Sparks were flying Wednesday morning at Soldotna High School, where junior Kevin Steger donned protective eyewear while applying a stick welder to a long strip of metal. As a flaming plume shot out of Steger’s workspace, flashes created by another student in a welding hood lit up the red plastic curtains sectioning off the area’s individual workspaces.
One room over, other students sawed and laid out insulation while Lee Tobin braced a wooden window frame against the facade of a small shed. The sounds of hammers and staple guns filled the air while Tobin’s classmates mixed paint, affixed shingles and mapped out electrical wiring.
Steger, Tobin and their classmates are just some of the more than 1,300 students in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District taking advantage of career and technical education, or CTE, opportunities. CTE refers to courses and programs that focus on skills and knowledge needed for specific fields of work, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
CTE in the United States received a major bump in 2018, when federal legislation funding career and technical education was reauthorized. Alaska was identified as a funding recipient in 2020 after applying for program funding. Through fiscal year 2022, which ended last June, more than $21 million has flowed into Alaska from the federal government for CTE programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
As Alaska works to address a worker shortage leaving many employers in the lurch, some in the state are looking to CTE’s school-to-work pipeline as a way to alleviate the strain.
Career and technical education programming has been identified as a priority by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, where “workforce development” is identified in the district’s 2022-2027 Strategic Plan, approved last year.
KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland, who has been vocal about his support for the district’s vocational learning opportunities, highlighted KPBSD’s CTE programs during a presentation to the Alaska Senate Education Committee earlier this month.
“(CTE) is a bookend to what we’re doing with academic excellence and foundational excellence at the younger grades,” Holland told the committee. “I know this is a big thing with our state lawmakers: What are we doing to prepare our workforce? Career technical education, or CTE, is a big part of that.”
CTE programming is made possible with federal money allocated through Carl D. Perkins grants. The most recent reauthorization of that legislation was in 2018 by former President Donald Trump as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act.
Federal funding of career and technical education, also called vocational education, dates back to 1917 with the Smith-Hughes Act, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Subsequent federal legislation includes five iterations of a Carl Perkins act, including Perkins V under Trump.
Alaska’s four-year CTE implementation plan was given the green light by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in July 2020. Alaska received about $5.6 million from Perkins V for fiscal year 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Perkins Collaborative Resource Network. About $1.2 billion is appropriated annually by Congress through Perkins.
“CTE programming in Alaska has shown to improve high school graduation rates, accelerate postsecondary enrollment, and increase employment and earning potential for both youth and adult students,” Alaska’s plan says. “Contemporary CTE programming provides students with rigorous academic and advanced technical instruction aligned with state academic standards and industry-validated skills.”
Annaleah Karron, KPBSD’s college and career coordinator, told KPBSD Board of Education members during a presentation on CTE last month that the district offers courses corresponding to 13 of the 16 nationally recognized pathways, from food and construction, to engineering and public safety.
Karron said last week that the amount of money school districts received through the Perkins grant is tied to the number of students in an area and economic need. KPBSD gets about $330,000 for CTE each year, in addition to whatever other monies Karron can secure through things like grant opportunities or donations, she said. Some CTE courses also generate money that is put back into the program.
Use of Perkins funds must be tied directly to one of 16 nationally recognized career pathways, of which KPBSD offers classes in:
Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
Architecture and Construction.
A/V Technology and Communications.
Business, Management and Administration.
Education and Training.
Hospitality and Tourism.
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Transportation, Distribution and Logistics.
Law, Public Safety, Corrections and Security.
Shortly after the clock struck 8 a.m. Wednesday, KCHS foods and culinary teacher Matthew James was overseeing a class of students huddled over boiling water and mixing dough as they worked their way through a pretzel recipe. James, who is in his first year of teaching with the district, said he brings experience owning restaurants and bakeries to the position.
“My goal is for the kids to be able to feed themselves and not burn their house down,” James said.
In addition to learning how to use kitchen equipment and to measure liquid versus solid volumes for recipes, students are also able to get their food worker card through his Food 1, Food 2 and Culinary Arts classes. James and his students last fall implemented a community bake sale program through which residents could place an order to be prepared by KCHS students.
KCHS sophomore Seanna Swanson, who was making pretzels with Kelsi Curren, Maddie Cazares and Inn Saeteia on Wednesday morning, said she was interested in taking a food class to prepare for living in a dorm room in college. So far, the group said they’ve made salsa, Mexican wedding cookies and tortillas — all of which they get to take home once the bell rings.
Across campus, in the KCHS shop building, senior Jorgi Phillips was finishing up making and packing wooden boxes, which will house metal art pieces — also made by students — en route to Juneau. One of the pieces is Phillips’ latest work and depicts a mermaid.
Last year, Phillips’ piece “Angler Fish” was displayed through the 2022 Alaska’s Heart Through Student Art show in Juneau. When it comes to working with metal, Phillips said it’s the design that counts.
“It’s pretty easy as long as you design it well,” she said.
Overseeing the KCHS computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD-CAM), Construction/Manufacturing Woods and Construction/Manufacturing Metals courses is Barry Hartman, the school’s vocation teacher. Hartman, who was named Alaska’s 2022 CTE Teacher of the Year, said Wednesday that he’s always wanted to be a shop teacher.
“That’s what I wanted to do — hands on — because I believe that’s how kids learn best,” Hartman said.
He said he jumps at opportunities to make community-minded projects happen, such as the student work on display at Kenai River Brewing and a student currently working to make a new sign for a park in Salamatof. Another student is making a sign for her dad’s business and Hartman said they knock out several greenhouses each year.
About 10 miles away, at Soldotna High School, CTE programming is just as active.
Branching off from a SoHi corridor that Karron refers to as the “CTE hallway” are metal and welding shops, a construction shop and the robotics classroom. A room across the way serves both cosmetology and aviation students — bins full of nail polish just feet away from a multiscreen flight simulator administered by a teacher with her private pilot’s license.
Kenai Peninsula Middle College senior Lucas Ermold was working in a welding booth Wednesday. He’s enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and has plans to become an aerospace propulsion specialist. That job, Ermold said, entails being assigned to a specific jet engine and being responsible for repair and rebuild work.
“I’ve always really been into taking stuff apart (and) putting it back together,” he said.
Ermold said making parts and tools is a skill needed for in-depth jet engine fabrication, and that he’s practicing those skills through his welding class. His other class is rock climbing, offered through Kenai Peninsula College.
Kenai Peninsula Middle College senior Carter Kincaid was also working in Soldotna High School. Taking out large black bins filled with tools and pieces to make simple machines, Kincaid explained how his Principles of Engineering class applies math and physics formulas to how those machines work.
“The first week, we did mechanical advantage stuff,” Kincaid said. “So we would learn about simple machines and then we did a project building with that and we calculated efficiency and stuff.”
Kincaid said he has taken robotics and college physics classes while enrolled at Kenai Peninsula Middle College, and that he plans to pursue engineering after he graduates. Principles of Engineering is the only high school class Kincaid is taking this semester, and is in addition to a psychology and a history class at Kenai Peninsula College.
For Karron, work on KPBSD’s career and technical education program is just beginning.
Among her goals for the next five years are to change public perception of CTE in the Kenai Peninsula community and to further flesh out the program’s health sciences, construction and computer science pathways. She’d also like to see the State of Alaska implement programmatic funding for CTE that could supplement what school districts receive through the federal Perkins grants.
The Education Commission of the States says that, as of 2020, at least 37 states have implemented policies that address the creation or approval of CTE programming.
State Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, is taking a leave of absence as a teacher at Nikiski Middle/High School and chairs the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee. Workforce development was a stated priority of Bjorkman’s during his campaign for the Alaska Senate, and he said Friday that hasn’t changed.
Bjorkman said the State of Alaska can better support career and technical education opportunities by increasing the amount of money it gives to school districts each year. The per-student amount of funding awarded by the state to school districts is a hot-button issue in Juneau this year, with school districts around the state, including KPBSD, reporting budget crises.
“The best way right now that we can really utilize and expand career and technical education opportunities … is we need to increase the base student allocation to provide local school districts with the tools and resources that they need in order to offer those programs and to pay instructors,” Bjorkman said.
Nikiski Middle/High School, he said, used to have a greater capacity for CTE programs that was whittled away as budgets tightened. Boosting CTE monies awarded through federal Perkins grants “would be an excellent solution,” Bjorkman said, but that robust communication of what programs and opportunities are available to high school students is also critical.
“We can do that again, but we have to commit to prioritizing those types of programs with dollars,” Bjorkman said. “The Department of Labor can definitely partner more closely with industry as well as K-12 education around the state to align programs and information so that students know the opportunities that are available to them when they leave high school.”
Karron agrees and says students don’t need to commit to any one path once they finish high school.
“I think a lot of kids get that, ‘What are you doing for the rest of your life?’ and it scares the heck out of them,” Karron said. “So it’s that idea of like, OK, let’s make a two week plan. What is your plan right now? If you decide in two weeks, oh, I don’t want to do that anymore, you can pivot and you can change at any point in the process. It’s not that you failed, we’re just going to make an adjustment and change that path.”
More information about career and technical education opportunities can be found on KPBSD’s CTE webpage at kpbsd.org/cte.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.