Career and technical education (CTE) has been a part of the United States since free public education was created. Although it was originally limited to young men working skilled apprenticeships in trade fields, it has grown to encompass all students and a variety of programs. From teacher training to health care, engineering to cosmetology, CTE is an integral part of the high school experience for most students. In fact, reports from the U.S. Department of Education reveal that students who take CTE courses are at a lower risk for dropping out, and taking CTE courses is linked with an increased likelihood of enrolling in postsecondary education.

At the high school level, CTE is provided in three main ways: through comprehensive high schools, full-time CTE high schools, and area or regional CTE centers serving multiple districts. Ninety-five percent of students have access to CTE courses through their comprehensive high school or a regional center, which—although they are called centers—are typically housed within the high school itself. This creates a unique structure for principals, who must work alongside CTE directors to ensure success for all students.

Open Lines of Communication 

Christopher Dodge, CTE director at Salem High School in New Hampshire, believes that while there is “no magic formula” for creating a successful partnership between a principal and a CTE director, there are ways to make the relationship more effective. “We [the principal and I] respect each other’s positions and jobs. We keep open lines of communication, and we have no secrets or hidden agendas,” Dodge says.

Tracy Collyer, principal at Salem High School, says she relies on Dodge to look beyond high school and keep her in the loop about the workforce, what jobs are on the rise, what programs are no longer relevant, etc. By keeping his pulse on these areas, Dodge can provide invaluable judgments when it comes time to make decisions about programs to offer and teachers to hire. 

Over time, Steve Rothenberg, CTE director at Concord High School in New Hampshire, and principal Tom Sica, have developed mutual respect for the complexity of one another’s jobs. “I spend time educating him about what is going on with CTE. I also try hard to understand the principal’s perspective and how we fit into what is happening at the school,” Rothenberg says. The Concord CTE center is located within the comprehensive high school, which means it brings students from eight other schools into the building. “That translates into roughly 370 kids a day coming to our high school from other schools for CTE-related work,” he says.

Working Together 

“It is essential that we work together to educate people—teachers, students, and parents—about what CTE is and what students can do with these courses,” says Keith Richard, principal at Nashua High School South, also in New Hampshire.

Richard says one of the most important ways he educates people is by breaking the stigma that can sometimes be associated with CTE. “It’s not a separate, down the hall, or hidden vocational thing,” he says. 

Make sure the person in the principal’s position sees the value of CTE for all students, says Marianne Dustin, CTE director at Nashua Technology Center South. “Principals have so much on their plate as they guide the cruise ship that it’s incumbent on the CTE director to educate them about the job opportunities, facts, laws, budgets, etc.,” Dustin says. Principals should call upon CTE directors to share knowledge about the pathways available for CTE students and the options students have after graduation. 

Powerful Partnerships

Consider these key steps in developing a successful working relationship between principals and CTE directors:

  • Education. Principals should visit CTE classes, talk with teachers and business partners, and learn about the certifications, licenses, and other components that are included in CTE courses. “I had to educate myself,” Richard says. “I visited programs and worked to understand what makes them different.” CTE directors should present information to principals so that they understand the CTE world. The more stories, articles, and data they can provide, the more principals will understand. 
  • Communication. Have a regularly scheduled meeting on the calendar at least twice a month. “Having this time allows us to take down any barriers before they become something big,” Richard says. Use this time to share data, voice concerns, and provide information about what is happening at the state and national levels. Additionally, principals should make sure to include the CTE director in all administration meetings. Basically, keep the lines of communication open. “Don’t surprise the principal. Make sure that if it impacts the principal, they are in the know,” Dodge says. 
  • Trust. Trust is a key factor in any relationship, and it takes time to develop. Dustin suggests that CTE directors and principals get to know one another by brainstorming a list of topics they would like to learn more about or have questions about. For example, a principal may have questions about the role of advisory boards, safety, lab space, etc. CTE directors, on the other hand, may want the principal’s perspective on the idea of career vs. college ready, or on dealing with the school board. Keep in mind that many CTE teachers don’t come from traditional teaching programs. Often, the best CTE teachers worked in the field, Richard says. “I trust that [Dustin] will investigate the person and see what they’ve done in industry that can apply to the classroom,” Richard says. 
  • Support. Make sure that all individuals involved with decision-making at the school understand and support the idea of career and technical education. “It really starts at the top,” Dodge says. “If you have a supportive school board, superintendent, principal, etc., then you have buy-in, and that support will trickle down.”  

Amanda Bastoni is the career and technical director at the Nashua Technology Center South in New Hampshire.

CTE Information and Facts

Here’s the lowdown on CTE:

  • CTE prepares students to be college and career ready by providing academic skills, employability skills, and job-specific technical skills. 
  • At the high school level, CTE courses are provided in three main ways: through on- or off-site occupational programs, full-time CTE schools, or CTE centers located within a specific high school, but serving multiple districts. 
  • CTE teachers and schools partner with area businesses to prepare students for the workforce. 
  • The U.S. Department of Education reports that 88 percent of public high schools offer at least one CTE program. 
  • Just over 90 percent of public high school graduates from the class of 2005 took at least one CTE course during high school.
  • A 2016 report from the Brookings Institution reveals that 3 million workers will be needed for the nation’s infrastructure in the next decade, including designing, building, and operating transportation, housing, utilities, and telecommunications. 
  • The Manufacturing Institute conveyed in 2015 that more than 80 percent of manufacturers reported that talent shortages would impact their ability to meet customer demand.