As the back-to-school season gets underway, one challenge that many parents and educators face each school year is keeping students of all kinds engaged in classroom learning.
One pathway to student engagement at the high school level is career technical education (CTE). It's what many people still think of as "vo-tech" or vocational-technical education. Today, CTE offers a whole world of opportunity, combining the ever-changing demands of today's top industries with the knowledge gained from classroom and on-the-ground training.
Tara Troester, a CTE content lead in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, works with both teachers and industries to create the substance of career tech programs in her area.
She "ensures articulation between industry and the classroom" in her role, she said. "CTE is, really, every career path — it is agriculture, construction, business management, education training, finance and more," she told Fox News Digital in a phone interview.
High school students — and, in some areas of the country, middle school students as well — can "explore careers, learn what the job opportunities are and choose course work that aligns with their interests and also what's available in their community," she said.
"We have thousands [of students] take our classes, testing out CTE by taking one class. Then we have hundreds on a ‘pathway’ [of] two or more classes," she said.
The most popular classes in her local program are health care-related, followed by electrical training classes, Troester said.
CTE looks at "what the high-demand jobs are" then helps students "develop those skills," she said. They learn "to navigate and advocate for themselves while becoming critical thinkers and problem solvers."
The outdated term "vo-tech" tends to call forth outdated images, said Troester.
What comes to mind for many when they hear that is "woodshop settings," she said, along with a "hands-on, minds-off" mentality.
Today, CTE teachers and professionals are "changing that narrative," she said. "Great career opportunities exist in multiple fields, and we help students see what those fields are."
Troester highlighted new areas of growth in her school system’s offerings. Female students are interested in automotive training, for example — and there are options for differently abled students as well.
Real-world applications to concepts learned in the classroom are a big benefit of CTE, said Troester.
For example, real estate students help market a home that was built by their fellow construction students. This is something the group has been doing for the last 50 years.
The proceeds from the sale of the home then go directly into next year’s build, Troester said.
CTE students often earn college credits, too, by graduating from high school with an associate's degree, often at no extra cost.
The larger adult workforce also benefits from CTE programs, she indicated. "Businesses that have a diverse employee population are able to meet the needs of their customers," said Troester. "It’s a win-win."
The CTE program also helps "provide some of those skills that we don’t usually learn until we're working our first jobs, such as responsibility and time management," Troester said.
"The confidence to try and the willingness to ask questions are developed before the [students] even enter the job market," she said. "They’re used to asking questions, and they take ownership of their learning."
Deidre Pendley, director of career technical education and assistant principal for Tennessee High School in Bristol, Tennessee, said it's important "not to make assumptions about a student’s interests and aptitude."
"Students only know what they see, and if they have not been exposed to a variety of careers, they are limited in their choices," she told Fox News Digital via email.
Her program "starts career exploration activities as early as elementary school," she said. She added that while students "may not excel in traditional English or math classes, a career inventory, a visit to a local industry or a guest speaker from a local employer" may help these students to realize that their strengths and interests lie in more hands-on activities or a technical field.
"In addition to career exploration, the CTE pathway provides relevant high school curriculum and hands-on experiences, industry certifications, early post-secondary opportunities, work-based learning and pre-apprenticeship programs — all designed to provide a seamless pathway to a career," she noted.
Pendley said that helping students to develop soft skills is "just as important to prepare them for the workforce as [is] teaching them the technical skills they need for their chosen field."
Today’s employers "demand that employees come to them with good communication skills, emotional intelligence, a willingness to learn, a positive attitude and an understanding of what it takes to be a consistent, reliable employee," she said.
Adding that in their area they have "more than 100 local businesses and industries that host students for job shadowing and even offer paid positions," Pendley said, which helps develop those crucial soft skills.
Is CTE catching on in Bristol, Tennessee? The answer is yes, according to data. "Our enrollment in CTE courses has grown by 409 students in two years, which is a 33% increase," said Pendley.
She also said, "Our work-based learning program has grown by 57 students, which is a 114% increase. Within the last three years, we have added seven new CTE programs of study to meet the growing demand."
When adding new programs, Pendley said her team "looks at the workforce data in our region to determine which programs are needed."
Based on course requests, criminal justice, culinary arts and health science are typically their most popular courses, she said.
"A big part of our success with students finding employment upon graduation is due to our partnerships with local businesses and industries," she noted.
Tennessee High School was the first school in the region to develop a state-certified pre-apprenticeship program, she said. The school now has "pre-apprenticeship agreements with two local employers in the areas of construction and manufacturing."
The pre-apprenticeship agreements ensure that students who meet the requirements of the course standards, complete the required certifications, and have strong attendance and discipline records will get an interview with the company, she said.
If hired, students can start their employment during the school day with work-based learning classes, said Pendley.
"We offer dual-enrollment and dual-credit CTE opportunities for students who want to pursue a CTE post-secondary degree," she said.
"This helps them finish the post-secondary program faster and begin working and earning money in their chosen field."
Troester of Iowa said that "signing days" for employment and apprenticeships in the trades are now celebrated across the nation just as they are "for athletes."
Today, there is more acknowledgment of the idea that "your path is your path — and that’s OK," Troester said.
One New York mom’s son found success through a CTE program in his local area.
"At first, I was dead-set against my son attending the [career tech] program in high school — there had been a stigma attached to it," the mom of two sons in New York's Hudson Valley told Fox News Digital.
However, she added, "After I spoke to his guidance counselor at length, I decided he could attend."
"It was a great decision for him," she said. "He was able to grow his culinary skills and gained confidence in all aspects of life. His teachers were really encouraging — and his fellow students all shared the same passion."
"I think he had an edge in college," she also said, "because of this program and his work at a local restaurant as a result. He was confident of his culinary classes, which helped in the transition from high school to college. [In college] his 'labs' started at 7:30 a.m. — and he never missed one."
The mother added, "I'm forever grateful that I was convinced to let him go. And he still had all of his classes at high school — so, best of both worlds."
For Troester in Iowa, what makes young students stronger and more confident also makes the country stronger overall.
"CTE provides the starting point for economic strength," she said.
"When we have kids who have seen pathways and how they can give back, that makes a community stronger. Having a high-skilled population is good for the nation."