R.I. high school at forefront, using technology to prepare students for careers and college (Providence Journal)

By Linda Borg
Journal Staff Writer

Posted Dec 10, 2017 at 7:26 PM. Updated Dec 10, 2017 at 11:00 PM.

Ponaganset High School is the model for the new career and technical program hailed by Gov. Gina Raimondo in her pledge to prepare students for jobs that are both highly paid and highly skilled.

SCITUATE, R.I. — Ponaganset High School is the model for the new career and technical program hailed by Gov. Gina Raimondo in her pledge to prepare students for jobs that are both highly paid and highly skilled.

Rhode Island, like the rest of the nation, is re-imagining career and technical education (CTE). That means removing the stigma from the old vocational career path, typically a dumping ground for students who weren’t deemed college material. Not anymore.

Now students in career and tech programs such as those offered at Ponaganset can graduate with industry certifications in several fields, from carpentry to information technology, at the same time they are enrolled in a traditional college-prep track.

“You have to skate where the puck is going to be,” said state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner. “Career and technical education is about career and college readiness. It’s no longer surprising that a student is a dynamite plumber and taking AP courses. Kids change their minds a dozen times. The only way for them to succeed is if our programs are nimble and responsive.”

Ponaganset High School, part of the Foster-Glocester school system, offered its first CTE course six years ago. Now, it has seven career and technical majors, called pathways: agriculture, biomedical science, computer science, materials and manufacturing, music, pre-engineering and the visual arts.

But it’s the technology in the classrooms that sets these programs apart from traditional vocational offerings.

Take the music technology room. It has row after row of electronic keyboards with the latest software to produce everything from music videos to computer games. No other high school in Rhode Island has such advanced equipment, according to Joe Mazzone, career and technical educator. In an adjacent room, two dozen students perform in an orchestra, which prepares students for a career in music performance or music education.

In the materials and manufacturing classroom, students are building Adirondack chairs using computerized lathes and 3-D printers. In pre-engineering, they build robots and learn how to use plasma cutters and laser engravers, and, in the information technology program, they learn Java script, design apps and build robots.

Students can take a single CTE elective, or they can spend three years developing expertise in a single pathway. In their senior year, they can take on an in-depth project that brings all their skills together.

Ponaganset’s career and tech program has become very popular: 500 of the high school’s 750 students take at least one such course.

More than 100 students come here from other school districts, including 22 Chinese students who attend a private school in East Providence.

But Ponaganset’s success has come at the expense of some neighboring high schools, critics say.

Scituate has lost 25 students to Ponaganset. Because Scituate High School has only 480 students, the cost to the district has an oversized impact — about $450,000 out of a $22-million budget, according to Larry Fillippelli, the district school superintendent.

“We have to pay their per-pupil costs, which are $3,000 to $4,000 higher than ours,” he said. “It’s good that families and kids have more choice. But the funding piece needs to be addressed.”

At least partly in response, Scituate opened its own CTE program this year.

“It’s a very, very competitive market,” Fillippelli said. “But it makes everyone up their game.”

Chariho operates one of the state’s 10 regional career and tech centers, which draws students from the region, Westerly to North and South Kingstown.

By allowing high schools to open their own CTE programs, Wagner has undermined the regional career and technical centers, according to Chariho Supt. Barry Ricci. Also, he said, the new pathways programs can charge whatever they want without adhering to the state funding formula, which puts an unfair burden on the sending school districts.

“Ken [Wagner] says that kids should go wherever they want,” Ricci said. “It doesn’t matter how much more it’s costing the taxpayer.”

Wagner acknowledged that there may be too much variation in the way career and tech high schools are funded, and said that a committee is studying this very issue.

But he defended the department’s 2012 decision to allow students to attend any career and tech program in the state. Historically, students were supposed to attend the career and tech school in their district or the closest regional center.

Wagner said the decision to open up career and tech programs is really about offering students more choice.

“If we say they can only go to certain career and tech programs, how can we know what the right choice is for the student?” he said. “Two welding programs might be very different for the person taking it. If we didn’t let the student choose, how would we choose for them?”

Critics also say that the flowering of new high-school-based programs has led to needless duplication. Wagner agreed there will be some duplication during this period of transition.

That may shake out soon, because the state provides financial support for career pathways such as engineering, information technology and bio-medicine that lead to high-skilled, high-paying jobs, which Raimondo has identified as critical to the state’s economy.

Rhode Island currently has 1,318 open computing jobs, according to Code.org, which has led the movement to expand computer literacy in the classroom statewide.

— lborg@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7823