By Ethan Hartley
The two top officials from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) spent about two hours touring various pathway programs offered at the Warwick Area Career and Tech Center (WACTC) at Toll Gate High School on Tuesday afternoon. They both left with very positive impressions of what they had seen.
“Warwick is a perfect example of someone who has been in this space for a very long time and is also staying on top of the game to keep their offerings fresh and exciting,” said Ken Wagner, Commissioner of the Elementary and Secondary Education for RIDE.
Wagner commented on how he and deputy commissioner Mary Ann Snider got to see everything from students learning how to build a solid foundation in the construction trades program to a classroom with students getting introductory lessons on building peer-to-peer networks.
The first stop on the tour, however, was to the marine trades program, which features a large workshop area where students can get their hands onto car parts – a Corvette bumper in need of repair sat on a work bench ready for some restorative action – and a separate workshop where students may learn how to perform every different type of welding imaginable.
Marine trades instructor Christopher Bianco showed off a state-of-the-art s500 Power Wave Advanced Process Welder, the same equipment utilized by Electric Boat.
“This could weld a submarine hull,” Bianco said for perspective, emphasizing that students in the program get to learn on the exact tools used in their potential future trade.
Bianco explained to the gathered group of administrators how students are required to reach 1,500 total shop hours to complete the course, and how such experience can translate into enormous advantages upon graduation – either through college credits for post-secondary education or experience to get a job with good pay directly out of high school with employers that utilize the tech center as a pipeline for young talent, such as Electric Boat for the marine trades program.
Although RIDE does not mandate a set number of hands-on hours for students in technical programs, all 13 of the pathway programs offered at the WACTC – from culinary, to construction, to cosmetology and even avionics – require the aforementioned 1,500 hours of experience.
“I think the kids are at an advantage because they have more experience,” said Bill McCaffrey, director of the WACTC. “At basketball, you don’t get any better unless you practice, and I think the more practice you have the better you are.”
To accrue those hours, students need to be implanted into their chosen program by sophomore year and spend three periods a day for those three years. The other periods are spent in a traditional classroom, learning subjects by the book. It’s the blended kind of learning model that Wagner finds to be most effective at creating passionate, successful students.
“They’re doing a conscious job of integrating traditional academics with hands-on experiences,” said Wagner. “So, this is exactly what we’re talking about.”
Next, administrators paid a visit to the Cisco networking pathway program, where students had been learning how to create peer-to-peer networks. The class provided a good example of how student choice factors into setting up kids for success. One student had transferred from a graphic design program to the networking class, as she found it much more intriguing.
Students now have more choice than ever in Warwick, as incoming freshmen have the opportunity to participate in exploratory classes at the WACTC to see if they enjoy them, before they decide to jump fully into something that they may or may not like.
“Being flexible and giving the student more opportunities is in their best interest, and as soon as they find what their passion is, they blossom,” McCaffrey said.
For the Cisco students, completion of their course will directly affect their career paths, as they will receive a nationally recognized certification through Cisco, meaning they won’t have to jump through that hoop in a post-secondary setting and can instead further hone their skills.
“Certifications are just as important as education in the computer world,” said instructor Liz Charette.
A professional development meeting steered the group away from a planned foray into the culinary program, however the experience in the construction trades classroom down the hall provided more examples of hands-on learning. Students were shown how to look for the qualities of a good foundation, and got up close and personal with a demonstration model.
The end goal of the program, explained instructor Mike Haynes, is to have the students rebuild a historic farmhouse in Wickford – “from the foundation and all the way up.” Haynes said that students would learn everything from the essential basics to the most cutting-edge techniques for energy efficiency.
While the program themselves demonstrated to Wagner an example of what technical education can be elsewhere in the state, Snider was more taken by the wealth of experience demonstrated by the instructors that explained their programs and established career histories in their fields prior to their current careers in education.
“I was struck by the energy, passion and deep practical and theoretical knowledge of the instructors,” she said. “I think their continuous engagement with the world outside of school keeps them so relevant and on top of their game for kids. And kids know that. I think there’s an authentic excitement about whatever field they were in, and I think you can’t help but get motivated by that.”
Wagner said the quality instructors found in Warwick provide a great validation to the state’s emerging efforts to better focus aspiring teachers into areas of need and provide them with better professional development opportunities once they get into the field.
“We need to make sure that teachers have alternate routes into the profession, particularly for shortage areas; that teachers have requirements for hands-on learning that balance against their academic learning when they’re being prepared to be teachers; and that teachers have the strategy and requirement to stay on top of their game to continue to invest in their own learning and for districts to invest in them,” he said. “We can’t do student pathways really well until we also do teacher pathways really well.”
Regulations for creating those teacher pathway standards are currently in the public comment portion of their potential approval by the Rhode Island Board of Education.
For now, McCaffrey said that focus in Warwick and in the communities within its catchment area – including Scituate, Johnston and Burrillville – should be about spreading the word to parents that a technical education in high school not only doesn’t harm a student’s opportunities to go into a post-secondary learning environment following graduation, it actually enhances it.
“I think it's the best kept secret we have,” he said.