Bert Martinez believes the skills he's learned at a CTE high school have put him on a path to his dreams.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Bert Martinez believes the skills he’s learned at a CTE high school have put him on a path to his dreams.

On April 2, Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced the administration’s final wave of new schools: 78 of them will open in September 2014—after the mayor leaves office—including transfer high schools, 26 charter schools, and seven career and technical education (CTE) high schools.

The schools may be new, but the concepts that underpin them are not. CTE high schools—formerly known as “vocational tech”—predate Bloomberg by decades. In the ideal world, CTE schools prepare students for “career-track employment at family-supporting wages in high-demand industries,” according to the DOE. In the real world, however, many CTE schools struggle mightily with core issues like attendance and basic achievement, are persistently dunned for flabby rigor and graduate—on average—fewer students than traditional public schools.

Others face uniquely daunting challenges, like Grace Dodge CTE high school, where one in four students is the parent of a baby or young child. Dodge was lauded as a CTE model school in 2008, but in 2012 was told to stop accepting new students. It will close for good in 2015, one of over 150 school closures during the mayor’s three terms. Another CTE high school, the High School for Graphic Communication Arts in Manhattan, is on the chopping block this year. A third, Alfred E. Smith in the Bronx, only escaped closure last year because a court order forced the DOE to keep it open.

Yet some of those older, established CTE schools give students an important edge in the hyper-competitive employment market. Aviation High School in Queens—a large, academically selective CTE school—famously graduates almost 90 percent of its class, many of whom go on to work (at starting salaries of $47,000, by some accounts) or to pursue post-secondary education in college or specialized industry. Transit Tech in East New York funnels grads into the MTA.

And in the St. George neighborhood on Staten Island’s North Shore, Ralph McKee High School, a school of about 700 students sited cater-corner to hulking, 2,500-strong Curtis High School, sends its graduates into the world with skills that translate into good jobs, in the construction trades and the automotive industry, for example. McKee’s success in preparing students for life after high school is reflected in its high college- and career-readiness score on the 2011-12 progress reports; its mark of 8.3 (out of 10) makes McKee the highest-scoring CTE high school in the city.

Opportunity knocking

For a student like Domenick Caracappa, a slender senior with dark eyes and a barbershop-sharp haircut, studying graphics at McKee is a hopeful ticket to the Fashion Institute of Technology, and to a longed-for life in Manhattan, the glittering Oz that he likes to explore on the weekends with friends. “My grandma chose McKee for me, to do architecture,” he says, “but I wanted to do graphics. That’s the class I look forward to each day.” Domenick and his older brother live with his grandparents, who’ve been saving for college for him longer than he can remember. He’ll be the first in his family to go.

For Elon James, the sinewy co-captain of McKee’s track team, intensive pre-engineering training has brought him real-world experience and a fair amount of pocket money, in the form of paid summer internships with Turner Construction—and, he hopes, access to a college education that will help him achieve his dream of becoming an FBI agent.

The pre-engineering students are among the top academic achievers at McKee; most, like Elon, are in honors classes. Elon says he jokes with McKee students in the construction trades, who can apprentice into the unions when they graduate, “Oh, you’ll be working for me one day!”

For students like Norberto “Bert” Martinez, a burly senior with a fringe of brown hair and dark, serious eyes, McKee is a lifeline between high school and a financially solid, independent life.

Bert chose McKee not for academics but for the shops. “I’m not very good at reading or writing but I’ve always been good with my hands,” he tells City Limits. He will graduate this June with state certification in auto mechanics and plans to study diesel systems at a trade school in New Jersey, then head into the marketplace.

“I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities here,” he says “I went from being a kid who couldn’t read or write to honors classes.” As a younger student, Bert was given an IEP—an individualized education plan, designed to support special-needs students. “I had an IEP through elementary school until the 11th grade,” he says. “But I never realized, I didn’t need it. Neither did my mom or the resource room teacher. It wasn’t doing me anything good.”

Before Sandy, Bert wanted to work for the Sanitation Department. But a friend who works on backup generators made “ridiculous money” after the storm, Bert says, spurring his focus on diesel. “I can go into the military, into transportation, into shipping,” he adds, ticking off his opportunities on fingertips traced black with grease. “Without diesel, New York would crumble. Mack trucks are all diesel; boats, trains, all run on diesel.” With the basics he’s mastered at McKee and the advanced skills he hopes to gain next year, Bert says, “I can go to the MTA or to NJ Transit.”

Bert’s reading leapt forward in parallel with his shop work; when he needed to read to understand the projects at hand, he discovered skills he didn’t know he possessed. Like any muscle, regular use built strength: He got better at reading, found it more satisfying, and kept reading, because it helped him. It directly affected his life and his learning. The same for math. Once Bert found his focus, he learned he had resources that hadn’t been tapped—and he figured out how to use them.

DOE plans meet fiscal reality

Even as statewide and national momentum coalesced around the goal of higher achievement in traditional academics, the city’s Department of Education sought to reform and reinvigorate their CTE high schools, convening a blue-ribbon commission—headed by former mayor David Dinkins and captain of industry Sy Sternberg, then-chairman and CEO of Met Life—that, after six months’ study, issued a 200-page report.

The report, released to great public fanfare just ahead of 2008 economic collapse, found that “the promise of CTE … has not yet been fully realized.” It cited issues of negative public perceptions of “vo-tech” as a track for the academically untalented, “uneven” performance, and limited innovation.

That report recommended significant changes in rigor, assessment and funding for the city’s CTE schools. It advocated public-private partnerships, including deep private funding (the “Innovation Fund”) to develop new schools that would deliver market-ready workers. The flagship new CTE school, P-Tech in the blighted Paul Robeson High School building in Crown Heights, was designed with IBM to meet industry standards—and honored as a national model by President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address.

The report also offered additional broad practical recommendations, including changing school-funding patterns so that schools with CTE tracks got extra money for CTE classes, developing alternatives to Regents-based assessments and developing CTE demonstration sites to serve as models for other schools.

But nearly all of the 2008 recommendations were left to languish: The city did not attempt new academic assessments, despite discussions at Tweed and in Albany, according to DOE Deputy Chief Academic Officer Josh Thomases. The commission report included provisions for ongoing meetings; DOE never again convened a formal meeting. Efforts to reform CTE were rolled into other processes, as DOE’s focus shifted to career- and college-readiness; matters were complicated by the fact that fewer than half of CTE programs citywide were state-certified (and thus eligible for extra funding).

“The reality was, the market tanked,” Thomases said. “Twenty-seven budget cuts into the great recession, it has been difficult to say the least. It had to be put on hold.” The “Innovation Fund” designed to spur private investment never got off the ground, but other public-private partnerships (Including FEMA, the Port Authority, ConEdison, Apple, Delta and the New York Times) continue to gain ground in DOE public schools, in and beyond CTE settings.

New schools, but static enrollment

The CTE commission’s formal recommendations might have stalled, but new technical high schools have come on line in the years since 2008. By 2012, 18 new all-CTE high schools had opened, nearly doubling the number that existed before Bloomberg’s mayoralty.

Yet adding the new schools did not add any new CTE seats for additional students. When Bloomberg first took office, 30,000 students attended 21 CTE high schools. By 2012, four years after the 2008 reforms were announced, 30,000 students attended 39 CTE high schools. The new schools announced by the mayor last week will increase that figure—but slightly and slowly: As has long been DOE practice, the new schools will start small, each admitting about 100 students a year.

The CTE high schools aren’t the only place where city students can get technical training. Over 100 high schools offer CTE “tracks” as electives that permit some students to obtain professional certification in areas that range from cosmetology and dental assisting to CISCO programming and software engineering.

But because many are not state-certified, calling into doubt their credibility in the market, DOE can’t say for certain how many actual CTE programs are being run as electives or special “tracks” in non-CTE high schools “Programs that don’t lead to certification are selling people a bill of goods,” Thomases says.

Those programs won’t be around for long, however. According to Thomases, “by 2014-15, we will only be funding [state-]approved programs.”All CTE programs, in dedicated CTE high schools and offered as electives in traditional high schools, will have to be certified, “or they [will] have to go away.”

And, of course, some CTE schools have been closed by the mayor, or are threatened with closure, like Grace Dodge. “We invested in [Dodge] to move it forward,” Thomases says. “We did not see movement in performance or CTE, and made a decision to make a more aggressive movement.” That “more aggressive movement” translated to phasing out the school. Some of the administration’s new CTE schools have been started at the Grace campus.

The commission’s well-intentioned recommendations may not have been achieved, but raising public awareness of the need for high-quality technical education persists as a worthwhile goal, says David Jones, president of the Community Service Society, who sat on the commission. (CSS owns City Limits.)

“The work hasn’t been completed, but there’s been some progress,” says Jones, who calls CTE as “a vital issue” for the city’s next mayor.

“Everyone had the intention that it would go on, but the economy swept away many of those ideas,” he says, noting that there had been no movement in CTE for decades, since the 1970. “The City of New York had fallen behind the nation. Any reform was a step forward.”

Designing their futures

McKee’s medium size and six shops mean that each program includes about 150 students, creating is a tight, well-integrated community where “you can’t get lost,” according to Domenick. Students repeatedly told City Limits that they knew everyone in the school by the end of their first year.

For Bert, it also meant access to summer work as a teacher’s aide at Curtis High School, for which he earned minimum wage. “I got free food, got to go on trips, I got paid to go see Batman—it was the greatest thing ever,” he says.

This year, Bert was part of a team that participated in the GNYDA (Greater New York Dealers Association) competition, “a big automotive competition, only for [high school] seniors,” with scholarship money as prizes. McKee’s team didn’t place high enough to bring home money, but Bert loved the test: “It was hands-on. They gave us car parts and an electrical diagram, and you had to get it to work.”

Bert is one of four siblings, from 12 to 25 years old. His parents didn’t finish high school, but his father, who is disabled, pushed him to attend college. “They wanted me to pick a school, they pushed me.” He opted for Lincoln Tech, in Plainfield New Jersey.

Students like Domenick, Elon and Bert aren’t thinking about CTE reform: It’s April of their senior year. They’re thinking prom and graduation and summer. Ready for what’s next, they’re planning their futures, aiming for good jobs and stable lives when they’re twice as old as they are today. That’s a step forward, by any measure, that thousands of city students deserve to dream about as well.

“When I’m 40, I’ll be working for a diesel company,” Bert says. “Having a house, my own family, a lovely wife—yes, a lovely wife—and making really good money. I’ll have my own trade. It’s really good to have in this economy.”

Editor’s note: This story includes two corrections and a clarification. The original version of this story reported that Alfred E Smith High School was “on the chopping block this year,” but while Smith is on the state’s priority list for schools needing improvement it is not on the city’s list for closure. Because of an editing error, the original version of this story did not include the names of firms involved in public-private partnerships. We regret the errors. For clarity, we have added the fact that new CTE schools have been launched on the campus of Grace Dodge.