About half of the high school's graduates leave with two or more CTE courses on their transcripts. That might include classes in finance, business law, architectural drawing, or sports marketing. Many classes (including the surgical technologist class) count for college credit through an agreement with Northern Virginia Community College.
But CTE teachers still have to dispel the stereotype that students who take career-focused courses don't go to college. "I congratulate my parents on Back to School night for being smart enough to think about putting their kid in career and technical education classes," said Mary Ellen McCormick, who teaches entrepreneurship. "I think the greatest thing you can give a student when they graduate from high school is career direction."
Students enroll in CTE courses for many reasons. Some of them take automotive technology because they want to become technicians; some want to be able to fix their own cars. Some courses, like photography, just sound like fun. Quite a few students in the surgical technologist program say they're looking for a job that will help them pay their way through college.
The surgical technologist program launched last year at the request of Inova Alexandria Hospital. A local foundation helps support the students' clinical rotations. Although the program offers students a clear route to a job, that's not necessarily the goal of all students who participate. Of about 16 who took the high school course last year, six went on to the next step, a year of clinical study.
Other CTE courses at T.C. Williams connect students with co-ops—optional paid-work experience—and individual teachers will invite guest speakers into their classrooms or organize visits to employers. Teachers say that they'd love to create deeper industry partnerships, but they don't really have time to coordinate internships for dozens of students.
Teachers can, however, simulate the world of work within their classrooms. That might mean asking students to act out the roles of a health team in an operating room. Or it might mean organizing classes into professional teams, which is how Jim Pondolfino runs his finance classes.
On a recent Wednesday, Pondolfino strode back and forth in front of a roomful of sophomores and explained their next assignment: a group presentation on a major financial scandal. His students, who were seated in groups of five, pulled out their tablets and got to work right away. One group decided to research an international scandal, because many of them had been born outside the U.S.
Pondolfino guesses that fewer than half of his students major in business or finance in college. "But the skills they learn in this class are life skills," he says. Akhona Bhengu, a student in his class, agrees. "In life, you're going to have to learn how to get along with other people," she says.