Workforce disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have had a disproportionate impact on many groups that historically faced barriers to employment, particularly groups that identify as Black, Hispanic or Latino, or as having a disability (Klein & Smith, 2021; Livermore & Schimmel Hyde, 2020; Williams, 2020). These disruptions further emphasize the need to increase equitable access to education and training opportunities. One way that school districts are attempting to address current and historical workforce inequities is through career and technical education (CTE), which operates at the intersection of education and work.
The aim of CTE is to prepare students with the academic, technical, and employability skills necessary for success in the workplace. The Midwest Career Readiness Research Alliance (MCRRA), which REL Midwest facilitates, has been working with leaders across the region to strengthen career readiness supports and align curricula and instruction with labor market needs. MCRRA’s most recently published study examined the outcomes of Indiana and Minnesota students who focused on CTE in high school.
To showcase the experiences of CTE practitioners, we spoke with two district-level practitioners in Indiana to learn how their CTE programs use equity-focused strategies to increase access and better prepare all students for success beyond high school:
Students in both South Bend and Indianapolis can participate in work-based learning and earn college credits and industry-recognized certifications through their district’s CTE programming.
In separate interviews, Addie and Berry described strategies that their districts employ to increase equity within their CTE programs. We compiled these strategies into three key themes, which provide insights for states and districts to consider as they plan, evaluate, and refine their CTE programs to broaden student access and increase student success.
South Bend Community School Corporation: Addie has been working to develop stronger relationships with staff in various departments across the district to increase student exposure to career and college options, starting in middle school. For example, over the last few years, he and his CTE staff have worked closely with secondary-level school counselors to ensure that middle school students have opportunities to explore a variety of career options. In this way, when students get to high school, they can make more informed decisions about the type of CTE program they may want to take. In addition, Addie noted that “every school has an Exceptional Learners Department and English Learners Department, so we’ve been very intentional about building relationships with the district leads from each of those departments, which has trickled down to the school level, to ensure our CTE programming is not being missed by any [student].”
Indianapolis Public Schools: “We’re operating under a comprehensive model for CTE,” Berry said, explaining that the district’s CTE programs do not have eligibility criteria for enrollment. “Instead of students filling out an application to apply to a specific CTE pathway, we use the 9th grade year as an opportunity to explore different pathway options, so students can make an informed decision about their pathway prior to starting it as a sophomore.” For example, during students’ freshman year, the district hosts CTE pathway fairs at each high school in partnership with the county workforce investment board to enable freshmen to meet and talk with industry partners and current CTE students to learn about the various pathways.
South Bend Community School Corporation: In his role with the district, Addie emphasizes the importance of creating CTE opportunities for all students. For example, a district high school designed for credit recovery that serves students predominately from underserved or low-income backgrounds, did not offer CTE programming. Addie and his staff “reimagined what it would look like for those students to have access to CTE.” Given that many students had commitments outside of school (for example, part-time jobs), the district CTE team sought out industry partners willing to accommodate students’ schedules to provide instruction and work-based learning opportunities. The school began offering CTE programming beginning in fall 2020, and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, six students already have earned their Certified Nursing Assistant credential. Several of these students also plan to continue on to earn their nursing degree at the local community college.
Indianapolis Public Schools: Berry said the district has begun modifying CTE pathway structures and supports to increase success for student subgroups. “For our students with disabilities, we work with our United Student Support team and rely heavily on the IEP [Individualized Educational Plan] process to create a tiered support system and make pathway modifications as needed to maximize students’ experience within their chosen pathway,” Berry said. In addition, she noted that CTE instructors are working with the district’s English Language Learner (ENL) instructional coaches to leverage technology applications that would increase student engagement, particularly within remote learning settings. For example, instructors have adjusted class time to provide more one-on-one support, instituted small-group discussion models, and used digital applications to provide visual demonstrations.
South Bend Community School Corporation: Addie and his team have started looking more deeply into their eligibility and acceptance criteria to improve equity across their CTE pathways. This process already has produced some insightful takeaways. For example, as part of the district’s Comprehensive Local Needs Assessment (CLNA), which is required under the federal legislation that supports CTE (known as Perkins V), Addie and his team met with local industry leaders. As the leaders shared their career journeys, Addie said, “I realized that about a third of them—leaders in their industry—would not have met our traditional eligibility criteria and would not have been accepted into our program… Our [eligibility and acceptance] criteria need to be thoughtfully looked at to see how we are applying that process. It also showed me that there needs to be a human side to the CLNA process, and it can’t be just a didactic exercise.”
Indianapolis Public Schools: More than 70 percent of students across the district are enrolled in CTE pathways. “We’ve broken down that enrollment data by subgroup to identify gaps,” Berry said, “and we brainstorm how we can bridge those gaps so that all students have a plan for success when they leave high school.” In addition, CTE instructors are trained to look at their program’s student achievement data by subgroup. “One of the reasons why we had our ENL instructional coach come and speak with our instructors about how to better support our English language learners is because we identified, through our achievement data, that those students were not performing as well in their pathways,” Berry added.
As communities slowly move forward from the pandemic, districts and their industry partners have a great opportunity to increase equity within their CTE programs. Districts can begin by exposing students to CTE early in their education, creating flexible program structures, and using a data-driven approach that examines equity gaps and incorporates a variety of stakeholder perspectives.
To learn more about CTE and REL Midwest’s work related to college and career readiness, see the following related resources:
Klein, A., & Smith, E. (2021, February 5). Explaining the economic impact of COVID-19: Core industries and the Hispanic workforce. Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/research/explaining-the-economic-impact-of-covid-19-core-industries-and-the-hispanic-workforce/
Livermore, G., & Schimmel Hyde, J. (2020, May 28). Workers with disabilities face unique challenges in weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. Mathematica. https://www.mathematica.org/blogs/workers-with-disabilities-face-unique-challenges-in-weathering-the-covid-19-pandemic
Williams, J. (2020, September 9). Laid off more, hired less: Black workers in the COVID-19 recession. RAND Corporation. https://www.rand.org/blog/2020/09/laid-off-more-hired-less-black-workers-in-the-covid.html