What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up 101

High school technical education programs can give students an early preview of career fields without the commitment of a formal training program.

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia—Salay Kamara got up close to the operating table and started to unwrap a piece of sterile medical equipment. She wasn't wearing scrubs, but that was OK—she was in a high school classroom, and the prone "patient" before her was actually a mannequin.

In surgical technologist class here at T.C. Williams High School, seniors like Kamara learn how to assist surgical teams. After they graduate, they can can enter a clinical rotation at a local hospital, get certified as surgical technicians, and qualify for a job that could lead to a career in medicine.

Not many Career and Technical Education classes offer students such a direct pathway from high school into an entry-level job. Perhaps not all CTE classes have to. At T.C. Williams, teachers emphasize that while it's important to build relationships with employers, there's more to career education than teaching students a trade.

The public comprehensive high school that Next America is returning to throughout 2015 fits a huge number of courses under one roof, from Advanced Placement biology to automotive technology. T.C. has a professional-grade kitchen, where culinary arts students learn to make pizza from scratch; a garage-like space where engineering students build robots; and a room filled with salon mirrors where cosmetology students practice styling hair.

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.

Career classes don't have to create a direct pathway into a job in order to teach students something valuable. And they prompt students to plan for life after high school, giving them real ways to weigh the pros and cons of different career paths.

Kamara says she and her classmates initially signed up for the surgical technologist program because they wanted to make money. "Now I want to do it because it seems like something I can see myself doing in the future—helping people, and saving lives," she says.

Some parents—particularly in wealthy suburbs—believe that admission to a highly selective college guarantees success in life. But that's not true, McCormick says. "I'm at the stage where I have friends whose kids live in the basement," she says. "It's unbelievable."

She's seen kids become so focused on building the 'right' resume to get into the 'right' college that they forgot to think about what they'd like to major in, let alone what to do when they graduate. "The truth is, if you want to be successful, you have to know what you want to be when you grow up," McCormick says.

Next America's Education coverage is made possible in part by a grant from the New Venture Fund.