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Why Career Technical Education Is So Popular Now

Butler Tech partners with area businesses to expose high school students to better workforce development and college options.

by Leyla Shokoohe

The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act was first authorized in 1984 by the federal government. Its namesake, a Democratic House Representative from Kentucky, was chair of the Committee on Education and Labor until his death in 1984. The act was designed to increase the quality of technical education in the U.S. to help the economy as it tried to pull out of a recession, with unemployment sitting at 7.3 percent that year.

From its federally funded advent in 1917, when the Smith-Hughes Act was adopted allocating states with funds for increased vocational education, vocational and technical education—or career technical education (CTE) as it’s called today—promised a direct pipeline from schools to the workforce. But times were a-changing, and by the time the Perkins Act was first authorized, vocational or career technical education was on the decline.

Schools had changed mandated coursework in high school, funding diminished, and CTE credits taken by students trended downward throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Students in traditional high schools who weren’t succeeding in conventional academic ways were often offloaded to CTE classes, with little regard for interest or fit.

“Every marketing season or recruitment season, we run into prospective students and families that have a perception that career tech education is lesser than,” says William Sprankles, assistant superintendent for innovative teaching and learning at Butler Tech. “And that’s because there was a movement in the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s where many students were forced to go to career technical education schools. They didn’t choose to go there. Those parents and grandparents remember that, and so they want something different for their child.”

In 2018, reauthorization of the Vocational and Technical Education Act was signed into law by President Trump as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century (Perkins V) Act. The law included three major revisions, including using the term “career and technical education” instead of “vocational education.”

William Sprankles, Butler Tech

“Some of our marketing and recruitment efforts are addressing the stigmas that pockets of particular families and communities might have,” says Sprankles. “But I would argue there are just as many, maybe more, that no longer have that stigma and, in fact, are on the other side of generational referral systems. We have kids coming to us whose parents graduated from us, and their parents graduated from us. They believe we’re the best secret in Butler County.”

Butler Tech was founded in 1975 with a mission of transforming lives by making students career-ready and college-prepared. Middle school, high school, and post-secondary educational opportunities are offered, but it’s the high school career technical pathways programs that are most sought after now. Last year, 2,500 students applied for just 1,000 available spots within the four full-time regional thematic campuses that Butler Tech operates: bioscience, school of arts, natural science center, and advanced manufacturing. Satellite programs are embedded within all 11 high schools in Butler County as well as Northwest and Colerain high schools in Hamilton County.

“Our job is to create informed consumers and make sure we open our building to give them tours, provide good literature to the external communities around our programs, and communicate how the pathways can lead to significant jobs,” says Sprankles. “They know that, if they get into a program, their kid will be debt-free and it will change their life.”

What’s offered inside each of those campus buildings are career tech pathways that lead to in-demand jobs, in-demand industry credentials, and a propulsion into college majors at both the two- and four-year levels. By attending one of the four Butler Tech campuses, students make a conscious choice to leave behind the traditional high school experience for something else. Many of them are passionate from the start about a certain pathway and a certain career field they want to study. Other students might be looking for a fresh start or an opportunity to connect with different people.

“What all of the kids have in common is this degree of bravery,” says Sprankles. “They demonstrate real courage to relocate to another space with a whole new student body during their 10th or 11th grade years.”

The 10th Grade Career Exploration Academy is an opportunity for students to test the proverbial waters. It functions in similar ways to freshman year of college for someone with an undecided major, allowing them to explore a variety of options and career paths.

That’s exactly what happened for Zura Zokhidjonova, a Lakota East student who learned about Butler Tech at school and was initially passionate about cooking. “I wanted to get my foot in the door for the culinary program because it was one of the most popular ones,” she says. “I was in the business pathway all throughout my sophomore year, and while doing that I got to shadow and learn about all of the other different programs Butler Tech offers. I started getting more into the healthcare side, and I took a tour of the biomedical science campus and fell in love with the campus and the atmosphere.”

Zokhidjonova applied for the healthcare science program and was accepted. A first-generation immigrant who moved to the U.S. when she was 5, she didn’t have the parental context of a typical American high school experience. Her mother supported her decision. “She just told me to do what I would think is best for myself,” says Zokhidjonova. “She was like, If you want to do the typical high school route, do it, but if you also want to experience life and get all these certifications, do that. She understood the importance of a high school experience, because it’s such a big thing here.”

Fellow Butler Tech graduate Alex Werdman had a harder time convincing his parents to let him attend. “I fought with my parents for almost five months,” he says. “They were heavily wanting me to go to college, and they thought Butler Tech was not the answer. It actually took my mom coming into class to see what we were doing. She finally decided to give me a shot and let me go. I always tease around with her that I would never be where I’m at now if I hadn’t done Butler Tech.”

Werdman knew from a young age that he wanted to be an engineer. He was exposed to Butler Tech through its machining and engineering programs while attending Colerain High School. He then decided to follow the machining pathway, figuring that he’d study engineering in college and could take advantage of the program’s hands-on experiences before entering the workforce.

So where does Werdman find himself now? He’s an employee of Clippard Manufacturing in Colerain Township, where he’s worked since starting a coop position at age 16. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Miami University and an MBA from Thomas More University, both paid for through Clippard’s tuition reimbursement program.

“We’re heavily involved with Colerain High School and Butler Tech,” says Robin Rutschilling, Clippard’s director of operations. “We donate many, many, many hours up there with Butler Tech, helping them with maintenance and educating the students. We bring students in here their junior or senior year of high school, and they co-op here. I had 22 recent students who came through the trades program. We make it pretty much mandatory that they continue their education and make an impact for themselves and with Clippard. We’re very proud of that fact.”

Rutschilling is on the board of directors of the Southern Ohio/Indiana committee of the national Precision Machined Products Association, a 90-year-old organization that promotes strong trade education for the future of manufacturing in North America. Buy-in from trade associations and affiliated organizations is essential for these pipeline programs.

“Advanced Manufacturing Industry Partnership is a nonprofit organization here in our region and we do one thing: We fill up the trades workforce pipeline for manufacturers in our region,” says Amy Meyer, board president of AMIP. “I have spent the last seven years working with Butler Tech in a variety of different capacities because they’re listening to the employers with a business ear so that they can translate our needs into curriculum and turn out great kids who can do these skilled jobs and have an incredible head start into their career.”

Butler Tech is listening to area employers in order to translate their needs into curriculum and turn out grad swho can do skilled manufacturing jobs. // Photograph courtesy Butler Tech

Werdman agrees. “There were several classes I had that were manufacturing based, and I saw several people struggle with it because it was unfamiliar to them,” he says. “Manufacturing is a part of everything. If you’re going to do anything, manufacturing is touching it, especially if you’re interested in engineering work. I definitely saw at many points that students weren’t exposure to the manufacturing process, but because I was in the workforce and had been doing it I was able to excel, while they struggled a bit.”

Just as buy-in from the trade associations and organizations is paramount, so is that of other companies and businesses like Clippard. “It’s not just sending the kids to Butler Tech,” says Sprankles. “The relationship has multiple layers to it. By us welcoming business partners to the table, they can influence the curriculum and the tools, equipment, and industry credentials the kids need to be qualified employees. So a good business partner coaches our teachers on how to change the junior and senior year of high school so the students are qualified to go directly to work for them.”

Some of those business partners provide Butler Tech with coaching and feedback in the classroom, while others give students what’s most coveted: access to co-ops, internships, and employment. It’s not unusual for students to be hired in their senior year of high school with the companies they co-op for; in fact, Sprankles says, that’s a standard practice for most career tech centers building pipelines into the local workforce.

“We had more than 50 students who were part of an internship pipeline program hosted by Procter & Gamble last year,” he says. “Some of those students went on to gain immediate fulltime employment, and they chose to do that instead of going to college. Almost all of the students in our machining and welding programs end up with full-time co-ops, and many of them go on to work with those companies, whether that’s Rhinestahl, StandardAero, Bilstein, or 80 Acres. There are businesses all around the Cincinnati region where students are being offered full-time or part-time jobs because they earned a spot at Butler Tech during their senior year of high school.”

Popular programs at Butler Tech include construction trades and Mechatronics (below). // Photographs courtesy Butler Tech

In 2015, Ohio started offering College Credit Plus to eligible Ohio students in grades 7 through 12, allowing them to take college courses for free in all public high schools, colleges, and universities and earn college credit. Butler Tech offers more than 60 CCP courses, making it one of the state’s most aggressive high school models. Those credits count toward college credit at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, University of Cincinnati, Sinclair Community College, and other universities.

“We’re supporting education to allow students to receive college credit and help them earn a credential faster and for less cost,” says Liz Cicchetti, chief school partnerships officer at Sinclair. “We’re also providing access to students for college exploration while in high school to understand what jobs are out there and what are the most in-demand fields.”

One particular pathway at Butler Tech, Mechatronics, has a direct partnership with Sinclair. After graduating from high school, participating students can earn an associate’s degree in electrical engineering at Sinclair. The college also participates in the Miami Valley Tech Prep Consortium, which, similar to CCP, helps high school students experience a career or technical field of study while simultaneously earning college credits.

“Our tech prep office is closely aligned with Butler Tech and delivers all the career technical institutions we partner with opportunities for career exploration, college credit attainment, and a scholarship when they graduate high school,” says Cicchetti. “We have students participating in both, and then we have students at Butler Tech who participate in one or the other.”

For students like Zokhidjonova, the pathways provided by Butler Tech have been life changing. She received her State Tested Nurse Aide certification her sophomore year in high school thanks to the Fifth Day Experience, a program that Sprankles—who was named the Ohio Association for Career and Technical Education’s Administrator of the Year in 2022—helped establish. On designated Fridays, students have complete control over their day: They can stay home and do homework or take a mental health day, work a regular job, do a co-op or internship, or explore any technical lab of their choice.

Now a biomedical science major on a pre-med track with a robust scholarship at Xavier University, Zokhidjonova also did an internship with Cincinnati Children’s over the summer, when she found what she terms her “calling” in pediatric dermatology. She’s currently an in-patient phlebotomist at UC West Chester Hospital thanks to another certification she received at Butler Tech.

“Butler Tech is something I recommend to every high schooler I meet, every sophomore or freshman I’ve met in a Butler County school,” says Zokhidjonova. “There is something for everybody. It doesn’t matter if you want to go to college or not, it doesn’t matter what you want to do, Butler Tech will have something for you. I whole-heartedly believe that.”