DELBARTON, W.Va. — Visitors to Mingo Central High School’s career and technical education classrooms may see students under the hood of a truck or lit up by the flicker of a welding torch.
But your first impression may actually be a greeting by ambassadors in blue shirts, offering a firm handshake and their business cards.
“It’s all those soft skills the employers are screaming for,” said Kathy D’Antoni, chief officer for Career Technical Education for the state school system.
This is the evolution of vocational education, where students are learning marketable skills — but, equally important, learning to market themselves.
Students may be learning the beginnings of graphic arts, wood products, welding, auto mechanics or nursing. But they’re also being encouraged to develop lifelong problem-solving skills, initiative, interpersonal communication and teamwork.
Prior to an evolution of how educators think about career and technical education, the students who greet visitors at Mingo Central might not have been so gung-ho.
“That would never have happened,” D’Antoni said. “Those kids wouldn’t have ever looked you in the eye. It’s just a different world for kids. Once you can find that switch, they blossom.”
Mingo Central, which opened in 2011 after the consolidation of four area high schools, was named a model school for embracing a system of simulated workplaces.
The simulated workplaces mean the students are given the positions and responsibilities that they might in an actual company. In fact, their classrooms are called companies. At Mingo Central, for example, they go by names like “Appalachian Engineering” or “Mountaintop Metal.”
West Virginia has become a national role model in the implementation of career technical education. For instance, a New York Times story from this past August was headlined, “Seeing Hope for Flagging Economy, West Virginia Revamps Vocational Track.”
In all, there are 1,200 companies at 157 sites in West Virginia. There are more than 24,000 students in such programs across the state.
The students wear uniforms to signify the business they represent. They have the opportunity to earn state and national certifications upon completion of the program. Simulated workplace students have a 98.4 percent drug- free rate.
Teachers serve as leaders, but students are expected to come with their own ideas and arrive each day with their own drive to succeed.
“We’ve transformed the environment and the culture of students being responsible for their own education,” D’Antoni said.
“It’s just changing the student. The very first words of every kid is the same — they feel respected. They’re just blossoming in front of our eyes. Nobody’s ever asked them, and it’s their future. This is the emerging workforce for West Virginia. We should really be paying attention.”
D’Antoni says it’s a battle to persuade people that career tech programs are not just for students viewed as not bound for college. Perception is changing, but it’s taking time.
“It’s a fight,” she said. It’s getting better. It’s a struggle to get principals, counselors and teachers to understand the value of career education.”
The evolving nature of workplaces means four-year college isn’t the best route for many students, she said.
“Your choice should be made on ‘What does it take to get me to where I want to be?'” D’Antoni said.
Steve Paine, the state superintendent of schools, agreed during remarks at a recent Education Summit panel in Charleston that the needs of employers are changing and so the way students are trained in career and technical programs needs to change too.
“That’s happening to our economy out there — these highly-specialized and highly-technical skills,” Paine said. “That’s probably the biggest difference is the shift in the kinds of jobs that are out there.
“They talk about the decline of routine job skills that are required in certain occupations and how those jobs are going away — and how non-routine analytical skills are required in these new occupations. We have to take a serious look at how we’re preparing kids and what we’re preparing them for within the K-12 pipeline.”
Leasha Johnson is executive director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, which is responsible for recruiting new business and industry to the area. She is part of the advisory committee for Mingo Central’s career tech programs.
“The results that I’ve seen in the simulated workplace have been phenomenal,” she said. “They are delivering themselves with confidence. They’re better prepared for the workplace and higher education. As an economic developer, I’m thankful for the opportunity that simulated workplace gives them.”
Brent Moore, the welding instructor at Mingo Central, takes pride in work orders that go toward fulfilling projects. Teachers may ask for desks with the legs welded for solid support. The teachers go over a work order with a student to make sure it’s how they want. The student reads it back to the teacher to make sure it’s right.
The class also has a feedback form that is taken to the teacher upon receipt of a finished desk.
“We want the honest assessment from the teacher about the work we’ve done so the students –or in this case, the employees — can know the quality of their work,” Moore said. “We want to have students leave here with that mindset: when they go to work for somebody, do the best work possible, and the customer really is always right.”
Peyton Davis, an 11th grader whose company is called Valley Central Heating and Cooling, said he enrolled in the program to get a leg up in his desired career as an electrician. Davis said he’s a confident learner.
“Our teacher really helped us learn how to adapt these skills so we can apply them later on in the workforce,” he said.
Chris Varney, another 11th grader, has been pulling apart cars and putting them back together. He’s the IT director for Mountaintop Repairshop. He recently disassembled a 1990 Ford Probe to fix a cracked valve head.
“Hands on. I’m more of a hands-on learner. That’s what I prefer,” Varney said. “There are some things you can’t learn from a book that you learn hands on.”
Brittany Belcher, a senior, is in a pre-engineering program. She wants to earn her undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering with an eye on eventually becoming a neurologist.
“I’m using biomedical engineering as my background to help give me more basic principals in science,” she said.
Belcher said students like her are benefiting from the way their classes reward initiative and hands-on training.
“With engineering you still have those math and science skills, but it’s more like applied math,” she said. “So we do have curriculum we have to learn but we get the leeway to do different projects to help grow our knowledge and interests. It gives us a step up in what we want to do in the future versus learning just book work.
“You get more specifics here because it’s more individualized while still being a variety of things.”
She said some stigma remains with vocational education. But, she said, students like her are wiping that out.
“There is a stigma, but that stigma is being destroyed thankfully,” Belcher said, noting that students have to fill out a resume and demonstrate good attendance and good grades to get into the program.
“People are starting to realize it’s beneficial even if you do want to go to college because you’re getting those fundamental skills to work in the workforce. It’s a head start.”