Get college- and career-ready at a vo-tech high school

PDK_96_6_Demarest_22_Art_554x350pxJob experience, industry credentials, and college credits can put career-technical students ahead of students who have only an academic education.

Educators love their jargon like no other. The edu-phrase du jour “goes viral” quickly, gets uttered at every professional development workshop, published in articles, and repeated by colleagues. Surely you’ve heard most them: digital natives, grit, flipped learning, one-to-one initiatives. The list is l-o-n-g.

The phrase “college- and career-ready” catapulted to the top so fast that it earned cringe-worthy status within months. Secondary educators and departments of education obsess about it, attempting to define and redefine the term with broad-scoped qualitative and quantitative measures.

But here’s a news flash — from the past: Career and technical students can tell you what it means because they have been doing it all along. Students who have selected career and technical high schools are intentionally preparing to be both college- and career-ready. They are earning industry-recognized credentials and college credits while completing their academic high school coursework. They’re also working part-time during the school day, gaining valuable work experience, and making important business connections.

As school systems, states, and boards of education struggle to agree on what constitutes college- and career-ready — developing a host of indicators that includes SAT scores, AP class rosters, and postsecondary graduation rates — they often overlook the successes happening in the career and technical education (CTE) high schools down the street.

If they paid more attention, they’d see that the vo-techs (vocational and technical schools) are producing students with access to multiple pathways for their postsecondary pursuits. Today’s CTE high schools have transformed themselves into a one-stop shop — becoming the Amazons of education — because today’s students demand choices. Students no longer define themselves nor sort themselves into singular categories: those going to college, those not going to college, those going to work, those entering apprenticeship training. Students and their parents want options. CTE high schools provide those options with high-quality, rigorous programs of study that create floors with many doors and no ceilings.

Perhaps better than explaining or diagraming what a successful CTE program looks like are the close-up stories of some of its graduates telling how their schools affected their lives. These students aren’t especially remarkable, but their experiences are in fact typical examples of how CTE high schools are preparing students to be college- and career-ready.

CTE programs are successfully tossing off the stereotype of being pathways for those who are less academically successful.

The examples come from New Castle County Vo-Tech School District (NCC Vo-Tech) in northern Delaware, which operates four full-time, comprehensive high schools ranging in size from 900 to 1,600 students. The district has 4,600 students in total in grades 9-12. Students must apply for admission to enter one of 40 different career programs of study ranging from allied health and IT to the more traditional construction and automotive technologies. Collectively the schools admit 1,300 freshmen each fall and turn away more than 500 applicants annually due to lack of capacity. During a decade when the growth of charter and independent schools has exploded in this community, demand for admission to these vo-tech high schools remains strong.

It may be because parents are seeking options that are practical and pathways that are flexible. Some CTE graduates elect to work part-time and attend community college part-time. Others matriculate to a four-year college and work part-time, using skills they learned in their high school career program of study. Some have so demonstrated their value to companies during their senior year cooperative education work placement that the companies offer them full-time positions upon graduation. These graduates postpone postsecondary pursuits, choosing instead to save money for a later college start. Additionally, there are graduates who proceed with a blend of the above or who pursue trade and apprenticeships, military service, and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Results from a recent graduate follow-up survey showed that 80% of the NCC Vo-Tech Class of 2014 was attending college, and 79% were employed. Those are compelling statistics, especially for students and parents focused on outcomes after high school.

Not your father’s vo-tech

As demonstrated by these graduates’ stories, CTE high schools are and have been preparing students to be college- and career-ready. CTE programs are successfully tossing off the stereotype of being pathways for those who are less academically successful or better at working with their hands. There is strong evidence that high school students involved in CTE are more engaged, perform better, and graduate at higher rates than their counterparts in traditional high school programs. Research provided by the Association for Career and Technical Education shows that more than 70% of CTE high school graduates pursue postsecondary education, and four out of five earn a credential or are still enrolled two years later (ACTE, 2014). The same academic skills needed to gain admission to college are also needed to earn industry credentials, licenses, and certifications.

Investing in CTE yields big returns not only for students but also for state economies. During the four decades that the New Castle County Vo-Tech School District has administered its comprehensive, full-day CTE high schools, the school district has developed strong partnerships with the business community. More than 300 companies routinely provide co-op placements for students, and company leaders serve on career advisory committees charged with ensuring that curriculum, equipment, and techniques being taught in the school’s career labs are current with industry standards.

CTE high schools are dynamic incubators of tomorrow’s workforce. They provide high-quality, rigorous options for students and, in so doing, define the true meaning of college- and career-ready for every student.


Association for Career and Technical Education. (2014). CTE today! Alexandria, VA: Author.

Ryan Upchurch

Class of 2013 graduate Ryan Upchurch established his own business, served as a sales rep for another company, and launched a web magazine, all while he was a student at Hodgson Vo-Tech High School in Glasgow, Del. He also ranked third in his class with an overall GPA of 3.94.

Upchurch combined his learning in Hodgson’s industrial mechanics/millwright program with his love for extreme sports to produce a vo-tech success story. Upchurch is a world-class extreme scooter rider, which is similar to skateboarding. According to his teacher, Stan Studzinski, Upchurch is also an excellent mechanic. The various applications he learned in his career program helped him understand the design and mechanics of the scooters he rode every day. He’s been able to take what he learned about the theory of applications of metals as well as the practical aspects of production in a hands-on environment to propel his entrepreneurial ventures.

Collaborating with a California company, Upchurch helped establish a Delaware-based company, Dominator Scooter Accessories. He works as a designer of scooter boards and parts. He is featured in numerous online and YouTube videos. He has traveled to California, Florida, and Europe to represent his company and its products.

Upchurch is so advanced in his mechanical design skills that he has a product line with Amazon. He said that as a direct result of his experiences in his CTE class he was able to apply his knowledge to improve some of the company’s designs by increasing efficiency on the manufacturing line and lowering production costs. He says he earned as much as $10,000 in a single month from his various business activities while he was a senior in high school.


Keri Braddock Maisano

A 2000 graduate of Hodgson Vo-Tech’s nursing technology program, Keri Braddock Maisano is a registered nurse who works with special needs pediatric patients in a 24-hour nursing facility. Before her current position, she worked for eight years as a nurse and clinical nurse manager for Nurses ’n Kids, a specialized childcare program for children with special medical needs.

“I would not be in the career I have pursued if I had not gone to Hodgson,” she said. “When I did my career exploratory rotation in 9th grade, I fell in love with the nursing program,” she recalled. After graduating from Hodgson, she obtained a practical nursing license and then completed coursework at Delaware Technical and Community College for her registered nursing degree.

“I had such a head start by going to Hodgson. When I was 17, I already had a job in a nursing home, and I was making good money. Friends who went to other local high schools were working at the mall for minimum wage. I not only had the basic knowledge but also hands-on experience from the clinical rotations I did while at Hodgson. I knew I was ahead when I got to college.”

Maisano said her work experience plus industry certifications made her a competitive candidate for jobs as well. “When I was 22 years old, I already had six years of work experience in the medical field. That was definitely a plus!”


Kaitlyn Compton

A 2012 graduate of the St. Georges Technical High School’s biotechnology program, Kaitlyn Compton works part-time assisting lab technicians at Fraunhofer USA’s Center for Molecular Biotechnology in Newark, Del. It’s a part-time position because she is a full-time student at the University of Delaware. Compton earned her associate’s degree last spring and is continuing toward a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry.

Fraunhofer was the site of her co-operative employment placement during her senior year at St. Georges, and she said the company has been supportive, willing to give her hours around her class schedule. She works 20 hours each week during the school year and full-time each summer and through winter breaks between semesters.

Compton is assigned to the protein biochemistry area for the research organization. She said her training at St. Georges helped her clinch the job and has propelled her forward in her academic coursework at the university.

“The lab techniques I learned in the biotech program at St. Georges prepared me with such a good foundation that I was able to build off that,” she said. “The classroom experiences, the lab groups we worked in helped me learn to work on a project with a team approach, which is what is required in the workplace. The vocabulary needed for the industry, the equations I learned at St. Georges, I use at work on a daily basis.”

Compton said her high school learning also has been valuable for college coursework. “In my biotech program, we were using a college-level text, and now I am using that text at UD,” she said. “When I took my lab classes at UD, I had a huge advantage over other students.”

She said if she finds herself struggling over a concept, coworkers at Fraunhofer are quick to offer help. “I have access to supportive professionals who can explain things to me. My high school experience was great. You get such quality instruction. You connect with such a diverse group of students. You develop a special bond with your classmates because you share the same interests, and we were all able to connect on some level. It is powerful to share that this is what we want to do, this is where our lives are going to take us,” Compton said.

Bruce Graves

In 2014, Bruce Graves, a 2009 graduate of the chemical lab technology program at Delcastle Technical High School in Wilmington, was one of five members of a cancer research team working on a project at Wilmington’s Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children to improve how chemotherapy drugs are delivered to children with brain tumors.

That was his part-time job.

His full-time job was at the Philadelphia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. After graduating from the University of Delaware with a bachelor’s degree in preveterinary medicine/animal biosciences, Graves has spent some time working in an animal shelter before he starts to pursue a doctorate in veterinary medicine. He said he is grateful to be working in the career path for which he trained.

“My experience at Delcastle was so valuable to me,” Graves said. “It put me ahead in all of the chemistry, organic chemistry, and bioscience courses.”

Better yet, he said, the hands-on experience at Delcastle’s chemistry lab enabled him to secure the research internship at the children’s hospital.

“The lab techniques that I learned in my high school program, I would not have had the chance to get that experience any other way,” he said. “The experience I am using now, well, most people don’t usually obtain until after college when they get their first job.”

Graves has been with the cancer research project since its launch. He was the team’s research assistant and has the primary responsibility for gathering data from surgeries he performs on research mice and experiments he conducts in the lab.

“The chem lab program allowed me to get involved in the research side of science. The labs and curriculum we covered during my time at Delcastle, those basics I will draw from throughout my career. I will always benefit from that learning.”

Graves said a CTE education sets one apart. “It makes you workforce-ready and college-ready,” Graves said. “I think it is a good investment to make. The hands-on learning combined with the academic learning is a package that is so valuable for students. Some of my high school friends who were in other career programs at Delcastle went straight to work after graduating, such as at hospitals and in local mechanic shops. They are doing really well in their employment. It is good to see young people reaching their dreams and being successful.”

Shawn Hickson

“I know it’s hard to believe, but I was a bank teller at age 16,” said Shawn Hickson, a 2009 graduate of the Howard High School of Technology Academy of Finance program. Currently, he is a commercial credit analyst at TD Bank in Wilmington, Del. During his junior year at Howard, he worked part-time at the bank during evenings and weekends. By his senior year in high school, Hickson was promoted to weekend supervisor. After graduation, he continued working for the bank in a variety of positions while attending the University of Delaware. He earned his bachelor’s degree in organizational and community leadership with a concentration in finance.

He was a head teller, then a store supervisor, when he was offered a summer internship in the commercial lending department, where he worked during his senior year of college. Upon graduation, Hickson was offered a full-time position.

“Being introduced to professionals in the field as a high school student in the Academy of Finance made a huge impact,” he said. “Through our learning in the Academy, I had a good foundational understanding of finance and accounting that gave me an advantage in the college classroom.”

By competing in the high school career and technical student organization, Business Professionals of America, Hickson said he learned leadership skills. He was a state winner and represented Delaware at national competitions.

“That experience was helpful in preparing me to work in teams and groups, skills that are required in the workplace,” he said. His experience at Howard positioned Hickson to be competitive among his peers. “When I was 22, I already had all of this work experience. I had some management experience, too. I was able to bring that knowledge back to the college classroom because I knew how the corporate world worked. It gave me great insight. I was able to bring real-world experiences into my learning.”

Hickson said his CTE education changed his opinion of who could be successful. “It really opened my eyes and made me realize anyone with a dream could achieve it. I saw classmates who went right to the workforce and were extremely successful. Then, there were students who I didn’t think could go to college, but they did and they were also successful. CTE provides a great head start to your career path. It’s up to you to decide which route to take to achieve your dreams.”

CITATION: Demarest, K.K. & Gehrt, V.C. (2015). Get college- and career-ready at a vo-tech high school. Phi Delta Kappan, 96 (6), 22-26.


KATHY K. DEMAREST ( is public information officer for the New Castle County Vocational Technical School District, Wilmington, Del.
VICTORIA C. GEHRT ( is Superintendent of the New Castle County Vocational Technical School District, Wilmington, Del.

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