School districts are increasingly offering solid industry certifications to prepare students for college and career. By Kim Greene
When Rachel Rath graduates from Park Vista Community High School in Lake Worth, Florida, later this spring, she’ll not only have a diploma but also several credentials to her name—phlebotomy technician and certified medical administrative assistant, among them.
Rath, 18, is a senior in the school’s medical academy, which allows students to pursue career paths as emergency medical responders, medical lab assistants, and other health-care workers. Students are immersed in their field of study through a combination of traditional academics and hands-on clinical work. Rath, for example, has taken an anatomy and physiology class, while also visiting hospitals to shadow technicians in X-ray departments and laboratories.
This type of experience is impressive enough for a student to add to a résumé or college application. But like a number of other schools around the country, Park Vista offers students the opportunity to take industry-recognized exams and gain certifications. A passing grade demonstrates that students possess the knowledge and skill set necessary for a given job. The certifications help graduates land job interviews and can serve as a baseline to pursue further schooling in their chosen field.
Industry-recognized credentials span many career clusters—from hospitality services to manufacturing to visual arts. Some credentials are issued by states, while others are governed by national organizations. In some districts, the certification tests can even count as final exams for coursework.
Park Vista started offering industry certifications about six years ago to prepare students for postsecondary life, says Kim Fisher, the school’s academy coordinator. “When they graduate, they have the option to go immediately to work, such as in nursing homes, or they can continue on to college.”
In the case of the medical program at Park Vista, the vast majority of students, roughly 90 to 95 percent, are headed to college. Rath is one of those students. She plans to become a rheumatologist and believes her certifications will enable her career goals. Rath also says she won’t wait to complete eight to 10 years of medical schooling to put her phlebotomy certificate to work. “Instead of just going to classes [during college], hopefully I’ll be going to the hospital and other health-care offices to work,” she says. “Not only will it give me experience but also some money to pay for tuition.”
An Upward Trend
The face of career and technical education is changing in response to a demand for graduates with postsecondary or other specialized training, and more states are moving in the direction of offering these credentials, says Rod Duckworth, career and adult education chancellor in Florida. “We believe that if we’re providing students with opportunities that directly connect with the needs of industry, then we’re on the right track,” he says. “Industry certification is exactly that.”
It’s a win-win for both students and businesses. Students are better prepared for the workforce, and business leaders have a wider, deeper pool of qualified job candidates.
States are responding by putting money and legislation behind the effort. According to a February 2015 report by the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, 19 states passed laws or launched initiatives that focused on increasing industry-recognized credential attainment in 2014.
Arizona’s state budget for fiscal year 2015 includes $1 million for information technology certification programs, while Minnesota set aside $300,000 for IT education partnerships leading to certification. States are also incentivizing school districts to offer credential opportunities. Florida awards $1,000 to districts for each industry certificate a student obtains in a targeted career area, while Kansas distributes the same amount for each senior who graduates with an industry credential in a high-need occupation.
Duckworth says funding incentives like these help school districts improve their certificate offerings. “[The districts] are reinvesting that money in the program so they can buy additional equipment,” he says. “In information technology, there’s a lot of updating that’s required to make sure you have the best equipment possible and that students are getting the closest to real-world experiences as possible.”
While each state varies, Florida’s robust funding of career and technical education—due in large part to the Career and Professional Education Act of 2007—also helps districts cover the cost of administering certification exams. “Depending on the number of industry certifications that a district offers, they have a tendency to negotiate with testing companies to get the best deal if they’re buying a large number of testing opportunities,” Duckworth says.
What you Need to Know
Reginald Myers, principal of Park Vista, says the state funding piece of the puzzle is crucial: “If a school had to do it on its own, it could be a real challenge.”
Another key sticking point is finding the right staff. In the case of the Certified Nursing Assistant program at Park Vista, the Florida Board of Nursing requires that a certified nurse instruct the courses. Myers says he’s been fortunate to have a top-notch team of educational professionals who also have experience in their respective fields.
“Many of the teachers we have right now could probably remain in the private sector and make lots of money,” he says. “When they choose to join the education field, they’re giving up a lot. You have to be very passionate to go from making $60,000 or $70,000 to $30,000 or $40,000. That’s a lot to give up in order to teach.”
Duckworth believes a strong connection with the industry community dictates a program’s effectiveness as well. “Really successful programs have strong advisory committees that help advise what programs will be offered,” he says. These boards often decide which certifications are affiliated with school programs. The advisers can also shed light on the industry’s needs and job outlook in that particular region.
At Park Vista, Myers has a medical advisory board that meets monthly. Many of the members are parents of students, while some are affiliated with agencies. Myers says the advisers help him determine whether the program is properly preparing students.
The advisory board also helps the school establish partnerships in the medical community. “Without them, there are no clinicals,” Myers explains. “We can do all of the classroom work here, but we have to be able to get the students out in clinicals to have hands-on experiences.”
IT Programs Rising
Myers and Duckworth aren’t alone in understanding the importance of advisory boards. Phil Vice, senior administrator of career and technical education in Wake County Public School System, has used committees to build a robust offering of credential programs in his North Carolina district. “We have an advisory committee to let us know what’s going on in the industry and what we need to move toward,” he says.
Industry in Wake County and across the country is pointing toward information technology as a burgeoning field of career opportunity. In the past, the district allowed students to take the CompTIA A+ certification exam (a test for computer technicians), but found it was quite challenging for high schoolers.
As a result, Wake County is currently part of a pilot program aimed at giving more students access to four additional certifications in computer engineering. North Carolina–based ExplorNet and the Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning (QTL) developed the program’s curriculum to prepare students for the CompTIA Strata IT Fundamentals exam, as well as three Microsoft Technology Associate tests.
In the new model, these four tests serve as stepping stones throughout students’ coursework and build up to the A+ exam, which serves as the culmination. “This new pilot brings that to the average student. We feel that we have a much stronger ability to reach more students going into this exciting engineering field,” says Vice.
The program, which is slated to be offered at schools nationwide next school year, engages students in hands-on training, teaching them to problem-solve hardware and software issues.
Vice says experiences like these build a well-rounded student. “Although we’re going for the certification skills, there’s a secondary major component in students learning problem-solving skills that can be transferred into other areas, especially in core classes,” he notes.
Rachel Porter, executive director of QTL, believes the combination of skills is vital to student success. “The trend is toward more certifications being built in at the high school level. It follows the general trend that we’re expecting more out of schooling in general.”
“It’s not okay to send kids from high school into postsecondary or a career where they really don’t have the skills to thrive in that field or life in general,” Porter continues. “This is another way that it’s being addressed in K–12, in terms of creating those life skills that will allow them to be productive citizens.”
Photos: Courtesy of Park Vista Community High School