Career Academies Offer a Different Path

Not all roads lead to college. Career academies offer another way.

Kerry Pope’s work as principal of Southeast Career Technical Academy extends beyond sending her straight-A students off to college, but also to develop respectful, productive citizens who will find their niche in Southern Nevada’s workforce.

While Clark County School District gets knocked for having one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the nation, Southeast Academy boasts a 92 percent graduation rate and 51 percent of students pass Advanced Placement courses, earning a bronze medal from U.S. News and World Report’s national high school rankings.

Not every high school graduate is college material, so the key to success for those who don’t take the college route is finding a job they like and sticking with it, Pope says.

“A kid doesn’t need to be academically brilliant to be a top-of-the-line kid,” the principal says. “Our kids are kind, good kids. When you give kids a choice of doing something they’re passionate about, they’re going to do well. If they’ve got to pass math to spend time in their culinary class, they’re going to step up and do it. And if we give that opportunity to all kids, our graduation rates go up.”

Southeast Academy is one of seven career academies in the school district, though 44 high schools offer technical education programs with the same standards and skill assessments as the academies, notes Jeanne Donadio, director of CCSD’s career and technical education.

About 43,000 students a year take career and technical education classes in 65 different programs, she says. A lot of them are going into information and media technologies, learning computer science, 3-D animation, video game programming, web design and information technology.

Students must apply for acceptance to career and technical academies, so they’re motivated to attend class and more likely to graduate, Donadio says.

“Career and technical education provides relevancy for what they’re learning and real-world application of what they’re learning,” she says. “The (classes) usually are meaningful and relevant to the student. That engages them. They’ve got to be at school to learn.”

Popular programs at Southeast Academy include culinary, cosmetology, automotive technology and construction engineering. About 65 to 70 incoming freshmen enroll in the computer design program, double from a couple of years ago, Pope says.

“Once they get in, they realize it’s not about playing video games,” she says. “They could design programs for casinos. You could work for a science lab and design modules. The job possibilities are huge. We had a girl who went to MGM (Resorts International) and designed all its employee training videos. What a great job for a 19-year-old.”

Howard Gordon, a UNLV professor and expert in career and technical education, says CTE is the “wave of the future,” and is considered the most powerful program available to high school students, providing a higher level of personal, academic and career development skills.

“CTE is the cornerstone for bridging the current skills gap in this country,” Gordon says. “For the record, you are less likely to see CTE trade workers in welfare lines or as recipients of government social programs.”

There’s still a “stigma” that career and technical education is for students who are poor academic achievers and not college-bound, but that’s an incorrect assumption, he says.

“Two-year community colleges and apprenticeships are ideal for non-college-bound students,” Gordon says. “Currently, most college graduates are drowning in excessive student loans and working in jobs that are not paying a decent salary.”

Companies such as Faraday Future, which is coming to North Las Vegas, are looking for skilled, educated workers, and Clark County high schools are preparing students for careers in those industries.

Southeast Academy has partnered with College of Southern Nevada on a manufacturing training program that earns credits toward an associate’s degree and completes OSHA certification. Academy students, and those from other high schools, take regular classes during the day and then go to CSN classes after school and in the evening.

“What we’re doing is building skills in manufacturing that Faraday is requiring for entry-level employees, and also continuing to offer courses that Faraday is requesting for training purposes,” Pope says. “It’s pretty exciting. The goal is to expand and franchise out, to set the model so more high schools have this opportunity. We’re going to fail and make mistakes along the way, but we’re going to figure it out.”