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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Bridging the Gap: High School College Prep and Career/Technical Education

Several weeks ago, I called Mike Town to talk about environmental education. I ended up wrestling, once again, with issues of high school tracking.

Town, who teaches environmental science at Washington's Redmond High School, was recently named the inaugural winner of the NEA Foundation's Green Prize in Public Education. He was also recognized for Outstanding Service to Environmental Education by the North American Association for Environmental Education in 2009. He seemed like the guy to talk to about environmental education.

And he was. He told me about the Cool School Challenge, a program (available for free online) he helped develop to engage students and teachers in reducing their school's greenhouse gas emissions. The strategies they use can be as simple as lighting control, recycling, and carpooling. Nationwide, the program has saved over 1.6 million pounds of carbon dioxide. It has also saved his school more than $100,000 in energy and waste costs over the past three years.

The Power of Purpose

He and his students are now taking the approach to scale in their community. They have joined with the local government in the Eco-Office Challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in other buildings across the city, starting with Redmond's six fire stations.

His students also designed a new transportation plan for the city of Redmond, using everything from bikes to light rail to buses and more to link city residents to a town center and to link the surrounding communities together. They study green building, drafting floor plans and building three-dimensional models of green homes. And they design completely new, sustainable communities -- their transportation, agriculture, water waste, building strategies and more. I am a bit jealous I never got to do anything like it in high school.

But even before telling me about all the interesting things he and his students do, Town floored me.

Town: I teach AP [Advanced Placement] environmental science. I also teach a course in environmental design and sustainability. And I'm a CTE teacher -- both of these classes are CTE. CTE is career and technical education.

O'Brien: AP environmental science is considered career and tech ed?

Town: Mine is.

I was shocked. When I was in high school, CTE and college-prep were completely different tracks. "Smart" kids did not take CTE courses. And, vice versa. Kids who were considered "not smart" did not take AP courses.

What about that divide?

Town: With 200 kids enrolled in our AP environmental science class, and with all of them taking the AP test and getting vocational credit, we can break that barrier down. And when the kids do projects it allows them to get out of their stereotype, the kind of cliquish deal about the brainiacs and the voc[ational] kids. We have a really strong belief, or I certainly do, that most kids can succeed in AP classes. We have to eliminate the barriers to those classes. For this class, we really like to attract those students who are economically disadvantaged and show them that, yes, they are smart enough to go to college.

Debunking Old Ideas

Town's approach got me thinking about CTE in education reform discussions. I most often hear about CTE as a strategy for engaging students who are at risk of dropping out -- and research suggests it does reduce dropout rates when implemented well. But it is not often discussed as a way to prepare students for college, just as a way to keep them in high school.

And CTE is often a subject of debate. Which students take CTE versus college-prep courses? In even offering CTE, do we confine certain students -- mainly low-income students -- to a certain place in society? Shouldn't all kids be held to the same (higher) standard?

It is a complicated issue. And after my conversation with Town, I looked into it. I found research on the outcomes of CTE. But I found very little on efforts similar to Town's: college-level courses with technical education components. While many advocate increasing rigor in CTE courses, few advocate increasing the technical aspect of AP courses. Does that mean there will always be two tracks?

I still struggle with why it has to be that way. Wouldn't high-achieving kids, as well as struggling students, benefit from real-world and technical skills? Why don't more high schools combine CTE and college-prep courses?

We look forward to your comments and ideas on this topic!

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