By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: March 1, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.
CARSON – While some associate February with Valentine’s and Presidents’ Day, educators across America and here in the Commonwealth know the month for a different reason, as the host of Career and Technical Education Month, an opportunity to discuss the importance of CTE and the role it plays in developing a skilled workforce.
In Southside Virginia, that conversation is being led by Rowanty Technical Center principal Cheryl Simmers, who explained times like CTE Month serve to provide a platform to educate the community and other stakeholders about CTE from the perspective of an educator and also as someone with a close ear to what prospective employers are demanding in a skilled workforce.
“One of the things that people need to realize is that everyone is not set out to be in a four-year university environment,” Simmers explained. “We are seeing the acknowledgment from the education community that CTE had somewhat been pushed to the side and now it is being brought to the forefront.”
Having served in education for decades, Simmers said there was a shift in the push of, not only, CTE courses, but more artistic electives during the time of the Federal legislation known as “No Child Left Behind,” which sought to close student achievement gaps by providing children with a fair and significant opportunity to obtain a quality education, with testing results in key academic courses, such as math, being emphasized.
Rowanty cosmetology students take part in lessons on mannequins, gaining hands-on skills in the school’s nine different career and technical education courses. (Michael Campbell)
“I think if you talk to any educator that has been in business since ‘No Child Left Behind’ became a reality, it was at that point that the priorities for education were changed by legislators and when those legislators made their decisions on how we would be judged on performance, it was all academic-based and large-scale testing-based,” Simmers explained. “When all you are focusing on is large-scale testing in your core subject areas, everything got pushed to the side, not just career and technical education, but also art, music, and dance education, along with theatre, all of those electives got pushed to the side because, all of a sudden, they weren’t important. It was those subjects you could get points for in accreditation.”
Now, many years later, she said she is seeing the turn back toward introducing students to CTE and other types of elective courses, something she believes is to the benefit of students.
“We lost a lot of humanity at some point but now I am starting to see that humanity come back,” Simmers said. “We are starting to look at students as individuals and seeing what each student needs.”
Coming into Rowanty as its principal in the midst of that change in conversation regarding CTE, Simmers explained, for her and her staff, it was about getting the word out to the community to remind them that they are still in the shops within the walls of their school along Rowanty Road and their doors are open.
“One of the things that I initially did was make sure I got out in the community to let people that we have been here 40 years and we haven’t gone anywhere, we are still offering these programs and we still have slots available to for these students to learn these trades,” she said. “When you start to look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the statistics show that the jobs are in the trades right now. So developing those partnerships with communities and reaching out to businesses and showing that we were here, we are open, come visit us and see what we have to offer and that we are important.”
Coming off the shift in educational mindsets in the 2000s where CTE may not have been given the proper presentation to prospective students, changing the perception that these types of courses are only for people who want to work on cars or build a house to a mindset that allows students to see the pathways CTE can provide while touting the workplace readiness skills they teach are among of the keys tasks for instructors and school leaders alike.
“Not only do we have nine trades here, but we also offer workplace readiness skills, those soft skills,” Simmers said. “We also provide certifications so once we start advertising those things to the community and to businesses, they start to realize how diverse our population is in respect to the skills they bring to the table,” adding that there’s nothing more powerful than people seeing students work in school’s various shops.
“They are shocked when they come in and see the responsibilities these kids have when they are in the welding shop and they are welding a piece of metal for a project for a customer,” she said, highlighting a recent project the center did with Sussex County where Rowanty carpentry and electricity students worked collaboratively to build several sheds that would be installed at the county’s manned waste sites. The student-built structures featured a porch, electrical work, a small HVAC unit, and other specifications built to the design of Sussex’s needs.
“It is something our students can be proud of and go out into the community and show people the work they have done,” she said, adding it’s the students working in the shops who tell the most compelling stories about the work they are doing and their experiences, something Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Quarni learned firsthand during his tour last year at the center as he spent time with students in all of Rowanty’s lab, engaging with them and asking questions.
Students from Rowanty Technical Center’s Electricity class pose for a photo with State Education Secretary Atif Qarni and Chief Workforce Development Advisor for Governor Northam Megan Healy.
(Michael Campbell/The Prince George Journal)
“A lot of time when we have open houses and tours, the students are answering the question commonly,” Simmers shared. “They can see that they know what they are talking about and when we have those tours, the students don’t know visitors are coming. They need to speak from the heart, and they do.”
In addition, other outreach events, like Industry Day at Dinwiddie High School and their growing job fair has raised the profile of Rowanty while also sparking interest from industry partners, who seek out job-ready students to bring on board thanks to the training they received at the school.
“We recently had a number of our students graduate from the Power Line Worker Program in Blackstone offered by Southside Virginia Community College, which there have been students who have gone through there but not this many, I think we had about 5 to 6 who just graduated,” Simmers detailed. “The nice thing about that program is that they get their CDL and the employers range from Dominion Energy to Prince George and Southside electric cooperatives, so we are starting to get our name out in other ways.”
“We have had people approach us about starting new programs and offering services, so it is very widespread regarding partnerships and the contact we are having with the community,” she added.
Prince George County, one of the three school divisions that send students to the center, along with Sussex and Dinwiddie, and its school leaders said CTE and its future is something they looking at both now and going forward.
“Prince George County Public Schools values the opportunities that career and technical education offer our students as they prepare to be college and/or career ready,” PGCPS Asst. Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff said. “We strive to develop ‘life-ready individuals’ who possess knowledge, skills, experiences, and credentials aligned with today’s economy and workforce. We offer Career Readiness coursework, develop Workplace Readiness Skills, and provide Career Counseling and Guidance. Our CTE classrooms and labs are regularly updated and supplied with workplace relevant instructional materials and equipment.”
She added that the school division is continuing to expand its Career Pathway and Credential offerings for students.
“Most recently, we have added a Mechatronics and a Cybersecurity pathway of courses and credentials,” Pennycuff said. “In the future, we plan to offer a Global Logistics Pathway, a Power and Energy Pathway, and a Human Services Pathway among others. We are integrating Computer Science Standards of Learning, creating Makerspaces, developing student Academic and Career Plans, and exploring work-based learning opportunities for our students.”
When asked about the future of CTE, Simmers spoke candidly about where she sees the field going, noting the increased conversations about cybersecurity and demand for skilled workers in the industry.
Prior to the 2018 tour, Rowanty Technical Center principal Cheryl Simmers gives Education Secretary Atif Qarni a walkthrough of the center’s offerings in a conference room that was renovated by the center’s own students.
(Michael Campbell / The Prince George Journal)
“I know there is a big push in CTE centered around cybersecurity. There are a large number of jobs in cybersecurity but what I think people need to look at when they are considering cybersecurity is where are those jobs,” she said. “A lot of them are in Northern Virginia, which is what you would expect since that is close to the heart of our government and where those facilities are.”
Simmers continued, “We do have jobs in the Richmond area and other places but you need to look at how many are available. Is that a viable option for someone who is a ninth grader and, in four years, is that going to be flooded?”
“I believe CTE needs to go back to basics,” she said. “We are in dire straits when it comes to the skilled trades. A lot of the construction trades are poorly represented particularly masonry. We have one of the few programs left in the state in high schools now because enrollment is lower in that program typically but the skills are tremendous.”
“Electricians are in demand all the time, welders… You talk to homeowners, you ask them what they need – plumbers, electricians, HVAC, all of those things. Then if you think about cars, we all need a mechanic. Then just for basic repair work, carpenters and welders for any type of metal work.” Simmers detailed, noting the up and coming generation should get more exposure to things beyond smart devices to get thinking about more hands-on concepts at a young age.
“When you go back to what we need as a body of people, the basic skilled trades are never going away and we need to start looking at how we can better prepare our students for that,” she said. “A lot of students, because they are so technologically driven and connected to their phones, sometimes, it would be nice to have in the small children’s hands to see tools, have them use LEGO instead of the joystick so they can learn about those opportunities as well.”
To learn more about Rowanty Technical Center, visit the facility’s website at http://rowanty.us.