Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr.

A construction-trades academy located within Cardozo Education Campus says that 90% of its students graduate from high school and two-thirds of them go on to college. So why is DC spending money to plan new programs in Career and Technical Education (CTE) rather than expanding one that’s been proven successful?

The Academy of Construction and Design at Cardozo (A-CAD), a partnership between DCPS and local construction industry leaders, prepares students for skilled trades in the building industry. It appears to be exactly what Mayor Vincent Gray and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson have said they want: a high-quality CTE program that gives students the qualifications DC employers are looking for.

But earlier this year, when Gray announced the launch of 9 “Career Academies” in 8 DC high schools, including Cardozo, he didn’t mention A-CAD. A-CAD says it would like to have been included in the initiative. But the careers it prepares students for aren’t among the ones the District has identified as priorities.

The Career Academies initiative resulted from a DC task force on CTE, which issued a strategic plan last December. The mayor is allocating $2.8 million for a planning year for the academies, with about $240,000 of that going to the National Academy Foundation (NAF), an organization that helps school districts establish the programs. No funding is guaranteed beyond the planning year.

The District’s strategic plan recommends that support for CTE be focused on a list of “priority” occupations identified as both high-wage and high-demand. Although DC is in the middle of a construction boom, the list includes only two jobs in the construction category—architect and building inspector. Carpentry, one of the two fields A-CAD currently trains students in, isn’t even included on a list of occupations that are

eligible for CTE funding. (The other field, electrical, is listed as an eligible but not a priority occupation.)

Instead, the 9 Career Academies will focus on three areas that coincide with themes offered by NAF: information technology, hospitality, and engineering. All of these are also listed as priority categories in the strategic plan.

Psychiatry, not carpentry

Carpentry probably wasn’t designated as a priority occupation because the annual wage is below the DC median of $61,000, according to Antoinette Mitchell of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. But some of the other occupations DC chose to prioritize for CTE purposes are puzzling.

For instance, the “Health Science” category includes surgeons, psychiatrists, and pediatricians. While those jobs may be high-wage and high-demand, it’s hard to see how DCPS high schools can put students on a path to them, aside from offering math and science classes. Mitchell responds that a CTE program in the health sciences could include things like biotechnology courses and internships that expose students to the field. Obviously, students would need more education before embarking on careers as surgeons, she said in an email, but “linkages and transitions to postsecondary education, certificates, [and] degrees are important components of today’s CTE.”

That’s true, and a program like A-CAD also seeks to link students to education or training beyond high school. But it’s a question of degree. While many A-CAD students do go on to college, and the program encourages them to do so, others graduate from high school with a marketable credential. They may be hired by a local construction firm and then, while working, attend night classes to become certified as journeymen or masters in their chosen fields.

Modeled on a public-private CTE program in Montgomery County, A-CAD was started because local builders wanted to hire more DC residents and couldn’t find enough of them with the necessary training. So they established a foundation to help fund a high-school-level training program.

The program has been in operation since 2006, and this year over 200 students are enrolled, including over 100 freshmen. In the past students have gotten work experience by building a house a few miles north of the school, on 13th Street NW, and by participating last year in the impressive renovation of Cardozo itself.

Unlike Phelps ACE, an application-only DCPS high school focusing on the construction trades, A-CAD is based in a neighborhood school. It’s open to students who live anywhere in the District, but Shelly Karriem, the program’s director, usually recruits students from within Cardozo’s population. While there’s an application process, she’s willing to take a chance on a student who doesn’t have a stellar record.

Nevertheless, the program’s high graduation and college-going rates stand in marked contrast to those for Cardozo students in general, which in 2011 were 42% and 28% respectively. The overall DCPS graduation rate last year was 56%.

Like the planned Career Academies, A-CAD teaches academic skills in the context of occupational training. The approach seems to work especially well with math, which, along with IT, is a skill that’s now a prerequisite for many construction jobs. But it’s not clear that the Career Academies will duplicate A-CAD’s academic success. One study of Career Academies found that the program didn’t result in any improvement in high school graduation rates.

Reasons for success

Some have suggested that Career Academies would have better results if classes were taught by two teachers, one for occupational skills and the other for basic academics. But A-CAD uses only one teacher per classroom and still gets good results.

One reason for the difference may be that A-CAD employs teachers with experience in the construction industry. Career Academies (at least the ones planned for DC) will rely on existing classroom teachers who will be trained in occupational skills.

But A-CAD’s success probably has more to do with something that’s hard to replicate: the particular individuals involved. Karriem and the other instructors in the program have created a warm but challenging atmosphere. If a student is having problems with reading, Karriem says, “We say, ‘you need to be here on your lunch hour and we’ll read with you.’ There are times we don’t eat lunch. We’re a family.”

The program also requires students to come on Saturdays for instruction in “life skills” that may include everything from phone and email etiquette to learning to tie a tie. The program is now introducing a writing component to help students with college and scholarship applications.

Karriem stays in touch with many of the program’s graduates through and after college, and she says about half end up going into construction-related jobs such as architecture and electrical work. Others have taken a variety of paths: one is now a filmmaker, another a nurse, and one has come back to run A-CAD’s evening apprenticeship program for adults.

While Karriem says that in the past the program has had difficulties with DCPS in terms of scheduling and funding, she’s optimistic that things will go more smoothly under Cardozo’s new principal, Dr. Tanya Roane. Karriem’s salary is funded by the foundation, but she’s dependent on the principal to find the money to fund other teaching positions.

Right now the program has two teachers but no funds for an instructor for one of its core subjects, HVAC. And this year it had to turn away students because of a lack of teachers: 45 students signed up for a class that is limited to 18.

It’s great that DC is turning its attention to CTE and trying to match training with occupations that pay well and are in demand. But it would have been even better if at least some of the money that’s going towards planning new and locally untested programs could have gone to bolster and expand a program that has a proven record of success.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.