CTE and Middle School – Why Wait?

Students start high school already nervous about a new schedule, a new learning environment, new teachers, and all the things that high school includes. On top of that, they are abruptly introduced to the concept of colleges, trade schools, careers, and CTE (Career and Technical Education). What is that to them? Do you mean that they need to also start thinking about life after high school and what their long-term path may look like? That is a lot to ask a 14- or 15-year-old student.

Students in middle school are ripe, creative and still, for all intents and purposes, children with wide eyes and open hearts. This is the perfect time to introduce not only the concept of a career but what the various career options are…and what will be out there by the time they graduate high school and college.

It is never too early for students to explore what they may or may not be interested in before they have to start to make some tough decisions in high school. Why wait to do this? Give them the opportunity when they are still in the exploratory mindset. Show them what is out there for them. Provide them with ideas. Plant seeds and let them grow.

Career Exploration in Middle Schools

Implementation of CTE into middle schools has slowly been gaining traction across the country. According to The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), “Research has identified middle school as a time when students can benefit the most from career exploration, a process of building self-awareness, learning about potential careers, and developing a plan for reaching future goals.” Further research conducted by ACTE noted that, “Eighth grade is a crucial time because middle school students are transitioning into high school.” 

Each state has its own CTE programmatic requirements. In Colorado, for example, the mission for the CTE middle school program is to “introduce students to their interests, resulting in obtaining relevance for learning with an increase in their engagement, which in turn supports high school program recruitment and retention, inevitably increasing graduation rates and postsecondary enrollment rates.” How can anyone argue against the benefits of this program being implemented in middle school? 

The benefits here will likely impact society at large, not to mention their local community. Early exposure to skilled trades and the multitude of career pathways may result in more young people choosing careers that are in desperate need of younger workers, such as electricians, welders, aircraft mechanics, and nurses. This may also lead to providing a pipeline of workers for the local community in jobs that are needed. Students in particular benefit from this experience. According to ACTE, this early exposure also helps to increase students’ “critical thinking, adaptability, problem-solving, oral and written communications, collaboration, creativity, responsibility, professionalism, ethics, and technology use.” All of these traits are more attractive to employers while also being beneficial to a student’s academic experience.

CTE Challenges in Middle School

Oftentimes, schools face challenges in aligning or even creating a CTE program that meets their state’s requirements. These challenges range from funding and fostering relationships with the local business community, including parents, to one of the most important issues: staff buy-in. If teachers and staff are not involved and on board with CTE initiatives being implemented in their schools, how can they teach, support, and help empower students? Teacher training is essential and often overlooked. Yes, teachers are already inundated with so many responsibilities, and yes, they do not ‘need’ anything additional on their already overflowing plates. However, if teachers are given the respect and time to understand the vision of the CTE program, schools will have an easier time implementing their CTE programs. For schools that have challenges in creating their programmatic content, CSA Education is an organization that can help them with their course planning and customizable curriculum. From creating courses and curriculum from scratch, to aligning courses to state or national standards, CSA has the expertise to build and support these specialty programs. This helps teachers while also fostering relationships with the local business community.

CTE Programs with Success

There are many schools across the country that have implemented CTE programs in middle school successfully. One of them can be found in Oregon. Henley Middle School offers various opportunities for their eighth-grade students to learn about a variety of careers with the help of their guidance counselors. This, in turn, helps them determine their ninth-grade choices. From agriculture, welding, digital media, business marketing, and health occupations, students gain hands-on experience to guide their interests and subsequent academic path to high school. According to Herald and News, Henley Middle School “…promotes a multitude of paths— trade schools, apprenticeships, and two-year or four-year college programs.” Adam Randall, Henley High School CTE Coordinator stated, “We are connecting with eighth graders, showing them what we offer and how that matches up with their strengths and aptitudes.” Having a dedicated CTE Coordinator is one of the many ways a school can successfully implement a CTE program. 

In Tennessee, Governor Lee passed a series of bills, one of which is designed to support funding for CTE programs. Specifically, the governor dedicated $500 million to make CTE improvements in all middle and high schools. This sort of direct attention and focus on funding CTE programs helps schools develop and implement CTE programs. Part of that funding can go to a CTE Coordinator, securing internships, implementing curriculum, training teachers, conducting career fairs, among other programmatic components.

Amy Policastro Schroeder, the Career Development Consultant for the NC Department of Public Instruction, also feels strongly in supporting CTE in North Carolina. According to Ms. Schroeder, “CTE courses are elective offerings in middle school and high school, just like art or foreign language. School counselors and career development counselors can meet with students and help them identify which paths they seem to have an interest in, then show them electives in that career path that can help them get started.”

While these are just a few examples, it is clear that one of the major successes in implementing a CTE program in middle school is having a champion. A champion who can have influence on the state level. While this may be easier said than done, it is an encouraging trend we are starting to see. 

Implementing a CTE program in middle school with simple career awareness concepts and exposure to career sectors, while allowing students to continue to learn about self-awareness, is advantageous for the students as well as for the community. By the time students reach high school, they are inundated with other issues and may not have the ability to synthesize that kind of information. 

Plant the seeds early. Watch them grow. Provide middle school students with the tools they need to make informed decisions about their college and career paths earlier rather than later. Help them be prepared for CTE in high school now. Why wait? 

Laura has spent her entire career teaching and building curriculum and programs for school-age students. She started as a NYC classroom teacher, teaching Social Studies, and after five years, she left the classroom to increase her impact and reach more young people. She has built out programs for several highly regarded national CTE organizations, trained hundreds of educators in innovative classroom practices, presented at national conferences, and designed student and educator events, including securing funding.