The Kenmore East High School classrooms once used for woodworking, metalworking and printmaking are now stocked with iPads, 3D printers and computer hardware.
Students’ homework assignments include “binary hexadecimal numbering systems” and projects that test their engineering skills, such as building helmet-mounted digital cameras.
These are the shop classes of the 21st century.
Since 2011, the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District quietly has been taking the lead locally on repackaging courses and amenities such as its Cisco Networking Lab into academies the state certifies as “career and technical education” – commonly referred to as CTE – programs.
“This is a pretty rare thing to have at the high school level,” instructor Alex Sowyrda said of his course that teaches the hardware, routers and Internet connections needed to set up a computer network. “This is typically a college or beyond type of course. In fact, if they were to take this Cisco course in college, it would be the same curriculum. This isn’t watered-down.”
These are not career and tech programs in the skilled trades such as welding, plumbing and electrical systems traditionally offered by Erie 1 BOCES and some public schools. Ken-Ton’s four academies are in the modern fields of computer networking, pre-engineering, virtual enterprise and finance as well as in information technology, its newest such offering. They’re geared toward giving students an edge in college and in competing for the jobs of tomorrow.
Ken-Ton’s programs underscore an effort seen in school systems across the state and country, where educators have been pushing for courses that better prepare students for the 21st century workforce. Business leaders have argued for years that schools are not adequately preparing students for modern work, including competing with workers in other countries.
Supporters of the new career programs also argue that they do a better job engaging students in school. One national study by the Gates Foundation reported that 81 percent of students who dropped out nationwide said that learning skills they could apply in the workforce might have encouraged them to graduate.
State education leaders have even been looking at creating a special diploma that would allow students to take some career courses instead of the global studies Regents exam. Those state officials also want to expand the scope of BOCES and ramp up those programs, ultimately allowing the board to award diplomas.
But few districts are as far along in developing their CTE programs as Ken-Ton.
One of the state’s best-known promoters of high-tech education praised the Ken-Ton program as good for the students and the economy.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Alain Kaloyeros, senior vice president and chief executive officer of the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany, said of the emphasis being put on technology by the Ken-Ton district. “This is creative and bold and exactly the type of coursework that excites students and prepares them for the information technologies marketplace of the 21st century.”
Kaloyeros’ stamp of approval is significant, given his efforts to use his sprawling, state-of-the-art nanotech facilities to peak the curiosities of local high school students through behind-the-scenes tours and information sessions on careers in technology fields. He’s also helping bring an information technology hub here.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s announcement Feb. 24 of plans for 500 jobs at the high-tech hub in downtown Buffalo anchored by IBM is further proof that future well-paid jobs will require skills in science, technology, engineering and math — the fields collectively known as STEM – said Joel Maerten, one of Ken-Ton’s two academy program coordinators.
“Those are the jobs these kids are going to have and that’s why we’ve had such a focus here,” he said.
Ken-Ton is at the forefront of blending computing and business skills to start students on a path to STEM jobs. Its four academies give it the most career and tech programs of any suburban district in the area.
The Amherst Central School District has also been ramping up interest in its three programs in accounting, computer and information sciences and marketing management, which Jon Himes, chair of the district’s CTE department, called “mini college majors.”
“This is the first year that we’re really starting to put on a big marketing push for these programs,” he said.
The Buffalo Public Schools also recently announced plans to enhance its offerings. After its programs came under scrutiny from state leaders earlier this year, officials in Buffalo are trying to build up the district’s career and vocational programs by seeking state certifications, looking for ways to accommodate more students and even expanding their offerings into younger grade levels.
It’s all part of districts’ move away from a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to education to one that responds to a student’s needs or interests.
“We see a growth area in the smaller school districts because it provides more options for kids,” said Eric Suhr, the state Department of Education’s bureau chief for CTE programs.
Ken-Ton started this endeavor in 2008 by launching a pre-engineering program based on a national model called Project Lead the Way. Three years later, the district decided to form academies and seek state certification.
“In Ken-Ton, we’ve gone above and beyond what most suburban, non-city school districts have done in that we have not just created academies, we’ve gone and created these CTE programs,” said Maerten.
That rigorous process required Ken-Ton to meet certain criteria including creating relationships with local businesses as well as creating advisory boards and internship programs with colleges such as Buffalo State and Erie Community College.
Buffalo State instructors reviewed the district’s syllabi for two courses – Computer Fundamentals and Introduction to Basic Web Design – and found that they met, and in some cases exceeded, the college’s own standards, said Ramona Santa Maria, an assistant professor in the college’s Computer Information Systems Department.
“I’ve seen Ken-Ton in a lot of different phases,” she said. “I think this is the best one I’ve seen in years. I really feel like Ken-Ton is picking up the pace with where academics should be.”
The academies are one of the district’s “multiple pathways” to graduation initiative, which range from the Big Picture Learning program for at-risk students, to an advanced study International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme to the Twilight night school.
“The CTE is yet another one,” said Superintendent Mark P. Mondanaro. “We started Project Lead the Way and we wanted kids to have that credential because the state and the nation is hiring engineers from other countries.”
Experts predict a shortage of highly skilled workers and a bill in Congress known as the STEM Jobs Act would grant permanent residence to immigrants if they have advanced degrees in any of the STEM fields.
“As a matter of fact, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, hundreds of thousands of job vacancies in the U.S. and New York are going unfilled due to the lack of properly educated scientists and engineers,” Kaloyeros said.
At Kenmore East, academy students use the newest gadgets including iPads and 3D printers funded by the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act. Because the district is repackaging existing courses, there has been a negligible cost to the district.
“The district has been able to create these opportunities in-house for students while being sensitive to the financial times we’re in,” Maerten said.
About 200 students from various backgrounds are enrolled in Ken-Ton’s academies. Teachers stepped up to learn new technology and curriculum standards.
In Tom Koprevich’s courses, students use 3D printers to create intricate objects from plastic after designing them on computers. After creating products such as a helmet-mounted camera and a system of interchangeable numbers for hockey helmets, students present them to a panel of engineers who provide feedback.
“When they walked out of here they really ran the gamut in these designs from beginning to end,” Maerten said. “What great experience that most students wouldn’t get until college.”
Students who meet all the requirements graduate with college credit earned at a reduced rate and a special endorsement on their diplomas.
Career and tech “offer students a variety of different paths so that when they leave here they’re prepared,” said Maerten. “We’ve had students leave here and go right on to jobs.”
When Alex Wilson was an academy student he toured US itek, a computer technology and service company on Niagara Falls Boulevard, and followed up with company president Dave Stinner for a job.
Stinner thought he meant as a retail cashier in the company’s store. No, Wilson said, he wanted to work in computer networking.
So Stinner gave him a chance, hiring Wilson after graduation to work at US itek while he attends ECC. Stinner said he’s been pleased with the result.
“The amount of preparedness that they give these kids to go out into the workforce is pretty amazing,” said Stinner, who serves on two academy advisory boards.
Academy students are also exposed to college life through group tours of campuses such as Buffalo State, which is proud to show off its new technology building to prospective students.
“Ken-Ton has built a really wonderful working relationship with us,” Santa Maria said. “If we can have a feeder with students coming in already knowing how to do things, it only makes our job easier and we can extend the curriculum so much further.”
It was a recent tour that led academy student C.J. Lockwood to reconsider his decision to not attend college.
The business-minded 17-year-old already rents party supplies and hopes to one day open a custom car shop. To do that, he knows he’ll have to continue gaining the business, web design and finance skills that he’s received in the academies at a college level.
“We were able to take his interests and apply it to the curriculum in the classroom,” said Nancy Pray, the district’s other academy program coordinator. “I think he’s found a niche in our business department, which has helped him re-examine his future.”
News Staff Reporters Tom Precious and Tiffany Lankes contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org