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Trading Up

Trade school stigma has cost high school kids opportunities


Career and technical education (CTE) centers, sometimes referred to as trade schools, have deep roots in Bucks County. Hundreds of students from area school districts are giving Bucks County Technical High School, Middle Bucks Institute of Technology and Upper Bucks County Technical School a try.

According to multiple CTE administrators, the interest level from students recently has been unprecedented.

The days of long-held stigmas against technical education have mostly dissipated, leaving career opportunities at the front of many students’ minds.

Robert Azar, principal of Bucks County Technical High School, spoke about the opportunities his institution offers students.

“We are a comprehensive technical school offering students both traditional academic core classes and a selection of 28 technical programs,” he said. “We use a curriculum based on the Pennsylvania Department of Education standard-aligned system. Teachers and students are supportive about the options and career pathways afforded to our students.”

“There is no one fit for all students. Attending a CTE center should be an individual choice made in conjunction with a child’s parents or guardians. The benefits of being in the trades are numerous including less time learning a vocation, skills for a lifetime, and reduced student debt.”

In many Bucks County school districts, career and technical education is an elective students can take instead of traditional electives like gym or art. Real-world job exposure and field experience is one of the core principles of CTE.

Licensed Professional Counselor Tara Bryant-Gray, of Central Bucks East High School, also spoke highly of CTE centers.

“I believe trade schools are a fantastic option for many students. I think that there are some unfortunate misconceptions about trade schools and I work hard as both a public school counselor and a psychotherapist to educate people as to the value of these institutions. Let’s face it, trade school graduates keep our communities moving forward and support us in a myriad of ways.”

“When I was doing my counseling program at the University of Pennsylvania, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to do one of my internships at Middle Bucks Institute of Technology. I remember my walks throughout the large complex to check in on students who were training in their respective trades and crafts. The programs were as diverse as the students in attendance.”

She continued, “One day I would see students in the culinary program making an elegant multi-course meal and the next I would see others building a house on the grounds. I encourage students to think about trade schools when they express confusion about post-secondary options, but if a student is already voicing an inclination to work in that field, I wholeheartedly cheer them on.”

“I think one of the misconceptions is that these students do not want to go to college, but each student is different. Some elect to continue their education and others go directly into the workforce. CBSD’s partnership with Middle Bucks is collegial, strong and collaborative. We all want the same goal which is to help these students graduate strongly and on time.”

In Bucks County, CTE centers allow students plenty of flexibility. If one starts with a program they don’t see themselves sticking with, it is easy to switch to another without interrupting their education. School boards also play a big part in the availability of these programs.

Pennridge Board Director Megan Banis-Clemens, who left office this month, spoke in the fall about the advantages of career and technical education.

“Trade schools are the future, paving the way for pathways in many industries,” she said. “People are quickly realizing skill-based learning is the priority and we need students to have access to that skill development early on. Compared to other countries, we are late to the game. Too many students are studying and memorizing content and coming out of college with high debt and no jobs.”

She continued, “There’s always a balance and degrees are needed in many fields, but the focus on degrees for every job instead of hands-on job training is not the answer. The stigma associated with CTE and the notion that students who are really smart and taking high academic courses should not go to technical school is thinking that prevents kids from so many opportunities.”

“For example, had students pursuing expensive engineering degrees gone to trade school for mechatronics, machining or welding, they could have learned hands-on skills and application of the content. They can also get a job directly out of high school that will pay for an engineering degree and get paid a high salary to do the job. These are missed opportunities no one is talking about.”

“I always encourage students to pursue these opportunities. There’s always a benefit to learning a trade. Those are skills you will have for the rest of your life. We need to know how to do things ourselves. My eyes have been opened to far more opportunities I didn’t even realize were there. Businesses are also shifting their requirements to prioritize hands-on experience,” she added.

School officials suggested that Bucks County is at the forefront of promoting career and technical education at a time when demand for these programs is growing.

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