College? Career Tech? In Nashville, Teens Do Both

Feb 24, 2015
Originally published on February 24, 2015 6:16 pm

Schools don't like to use the V-word anymore — "vocational," as in "vocational education." Administrators say the word is outdated, along with the idea of offering job-training courses only to students who are going straight into the workforce.

Nashville, Tenn., is trying a new approach. The public school system there is encouraging every high school student, regardless of college plans, to take three career-training classes before they graduate.

Kiara Beard, a senior at Overton High School, is taking a pharmacological science course and learning how to interact with patients in a pharmacy.

"I need your name, date of birth," she says to her fake patient, Justin Kirby, who is in the very real pharmacy program at nearby Lipscomb University.

"My name is John Overton," Kirby answers. "August 17, 1951."

"Do you have any allergies?" Beard asks as she fills out a form.

"Yes, the medication that I had an allergic reaction to is Zithromax," Kirby says.

Kirby may be playing the patient, but he and a handful of other graduate students are leading this job simulation, helping Beard and her high school classmates count fake pills and measure solutions.

At the end of the school year, students in the class will be able to take the national certification exam to become pharmacy technicians — right out of high school. That job pays, on average, more than $14 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Having a certification will make the students instantly marketable, says Ronda Bryant, a pharmacy professor at Lipscomb.

"Even (compared to) someone who has pharmacy experience but may not have a certification, these students at John Overton may be more qualified," she says.

This kind of qualification is the focus of what's called "career and technical education" — essentially, vocational training for the modern workforce. More than 90 percent of public high school students across the country have taken at least one class that fits into this category, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But most students in Nashville now take three career tech courses before graduating. Its high schools offer dozens of options, including computer integrated manufacturing, healthcare administration and web design.

Chaney Mosley oversees the district's career tech program, and what gets him really excited is the idea that some of these students will finish with a certificate in hand, setting them up for a good job without needing a college degree.

"When the student from our high schools graduates with one of those certifications and chooses not to immediately pursue higher education, that could be a game-changer," he says.

But he's quick to point out: Career classes are not just for students going straight into the workforce. Many of the classes also count for college credit, and they still try to create what he calls a "college-going culture."

"I don't think it encourages students to not go to college," Mosley says. "In fact, I would say it does the opposite. It lets students experience success and realize that they have a great potential in a related field."

And it helps them understand the importance of continuing their education, he believes, wherever that might happen.

Back in Overton High School's pharmacy class, senior Sadiq Rahmatullah says he is planning to go to college. He might want to be a physician, but now that he's taking this class, he hopes to work in a pharmacy during college.

"You can earn money so you can pay your school bill," he says. "I don't want to depend on my parents, because I need to depend on myself. I can help myself, and I can help my family too."

The district says ambitions like this are a change from vocational education of the past. Students aren't separated by who wants to go to college and who wants to get a job. Instead, they're all preparing for both.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Schools don't like to use the V word anymore - vocational, as in vocational education. Administrators say the word and the idea behind it is outdated, offering job-training courses only to students who are going straight into the workforce. The school district in Nashville is encouraging every high school student regardless of college plans to take three career training classes. Emily Siner of member station WPLN has the story.

EMILY SINER, BYLINE: In real life, Kiera Beard is a senior at Overton High School, but today in class she's a pharmacist.

KIERA BEARD: I need your name, date of birth - like, all these right here.

JUSTIN KIRBY: So my name is John Overton. August the 17th, 1951.

SINER: The fake patient here is Justin Kirby, who's in a pharmacy program at nearby Lipscomb University.

BEARD: Do you have any allergies?

KIRBY: Yes, the medication that I had the allergic reaction to is Zithromax.

SINER: The graduate students are leading the job simulation. They're helping the high schoolers count pills - or M&Ms - and measure solutions.

BEARD: The dosage form is liquid, right?

KIRBY: So pour that in there.

SINER: At the end of the school year, students will be able to take the national certification exam to become a real pharmacy technician right out of high school. That job pays, on average, more than $14 an hour. Ronda Bryant, a pharmacy professor at Lipscomb, says having that certification is instantly marketable.

RONDA BRYANT: Most pharmacists want a certified tech. It's a cut above because they have additional responsibilities and that's what people are looking for, so even someone who has pharmacy experience but may not have a certification - these students at John Overton may be more qualified to go in.

SINER: Being qualified for a job is the focus of what's called career and technical education, essentially vocational training for the modern workforce. More than 90 percent of public high school students across the country have taken at least one class that fits into this category, but most students in Nashville now take three. Its high schools offer dozens of career and technical education classes, including computer integrated manufacturing, health care administration and web design. Chaney Mosley oversees the district's career tech program, and it's the idea that some of these students will finish with their certificate in hand that gets him really excited.

CHANEY MOSLEY: When a student from our high schools graduates with one of those certifications and chooses to not immediately pursue higher education, that can be a game changer.

SINER: But Mosley is quick to point out career classes are not just for kids going straight into the workforce. Many of the classes also count for college credit and they try to create what he calls a college-going culture.

MOSLEY: I don't think it encourages students to not go to college. In fact, I would say it does the opposite. It lets students experience success and realize that they have a great potential for post-secondary success and career success in a related field.

SINER: And he says it helps them understand the importance of continuing their education, wherever that might happen.

SADIQ RAHMATULLAH: So we try to count a measurement with water.

SINER: Back in Overton High School's pharmacy class, was senior Sadiq Rahmatullah is learning how to distill fake medicine. He is planning to go to college he says. He might want to be a physician but now that he's taking this class, he hopes to work in a pharmacy during college.

RAHMATULLAH: You can earn money so you can pay your school bill. It's really a good opportunity for me. I don't want to depend on my parent because I need to depend on myself. So I can help myself and I can help my family too.

SINER: The district says ambitions like this are a change from vocational education of the past. Students aren't separated by who wants to go to college and who wants to get a job, they're all preparing for both. For NPR News I'm Emily Siner in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.