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Technical Difficulties: Although on the rise nationally, career and tech programs at city schools face sagging enrollment, uncertain future 

"If the numbers don't go up, it won't be possible to run programs for only a few"

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"The partnerships have really bloomed since I've been here," says the school district's Mike. "It's something I've worked really hard on, to cultivate relationships. I think it's part of connecting students to a career outside of here when they leave."

These partnerships, like the one between UPMC and the health careers program, will give students an advantage in the job market.

"It's a great pipeline for us," says Dawndra Jones, senior director of strategic initiatives for UPMC nursing. "We encourage them when they do apply to let us know they've been through this program, because that means they have a skill-set that someone else might not have. If I have two individuals right out of high school and I know one of them has been through this program, I'm more likely to hire them."

Still, the CTE program isn't cheap: The district spends $6.3 million on it annually. "CTE programs are very expensive," Lane says. "You're talking about equipment and facility needs that are well beyond what you need in the classroom." And CTE students face logistical challenges of their own.

In 2010, the district organized the CTE program into three regions: North, South and East. Students can take CTE classes within their region while still attending their "home schools" the rest of the day. But if they want to enroll in a program outside their region, they must switch their home schools as well.

But transportation may be one factor behind under-enrollment. Students taking CTE classes at a school that is not their home school but in their region can take morning or afternoon classes. If they take morning classes, they are given a bus pass and take public transportation to another school in their region. If they take afternoon classes, they are transported via CTE shuttle.

"We lost one or two kids this year from Brashear because travelling [to Carrick] really got to them," says Kozicky, who runs the program.

Mike doesn't agree. "Those who are really passionate about a program don't mind traveling," she says. "The ones I have talked to don't mind getting up earlier."

She says school closings and repeated district reorganizations have played a greater role in under-enrollment. When Langley was closed last year, its CTE programs were redistributed to Allderdice and Brashear. Only 13 students are enrolled in machine operations at Brashear High School; the previously popular program has room for 40. The HVAC program relocated to Allderdice, which has just 15 students enrolled, but room for 40.

The North Side merger of Oliver and Perry high schools may have also played a role. While the student body was consolidated at Perry, both schools' CTE programs are housed at Oliver, requiring CTE students to be transported there.

"When we merged Perry and Oliver, there was a lot of push to use the Oliver building over the Perry building," Lane says. "We're trying to work it out as best we can. I'm not saying it's a permanent solution."

Under-enrollment and cost aren't the only challenges. In a string of bad luck, the students in Carrick's culinary-arts programs have seen two teachers depart in the past two school years. Their first teacher retired in the fall of 2012, after 20 years with the district. On Feb. 14, another teacher resigned to take a new position. Without a certified culinary teacher, the students are unable to cook in the school's kitchen facilities, losing the hands-on experience the program was designed to provide.

It's difficult for the district to have a contingency plan when CTE teachers retire or resign, says Lane. Unlike in subjects like English or math, there aren't many substitute teachers who can fill in for CTE teachers.

"It is hard to find people who have the professional expertise and have the ability to work with students and get properly certified," says Lane. "There aren't a lot of options out there, so when you get a good person you want to hold on to them. People can make more money out in the private sector. And not everyone is good with working with kids."

Despite these issues, the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium says under-enrollment in CTE programs is not a national trend.

"We've seen a lot of increased enrollment around the country," says Evan Williamson, a communications associate with the organization. "So it's not really a universal symptom."

Williamson says CTE enrollment is growing in part because the programs have adapted to meet the demands of jobs in technology and other growing fields.

"CTE is growing in a lot of ways. The old vo-tech days are dead and gone," Williamson says. "A goal of high-quality CTE is providing a pathway to a career."

District officials say they're looking into expanding CTE offerings. But they admit the looming budget deficit could be a hindrance.

"We're looking at programs that are far-reaching," says Mike. "But we're looking at trying to do that at low cost. It's extremely costly to set up these programs."

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