With the twist of a couple of knobs on his tablet, Jovanni Gonzalez swung the large, orange robotic arm across a field of aluminum blocks as he trained it to pick them up one-by-one.
Until this year, Gonzalez — a high school junior — knew little about robotics. Then he signed up for a class at the Kern High School District’s Regional Occupational Center, which offers skilled trade classes in 15 different fields, including agriculture, building and construction trades, energy, education, health and transportation.
Gonzales isn’t quite sure what kind of career he wants to pursue, but knows that by the time he graduates, he’ll be certified to program and repair robots, like the massive Kuka arm he has been working with this semester that is frequently used in industry assembly lines.
“It could lead to a job,” Gonzales said. “I know that.”
Gonzales is one of about 1,600 students enrolled in Career Technical Education courses at the ROC, which has seen explosive growth the last three years. The district has responded by ramping up its program offerings and opening up parts of its existing ROC to accommodate more students, but that’s done little to address the issue as popularity of the courses grows.
The program has been operating since 1985, but in the past three years, enrollment has doubled in size. Just last year, KHSD was forced to turn away almost 2,000 students who applied for the program because of overcrowding.
“We knew we needed to do something,” said Brian Miller, KHSD supervising administrator of Career Technical Education.
So the district is planning to break ground this spring on a $60 million facility in the southwest near Independence High School that will house even more programs, including a construction trades class where students will build tiny houses for their final projects. It’s being funded with publicly approved Measure K bond dollars and is set to be completed in fall or winter of 2019. The district also has plans to construct a special education Career Technical Education center at Frontier High School in the northwest by August 2019.
Enrollment isn’t just driving demand, either, district officials said.
When legislators changed state education funding structures to give districts more local control, parents, students and other community members called for more vocational education at nearly every KHSD meeting, said Ben Sherley, KHSD director of educational services.
“The stakeholders want CTE,” Sherley said. “And if we didn’t ask the question, ‘what’s important to parents?’ then data would still show that if they’re enrolled in CTE programs, learning goes up across the board.”
When students are enrolled in Career Technical Education, there’s a 30 percent increase in the odds that they will complete college prep math sequences of Algebra 1, Algebra 2 and Geometry, according to a 2013 Johns Hopkins University study that examined Philadelphia schools. Those students also had higher on-time graduation rates than their peers, the study shows.
Stephen Mears, the robotics instructor at the ROC, has seen the academic turnarounds first hand.
“It happens quite a bit. Students come in here with low GPAs, then they say they love it here and never want to leave,” Mears said.
Career Technical Education also engages students who are oftentimes under-performing in traditional academic classes and gives them a reason to care about school, Sherley said.
“They need something to attract them to school. We have that here,” Sherley said. “And it allows them to learn an employable skill.”
John Spaulding, executive secretary of the local Building and Construction Trades Council, said the program helps churn out industry-prepped graduates. He’s eager to see KHSD expand its offerings, and potentially partner with the trades council to have students work as interns on construction sites.
“It’s an opportunity that we have not had for awhile,” Spaulding said. “We can introduce construction to these high school students that don’t necessarily have the interest or the opportunity to go onto college and show them we have great careers and opportunities.”
The career technical programs aren’t relegated to traditional blue collar work, either. In the last three years, KHSD has rolled out new programs, including robotics, health care and pharmacy tech, dental assistant, video game design, mobile app development, sports medicine and video production.
Before rolling out a new program, Sherley said, district officials ask the question, “is there a local need and student interest?”
Roughly 56 percent of Career Technical Education students enrolled in post-secondary education programs related to their vocational study after high school, according to a KHSD survey of 2017 graduates. About 18 percent gained employment in areas related to their programs.
Part of the success, administrators and teachers say, comes from the long three-hour blocks students spend in Career Technical Education courses.
So enthused by the allure of working with expensive industry machinery, many of the kids in Mears’ class skip their breaks and lunches altogether in favor of tinkering with circuits, motherboards and engineering new movements for their robots.
Many know it will pay off for them after graduation.
“In the future, you’re going to find these robots everywhere,” Mears said. “They’re going to need work done, and my students are going to be the ones to do it.”