For many in rural America, it is challenging to find ways to educate and train students for the workforce in a small community. Promoting a rigorous career and technical education brings not just learning, but also jobs and future stability for the region.
The community of Belle Fourche, SD, has about 6,000 residents with roughly 1,360 students enrolled in the school district—with many living on the rural outskirts of town. The city lies in western South Dakota just minutes from the Wyoming and Montana borders. The Belle Fourche School District has a long-standing tradition of offering valuable and applicable career and technical education (CTE) courses to our students. In the early 2010’s during budget reductions, we held on to all of our programs because we recognized their importance to our students and community.
In the fall of 2018, we opened a 10,000-square-foot CTE facility to hold our welding, agriculture, family and consumer science, and business programs. Our existing facility also offers courses in construction and computer-aided drafting. Delivering these courses in our state-of-the-art facilities allows our students to gain real-world skills that can make them employable immediately following high school or propel them into the postsecondary training program of their choice. Developing relationships with local industry partners and finding highly qualified instructors has created challenges in growing and sustaining our programs, but partnerships with our local technical college and being creative with certification have allowed us to meet the needs of our students.
We offer CTE coursework in the clusters of hospitality and tourism, human services, business, architecture and construction, manufacturing, and agriculture food and natural resources. These clusters closely align with our local industry needs in the areas of culinary arts, construction, welding, and farming and ranching. For instance:
- Our upper-level architecture and construction students have had the opportunity to build a house from the ground up. This opportunity was made possible through partnerships with Belle Fourche’s Economic Development Corporation and the West River Foundation, which committed to producing affordable housing in our community. Students also have access to our laser engraver and CNC router to personalize and create signs for personal or professional use.
- Culinary arts students work with industry-grade equipment to learn how to cook and also how to navigate the management side of operating a restaurant.
- Students completing our welding courses create functional products to be used for their family operations, and occasionally partner with members of the community who are searching for affordable yet functional equipment. Trailers, flatbeds for trucks, and ramps for loading cattle into semis are just a few examples of the projects that students have produced.
Juniors and seniors have an opportunity to take an internship course that allows them to shadow professionals in their field of study to help determine whether a career is (or is not) for them. Finding partners for all career fields has been challenging, but we are lucky enough to have an instructor with long-standing ties to our community and its surrounding areas who helps us make connections. Some of our students complete their internship experiences in another community where more opportunities exist. For instance, Belle Fourche only has a small medical clinic, but there is a community about 10 miles away with a hospital and multiple health clinics. For our students interested in education, we have developed a partnership with our local elementary school. Teachers there appreciate the extra help from our high school students, who have only a short commute to the school.
Funding is always a challenge in education, especially in a smaller agriculture-based community. One source of funding is through the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. Perkins is a principal source of federal funding to states and discretionary grantees for the improvement of secondary and postsecondary career and technical education programs across the nation. We used this funding to purchase industry-grade equipment to enhance the learning experience for our students. Although our Perkins’ allocations are not large, long-term planning and efficient use of these funds have allowed us to purchase equipment that helps our students learn 21st-century skills. The state of South Dakota’s CTE department offers matching grants to school districts looking to purchase equipment or improve facilities in conjunction with meeting local and regional workforce needs. The district pursued these dollars prior to the construction of our CTE center, and we were awarded a $500,000 matching grant.
The expansion of internet accessibility has increased the opportunity for high school students to earn dual credit college coursework. Previously, these opportunities were mostly limited to students pursuing a four-year degree and were primarily offered through our regional institutions. Western Dakota Technical College (WDT) in Rapid City, SD, has partnered with us, allowing us to now offer dual credit coursework in sociology and psychology. Students can also earn their Emergency Medical Technician certification on our campus with an instructor from WDT. Our partnership with the college continues to grow and evolve, with logistics and schedules remaining the biggest challenges.
Both the Belle Fourche School District and WDT are committed to growing our programs while offering the best opportunities possible for our students. The technical colleges in South Dakota have less strict regulations than the regional institutions when it comes to certifying adjunct professors. Most of our staff members currently meet their requirements, so we are in discussions about offering dual credit coursework in welding, residential construction, and accounting.
When I started as principal in 2009, our CTE instructors were experienced and the backbone of our school. Since that time, all but one of them has either retired or left the district to pursue other career opportunities. Most colleges in the area lack programs to train teachers in the technical areas, so finding replacements has been difficult. In most cases, we have had to recruit professionals from our local industry and work with the accreditation office at the South Dakota Department of Education to help them earn their highly qualified status. A temporary certificate is usually granted, and the candidate is given two to three years to complete the coursework or certification exams necessary to become highly qualified. Although this can be challenging for a novice teacher during the grueling initial years working in education, their experience in the field gives our students unmatched insight into the profession. All five of our current CTE teachers have worked in their industry or a field other than education prior to becoming a member of our team.
One issue that threatens the growth of our programs is the stigma of CTE coursework being for students who have no chance of pursuing postsecondary education. Of course, this is not true. There are also perceptions about some coursework being only for boys or for girls. Discussions on how to grow our programs and create gender equity led us to the idea of creating exploratory classes for our middle level students. Since the opening of our CTE center in 2018, eighth graders have been bussed a mile from our middle school to our high school and rotate through coursework for seven weeks with five different instructors in our building. We have seen a significant increase in enrollment in our family and consumer science and agriculture programs since the start of this initiative.
The challenges associated with growing and sustaining CTE programs in a rural community can seem daunting. Rural school leaders should continue to build relationships with local businesses, members of the community, technical colleges, and the state department of education. These stakeholders have the best interests of our students in mind and understand that the success of our young people results in the success of our local industry and community.
Mathew Raba is the principal of Belle Fourche High School in Belle Fourche, SD, and NASSP’s 2021 South Dakota Principal of the Year.