Creating academic programs for all students is an important part of a school leader’s job. Often, we create clear pathways for high achievers, complete with AP classes and college counseling, while other students are left to find their own way through high school. At the high school where I am assistant principal, we’ve been deliberate about mapping courses for students that lead to careers and certifications, clustering courses around students’ interests in automobiles so they can leverage that knowledge into career readiness.
Classes like woodworking and automotive repair once fell under the umbrella of trade and industrial arts. Today, if schools have them at all, they’re categorized as technology, together with courses in engineering, science, and applied mathematics, but the reality is that STEM courses often eclipse traditional industrial arts courses because of ongoing budgetary constraints, changing state mandates, and standardized testing. When school leaders need to make tough decisions, industrial arts courses are often the first to go.
My school has taken a different path: We have chosen to value and invest in both STEM and industrial arts—automotive courses specifically—because we strongly believe that we need to serve all students, including those who are not planning on going to college.
The Planning Process
Our school’s journey began with a new program in the automotive career industry. We had a few courses that students could take in car care basics and automotive repair, but they were scattershot: There wasn’t a linear path from those courses to careers. Students could take automotive courses as electives, but there was no clear cluster of courses that would prepare them for career and certification requirements. With the support of our superintendent and board of education, our automotive teachers and principal began to think more broadly about how we could help our automotive students make a career out of their passion for cars.
What started as a brainstorming session in 2018 grew to what will be a fully functional career and certification pathway for our first cohort of incoming freshmen students in 2021–22. In the intervening three years, we collaborated with professionals in the auto industry to align our vision for a cohesive program with what skills a student starting a career in the field would need.
An important part of the planning process was gaining accreditation from the national automotive organization that grants certification—the ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) Education Foundation. In order to do this, we needed local partners in the automotive industry (dealerships and repair shops) to provide insight into how our curriculum could prepare students for jobs in the automotive field, as well as internships for students to gain real-life work experiences.
Building a Pipeline
Once the program was planned, we needed to reach incoming freshmen and their parents so they knew it was an option. Because we unveiled the program during the pandemic, we produced a video that introduced our facilities, our instructors, and how our program would help the students achieve career certifications in a field that is in demand. As a regional high school, we sent the video to our sending middle school districts, who shared the video with eighth graders and notified the parents via email. We also used social media as a way to promote the program.
We hosted a virtual open house for students and parents because of the pandemic, but going forward, open houses will be on campus so that we build excitement about the facilities and instructors among prospective students. Our school already had state-of-the-art automotive repair facilities that were used for our existing coursework. Once students showed interest, we scheduled interviews to get to know them and to help them understand the program’s expectations, specifically that students would need to pass all of their classes to stay in the program and graduate on time with the certifications. The jump from middle school to high school isn’t always an easy one, so having clear expectations is important for both the potential students in the program and their parents.
We made a point of letting students know they’d been accepted into the program in person. This gave the students a sense of accomplishment and generated excitement. A guidance counselor and I went to each of the students’ middle schools and gave them a letter of congratulations from our principal and a certificate recognizing their acceptance.
Making acceptance into the program an event marked the occasion: It had come to life after years of planning and recognized students who had not always experienced success in traditional classes. When I witnessed how proud they were, it was a turning point—I knew that the program would have a direct and very positive impact on them. One parent told me that acceptance into the program gave their child a sense of purpose and excitement about high school that had previously been absent. To me, that was a culmination of all the work that went into planning this new endeavor.
This summer, we will host an orientation for the students so they can meet their classmates. Building relationships with each other is going to be an integral part of our students’ staying in the program and graduating.