Marizol Olivo zoomed in on her computer screen to make finishing touches on a digital drawing of a house she designed as she sat in class at Arsenal Technical High School on a recent morning.
A lesson about building pollution sparked the 17-year-old’s interest in environmentally friendly design. So Olivo, a student at a nearby charter school, joined Indianapolis Public Schools’ architecture and design program part-time to get a more real-world experience.
Partnering with charter schools — a new idea for IPS — fits in with an overhaul of its programs that prepare kids to go directly into technical careers so more students graduate with the advantage Olivo will have: They’ll be ready for college but also qualified right away for a desirable job with good pay.
“I thought, ‘OK, perhaps I can make something I can bring to life,’” Olivo said of working on her digital house design. “You’re not just sitting there. You’re doing what you plan on doing in the future.”
Emphasizing the importance of career and technical education is a goal IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee shares with Gov. Mike Pence, who campaigned in 2012 on promises of reinventing vocational programs for a new generation of high-skill jobs in Indiana.
Ferebee recently hired Ben Carter, a former IPS math teacher who worked as a school turnaround specialist for the Indiana Department of Education under former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, to redesign the district’s program.
“Not all students will go to college, and not all students need to go to college,” said Carter, IPS’s director of career and technical education.
But so far, too few at IPS are taking Olivo’s path.
Just 3 percent of IPS students are enrolled in one of the IPS’s 16 career training programs. And only 63 percent of the students who finished a career program last year were actually placed in jobs or advanced training in their field — 20 percentage points below the state target.
Carter has already tackled some immediate goals: hiring another career counselor, promoting Arsenal Tech programs to students at other high schools, and increasing the number of classes that also count for college credit.
But Carter said his ultimate goal is for IPS to become an urban model for improving vocational education and training.
“There are gaps that our students can fill in our industries and we can help them realize their dreams,” Carter said.
Job training a renewed priority
Indiana companies say they often struggle to find qualified Hoosier high school graduates to fill good paying jobs that require technical skills but not necessarily a college education.
Gov. Mike Pence has made connecting a high school education to jobs a priority since the 2012 election campaign as a tool to reduce poverty and unemployment.
“I believe it’s imperative every one of our kids graduates from school prepared to either go onto college or a productive career,” Pence told Chalkbeat last year. “I think Indiana has a chance to really reestablish the importance of career and vocational education.”
Pence created Indiana Works Councils in 2013 to give businesses more say about what’s being taught in high school classes, and backed an idea to use data in schools to train students for jobs that will be available when they graduate.
IPS students can earn industry certification that qualifies them for jobs in welding, diesel engine repair and heating and air conditioning service. Those jobs all pay around $40,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Students in those programs can earn a good living without racking up college debt, said IPS civil engineering instructor Jeff Powell.
“You can go to college, but the question that an employer is going to ask you is ‘What can you do?’ You can do something when you come out of here,” Powell said. “All of these students right now, even if they didn’t go to a community college, they’re employable.”
Even students who do plan to attend college say vocational classes have helped them get an edge over their peers.
IPS student Darian Wiley, 19, said he didn’t expect to learn communication and leadership skills from a high school architecture class. But he did.
The class, he said, is like being an employee in a company.
“This is business,” Wiley said. “It’s like an industry or firm. You know how kids say ‘How would I ever use this in life?’ I would never think I’d be using physics, geometry, algebra 1 or 2.”
‘Not starting from ground zero’
IPS’s lack of focus on its career center — except for a group of dedicated teachers — has led to less than stellar results, Carter said. The center is currently ranked by the Indiana Department of Workforce Development as No. 39 of 49 of its kind in Indiana, based on its students’ technical skill attainment, student test scores and graduation rates.
“There wasn’t really a focus on it in prior administrations,” Carter said. “I walked into a lot of teachers making it on their own. They didn’t have a consistent leader that was pushing them to the next step instructionally in their classes. We’re not starting from ground zero, which is great, but we have a lot of strengths to build on.”
Getting more kids involved in IPS’s career programs is a key priority, Carter said. Just over 900 students are enrolled now.
Carter has tried busing students from other IPS high schools to Tech for the day to get a tour of available programs, and is hoping to increase the number of introductory courses so students have a chance to try out a program before committing to it.
He’s also hoping to forge partnerships outside the district. IPS already has an agreement with Lighthouse charter schools for its students to come to the school part-time for vocational programs — a plan that could help drive enrollment and increase outside demand for its programs.
Other priorities include making career programs as demanding as those preparing kids for college and working with businesses to connect what kids learn in school to the skills they need for jobs, Carter said. Teachers in the career programs are also receiving more training.
By the start of the next school year, all of IPS’s career and technical programs will allow students a chance to earn six or more college credits.
Increasing opportunities for real work experience is another priority for Carter. IPS already offers on-campus job opportunities, including Colonel Cupboard, a student-run restaurant at Arsenal Tech, and Salon 212, a beauty salon run by supervised cosmetology students.
But only five students in IPS’s career and technical education programs currently have internships at Indiana companies.
“There’s no more important learning experience,” Carter said. “The internships help students with their resumes, interview skills and they get to work alongside people in their fields.”
Hopefully, increasing more internships will lead to more students finding permanent jobs after graduation, Carter said.
“The end goal is to get students engaged in learning and to get them career opportunities down the road,” Carter said. “We need to follow up on our graduating seniors and track them from there.”
Funding up for debate
The changes at IPS come as state officials are engaged in a debate over how to fund career and technical education.
Pence said last year he’s not satisfied that only 3 percent of Indiana students in career and technical courses earn an industry-recognized certification. He proposed changing the funding formula to pay programs based on their performance — including factors like how many students earn a state-recognized industry certification — instead of paying based on enrollment.
“The governor is dedicated to improving the way we fund career and technical education,” said Pence spokeswoman Stephanie Hodgin. “He is committed to using some of those dollars to fund performance outcomes to incentivize students to take courses that will lead to high wage, high demand jobs.”
A budget plan crafted by House Republicans proposes increasing the state’s $97 million annual budget for career and technical education to $100 million by 2017, but would change the way courses are paid for.
Career centers currently receive between $250 and $450 per credit hour taken. Exactly how much depends on whether the classes offered are in careers where good paying jobs are available, so programs like engineering and culinary arts get more than others. The House plan would pay based on whether students were in introductory or advanced courses.
How exactly the funding formula will change is still up in the air. The proposed two-year budget will soon be taken up by the Senate.
Patrick Biggerstaff, assistant director of Wayne Township’s Area 31 Career Center and leader of the Indiana Association for Career and Technical Education, said the state needs to increase funding for career and technical education.
“Here’s the challenge: It’s been over a decade since any of these pathways have had an increase in funding, but the need now is greater than ever,” he said. “We’re experiencing a paradigm shift. The governor is pushing very hard for career and technical education, but the funding hasn’t been there to support it.”
IPS already is paying attention to what programs are working best, and hopes to add more strong career and technical programs. The district will add new options in computer programming and computer science next year. Some programs with low enrollment — though Carter won’t say which ones yet — may be dropped.
“We’re going to be reevaluating each and every pathway,” Carter said. “If (students) don’t find it new, fun and innovative, they’re not going to want to work in it.”