Plans for the Wake County school system's first career and technical education high school are going forward, but school board members have some questions.
The board voted Tuesday night to approve an interlocal agreement requesting the Wake County Board of Commissioners to lease, renovate and purchase the former Coca-Cola bottling facility at 2200 South Wilmington Street in South Raleigh.
But some board members are worried that the program they initially backed to offer options for students who don't want to go to college has turned into more of an early college concept. In addition, board members are also uncertain about what grades should be offered at the school.
The concept for the school is for students to take technical courses that would allow them to graduate high school with a diploma, training for an entry-level technical job and a Wake Tech certificate.
Click here for the handout from Tuesday's board work session.
Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore told the board it's the joint recommendation of the staffs from the school system and Wake Technical Community College to offer grades 10-12 at the school. The alternative would be just grades 11 and 12.
Moore said one reason for the recommendation is that a 10-12 school would result in better distribution of school district and Wake Tech staff. The sophomores would be taking high school courses while the juniors and seniors would primarily be taking college courses.
A school only offering grades 11 and 12 would mean almost all the staff would be from Wake Tech.
Moore also said that some acceleration opportunity will be needed in 10th grade because, as part of early college models, they need to be able to schedule for university-level courses in 11th- and 12th-grades.
In early colleges, students can graduate high school in four or five years with a diploma and two years of college credit. Students try to finish their high school courses by their sophomore year so they can move on to take the college courses.
Moore said that while most early colleges have ninth-grade, they felt it's "prudent" to leave the freshmen in the base school. She said that having 10th-grade at the CTE school will allow them to do the necessary acceleration to take the college courses in the upper grades.
Wake Tech is getting funding for its share of the program from the state's Career & College Promise program.
Moore noted that there's a minimum GPA requirement for the students to participate in the career and college promise programs in 11th and 12th grades.
Moore also said that if there's room they can let some rising 11th- and 12th-graders into the school.
Moore also said that Wake Tech prefers having three grades of 200+ students instead of two grades of 350 students because of all the lab work and internships that would be taken in 11th and 12th-grades.
All the talk about early college raised questions among multiple board members.
Board member Jim Martin said that he's a strong supporter of CTE and wants the school to open. But he said he wouldn't support offering grades 10-12 if it's an early college program. Martin has been an outspoken critic of the early college concept, saying it's expensive to offer and isn't the same as college.
“We need to be doing good high school instead of thinking we’re doing college in highs school," Martin said.
Martin asked if the school will offer high school CTE or college CTE. He said it sounds like they're providing the program only to those students who can accelerate and be ready for college.
Martin said he wants high school CTE offered at the school.
Bryan Ryan, senior vice president of curriculum education services at Wake Tech, pointed back to how Career and College pPromise has entrance and GPA requirements. He said if they don't provide assistance in 10th-grade then the students that Martin would like to attend might not be able to do so.
Martin responded that Ryan was responding from an early college mindset. He said they absolutely need acceleration if they're doing college CTE, but he wants high school CTE.
David Wehbie, the school system's CTE director, said the difference is that college CTE should build on what's taught in high school. He said that while high school CTE offers industry recognized credentials, the courses are primarily offered at colleges because they don't have the teachers and facilities at high schools.
Moore backed up Wehbie, saying it's a cost and facility issue so that's why they're harnessing support from Wake Tech.
Relating back to her experience as a high school principal, Moore talked about having to shut down an automotive program because she couldn’t find a person to meet state public school certification standards. She said colleges follow different guidelines for certification.
Moore also said that the district doesn't have the dollars to offer all the CTE courses at each school and to upgrade them as standards change.
“This endeavor allows us to pool resources in one place because, otherwise, kids who’d want to take these courses, they could still take them but they’d take them one or two at a time from a school on their own, finding release time and transportation to get to the Wake Tech facility that taught it," Moore said.
Board member John Tedesco said he shares some of Martin's concerns, particularly about limiting access to students based on GPA.
Tedesco talked about how impressed he was visiting the Iredell-Statesville CTE high school, which serves 11th- and 12th-grades. He said the superintendent and staff told him about accepting students who are multiple years behind in math and reading skills. He said that they use the school to help bring those students up.
Tedesco said he supported the Wake CTE school because he wanted to have multiple pathways for students because not everyone will thrive in a college environment.
Tedesco said if they exclude access based on a college-based initiative, they're defeating the purpose of the school.
Moore answered that they're talking about two different kinds of high schools with the Statesville school not being partnered with a community college credit for credit.
Moore called the Wake proposal a CTE high school with "an early college initiative." Moore said what they'd do is similar to what students in Wake can do now by taking CTE in ninth- and 10th-grades and then going to Wake Tech for 11th- and 12th-grades for courses to count as dual enrollment. She said it doesn't happen often because students have to seek own transportation.
Moore also mentioned that they need to abide by the requirements of the Career and College Promise program to get the dollars.
Tedesco asked if there's an option for non-early college students to gain access to the CTE high school to develop a set of skills for a productive career.
Wehbie answered that they need to recognize that the school district has a “very rich” CTE model, serving 43,000 students who represent a wide range of backgrounds.
Wehbie said the new CTE highs school would allow Wake to "ramp" things up for students to be able to earn community college credit and take courses not offered presently in high school. He said it would also allow them to work with the business community for job shadowing and career development opportunities "in a very concerted way."
Tedesco said Wehbie didn't answer his question whether children who are not career and college ready will have opportunity to access the program for a diploma and a certificate.
Moore answered that there's no academic requirement for 10th-graders to get into the school. She said staff will be able to see if the students are ready for the 11th- and 12th-grade courses.
Ryan added that a principal can recommend that a student proceed in the program regardless of the GPA if he thinks the student can handle the work
Board vice chairman Keith Sutton said "the rub" is the board was under the impression it was going to be a traditional CTE high school. He said it seems they're now finding a scenario where they're “chasing the money to make it fit” as opposed to the board’s original thinking of a CTE high school.
Board member Debra Goldman raised similar concerns, saying the concept of the school was "morphing" from what they originally intended. She said she was shocked when she first came to Wake and discovered the district didn't have a countywide CTE high school.
“We need to have in our minds an understanding of where the board was when we originally talked about this, which is purely providing a CTE high school for kids as an alternate pathway, an alternate means of success for them because, again, it all started with a very simple statement: Every child does not want to go to college," Goldman said. "We really need to focus the decision back on that.”
Amid the concerns, staff began to downplaying the early college connection.
Ann Dishong, the district's director of innovation, said that early college is just one pillar of he Career and College Promise program. She said another pillar is the CTE pathway that the school will follow.
"It isn’t an early college," Dishong said. "We are recommending 10-12 because we can accept any student.”
Dishong, bringing up the point Ryan made before, said the GPA requirement isn't a standalone piece. She said having 10th-grade, in addition to providing academic structure to help students be ready for the 11th- and 12th-grade courses, will make it more possible for principals to know whether students can meet the coursework even if they don't have the GPA.
Dishong said the school meets a need while not taking away from the district's "wonderful CTE programs."
Temporary Superintendent Stephen Gainey asked if Wake Tech could still make it work, staffing wise, if they don't do what's recommended. Ryan said they need to use the Career and College Promise funding to pay for staff and supplies.
“This is not an early college that’s supposed to streamline kids into a four-year university afterwards," Moore said. "We’re not precluding that possibility. But they are earning the Wake Tech credit as a part of the model.”
Board member Christine Kushner said they need to recognize how important it is that Wake Tech is partnering with them at a time when they're declining 5,000 students a year.
“I see this as a great first step in having these specialized courses centrally located in Wake County, which is a big county, which might be one of the reasons why we’ve never had a centralized CTE school before," Kushner said.
Board member Susan Evans said she wanted a clarification on what happens to students who don't care about getting a certificate but want to stay in the school. Wehbie said that certification is only an option for students and isn't required.
Sutton said that while he's still very supportive of the school, he wants to make sure that they're not pushing kids who aren't ready into accelerated level courses while also making sure the courses are rigorous and have high expectations.
“We don’t want to see this be a dumping ground for kids, but again also not take kids out of what we thought this would be in terms of this true CTE piece," Sutton said. "Maintaining that balance and making sure that we have that because even if a kid says 'I want to be a welder and don’t go to college,’ we want them to be a successful welder."
The board will vote Oct. 30 on what grades to offer.
Tedesco said he prefers having 11th- and 12th-grades. But he said he's for allowing sophomores if it provides broader access for students. He said he also still wants a pathway for students to enter in 11th- and 12th-grades who may not be necessarily choosing the college and career promise aspect.
Board chairman Kevin Hill said they can deal with those issues later, but they first need to partner with the commissioners by agreeing on the interlocal agreement. The agreement was unanimously approved later in the evening.