience lifts their head up and says, ‘What!?’ ”

The specific high school-to-jobs pipeline is a little less clear for WCNY, because nearly all of the students in that pathway end up going to college first. But for the students, it’s a welcomed and unvarnished view into the industry at a difficult time in its history.

“With younger people, when they get out of programs, where do they want to go? Big cities. That can be a challenge for us,” said Debbie Stack, the vice president of education and community engagement for WCNY-TV. “If it were only our personal business pipeline, we wouldn’t succeed all that well at it.

“But are we launching their careers, their dreams and aspirations? Absolutely.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2020 edition of Education Week as Where Classroom and Workplace Meet

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