Career and Technical — a new era in education

Career and Technical programming is re-shaping how some school districts approach education. See which high schools are the dominant players, and why they’re attracting students from outside their borders.

By Scott Pickering
Posted 4/19/23

Since school choice began to proliferate a few years ago, hundreds of students have chosen to leave their hometown districts and enroll elsewhere. They often enroll close to home, choosing a neighboring district or a district a short drive away. But not always.

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Career and Technical — a new era in education

Career and Technical programming is re-shaping how some school districts approach education. See which high schools are the dominant players, and why they’re attracting students from outside their borders.


This story is about education, so it begins with a test. Determine which of the following five statements are true and which are false.

1. Any Rhode Island student can attend any public high school, for free, regardless of where they live.

2. Hundreds of students living in the East Bay of Rhode Island choose to go to public high schools outside of their hometown, for free. (These students are separate and apart from the hundreds or thousands more who choose to enroll in public charter schools or private schools.)

3. Most school districts in this region have declining enrollments.

4. Most public high schools in this region are losing more students to neighboring high schools than they are gaining.

5. Two public high schools stand above all others in their commitment to, and success at, attracting students to enroll in their classes. Bonus points if you can guess either school …

ANSWERS: First of all, every statement above is “True.” And secondly, if you guessed Barrington High School for the bonus question, you would be wrong. The destination schools are East Providence High School and Rogers High School in Newport.

There’s a lot to unpack in the preceding, so here’s a quick primer.

Back in 2016, then-Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner and then-Gov. Gina Raimondo pushed a plan to allow open enrollment in the state’s public high schools for any students choosing a Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. Commonly known as “school choice,” the statewide policy gives students wide flexibility to choose a course of studies focused on career-oriented programs, regardless of where they are located.

So if a student living in Bristol wants to study Computer Science, and his school does not offer that career track, he can enroll in Tiverton, which does. Or if a student living in Barrington wants to study Child Development or Education, and her school does not offer such a program, she can enroll in Portsmouth High School, which does.


The money follows the student

Since school choice began to proliferate a few years ago, hundreds of students have chosen to leave their hometown districts and enroll elsewhere. They often enroll close to home, choosing a neighboring district or a district a short drive away. But not always.

Sometimes students and their families choose longer commutes to enroll in high schools on opposite sides of the Ocean State. This school year, East Providence is educating students from Warwick, West Warwick, Johnston and Cranston. Barrington has students who live in North Providence, Central Falls, Middletown and Cranston. Middletown has at least one student from North Kingstown.

Fueling all this student movement is the concept that “the money follows the student.” When a student attends school outside their hometown, the home district pays the host district. A formula determines the tuition rate, but it is typically about $14,000 per year per student.


A proliferation of programs

According to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), in this 2022-23 school year, 32 public school entities are administering approved CTE programs. These entities include large districts with multiple high schools, like Cranston and Providence, as well as single schools serving regional populations, like Bristol-Warren and Chariho.

Collectively, those 32 entities offer a total of 247 CTE programs, with a lot of overlap. For instance, 18 of the 32 offer an Engineering track; 17 offer a Computer Science / Information Technology track; 10 offer an Education track; and 9 offer a version of Biomedical Science.

Some districts have stuck with the mainstream and traditional. An example is the Bristol Warren Regional School District, which offers three of the most common CTE programs in Rhode Island — Engineering, Architecture & Construction, and Business & Finance. Others have chosen unique programs not seen anywhere else. For instance, Chariho High School alone offers a Marine Composites program. Pawtucket High School alone offers a Paralegal track. Newport offers the state’s only Electrical-Marine program. Portsmouth and Barrington are the only districts offering a focus on Television Production.

Across the broad spectrum of public high schools in Rhode Island, students had 75 different RIDE-approved career tracks to choose from this year (see separate list), and they will have more to choose from next year. Many school districts are currently offering CTE programs that have not yet been RIDE-approved, such as Barrington’s Graphics program and Tiverton’s Visual Arts program. And during research for this story, several school administrators talked about programs they will begin offering next year, such as Audio Engineering at Barrington High School and Fashion Design at East Providence High School.


CTE — all the way

Some school districts have gone all-in with the development of CTE programs. Most ambitious is the regional Chariho High School (serving the towns of Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton), which offers 21 programs. They offer niche specialities like Web Design-eCommerce or Music Technologist; traditional fields like Construction (residential, HVAC or electrical) and Welding; career-specific tracks like CNA and Education; and  STEM fields like IT and Engineering.

Others robust programs can be found in Newport (11 programs) and East Providence (10), which are the clear leaders in the East Bay.

Other East Bay districts have either not integrated as many programs or have yet to get them approved. Barrington, for instance, lists five CTE tracks, but only two are currently RIDE-approved. Mt. Hope High School has three programs. Tiverton High School has six (four are RIDE-approved).

The rapid expansion of programs in East Providence and Newport is part of a deliberate strategy in those districts. Those also happen to be the districts where career training is part of their DNA.

Get a closer look at E.P. High – A cathedral to CTE

The old ‘vo-tech’ programs

A generation or two in the past, back in the 1970s and ’80s, Vocational-Technical programs were the landing spot for students at risk of flunking out — students who were considered not likely to attend college. Guidance counselors and teachers steered those students into vocational schools, where they developed skills in carpentry, plumbing, electrical wiring or automotive repairs.

The programs were not glamorous. They were not on the front pages of the district’s brochures. And those students were definitely not celebrated as much as those on an Ivy League track.

“If you were kicked out of your district and there was no hope for you, you went to Vo-Tech,” said Nicole Lyons, who has been working in the field of technical and career education for most of her adult life. She was Head of Curriculum and Instruction at the Davies Career and Technical School in Lincoln, R.I., before becoming Director of College and Career Readiness in the Bristol Warren school district. A month ago, she left Bristol Warren to work in a new role at the Rhode Island Department of Education as Associate Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment.

Of the old vo-tech. stigma, she said, “That is an antiquated model of education. The model now is about access … If a school doesn’t offer a bio-science program, or an architecture and construction program, RIDE wants that program to be offered at another school.”

She said schools should try to develop programs that engage students, that get them excited about going to school. “Student interest should drive what programs you offer,” she said.


A new era in education

Robert Hanlon is director of the East Providence Career and Technical Center, which is the formal name for the CTE program housed under the roof of East Providence High School. Though vo-tech education took shape before he was born, he has lived through multiple eras in education.

“In the 1970s, vo-tech was a place to put students who did not meet success in your traditional classes – students who struggled in Math, English, Science, maybe they were behavior problems; they were not headed toward college,” Hanlon said. That’s when the state organized 11 vocational centers throughout Rhode Island. East Providence and Newport were the two centers for the East Bay of the state.

“Then came the college-for-all movement — No Child Left Behind. We wanted every child to go to college,” he said.

Hanlon believes education is now immersed in a new era, where vo-tech has evolved to Career and Tech. “The trades have pushed back and said the college-for-all mentality has created a gap in our workforce … So our CTE programs have been revitalized across the state.”

Hanlon said many high schools today, his included, are offering programs with state-of-the-art training and equipment, as well as professional-level certifications. “Kids are leaving here, going to work in the real world and coming back to tell us about how they worked on better equipment here in high school than they have in their jobs,” Hanlon said.

The high school achievements also extend beyond the trades. East Providence CTE students are earning college credits through partnerships with the University of Rhode Island and Syracuse University. They are obtaining engineering and graphics certifications normally attained at a community college. A recent graduate of the school’s Dental Assistant program (the only such program in Rhode Island), who wants to go on and become a dentist, was hired by Dr. Lisa Daft, a local dentist frustrated by the lack of quality candidates in the marketplace.

“The focus now is vocational and so much more,” Hanlon said. “We say our students are ‘college and career ready.’ ”


A reason to come to school

Hanlon is a passionate believer in CTE programming because of its potential to engage young minds. “The new direction in education is student choice,” he said. “The old model of everything being cookie cutters, that is a recipe for disengaged students, students who don’t see the relevance in what they’re learning, students who tune out from school.” Hanlon said specialization is the key to student engagement.

“These are the classes kids get excited about. When they get up in the morning, these are the classes they want to be part of.”

Another passionate believer is Dr. Thomas Kenworthy, superintendent of schools in Portsmouth. Before joining the Portsmouth administration, he was principal of North Kingstown High School, where CTE programming got an early start, and he brought that perspective with him.

“You can’t view this as the old vo-tech programs,” Kenworthy said, “because it’s become so much more than that. It’s true 21st-century learning … We’re trying to develop tracks that match where the careers and jobs are going.”

Kenworthy has overseen CTE programming at the state level as well. About a dozen committees monitor the 247 approved CTE tracks in Rhode Island, meeting several times a year to review curriculum and provide oversight. There are committees for Healthcare, STEM, Information Technology, Business & Finance and others. Kenworthy was director of the committee on Education programming, and Portsmouth happens to be one of the 11 Rhode Island schools offering a CTE track in Education and Child Development — the only one in the East Bay.


Marketing to other districts

One of the uncomfortable dynamics with CTE programming is whether or not schools actively market their programs outside their district’s borders. Public school systems are hard-wired for academics, security, sports, music and more. All are part of the DNA of a public school district. Marketing – actively selling themselves to prospective students the way a college or university does – never has been.

Yet some public school districts are waking up to the possibilities and promoting what they have to offer.

“When I came here, for whatever reason, Portsmouth wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunity to market these programs to other students,” Kenworthy said. He helped change that.

Portsmouth High School holds an open house every fall, and the district actively promotes it to neighboring communities. It uses social media to reach young people and their parents. It uses mailing lists from nearby districts. It keeps its CTE programming visible and prominent on the school’s website.

The home page for the school’s Career and Technical Education program describes its four Academies (Education, Visual Arts, Media / Video and Engineering) and states: “These Academies are open to Portsmouth and non-resident students. Non-resident students who are accepted into one of our Career Academy programs become full members of the Portsmouth High School community and are eligible to participate in extra-curricular activities, including our award-winning music, art, and athletic programs. Eligible students may qualify to have tuition and transportation covered by their home district.”

The promotional efforts are paying off. In its first year of trying, Portsmouth welcomed five students from outside districts. This year 35 students from Newport, Middletown, Tiverton and Bristol-Warren are enrolled at Portsmouth High School, and the superintendent expects that number will surpass 40 students next year.

“Why not let other families know that they can take advantage of what we have here?” Kenworthy asked. “RIDE opened this up a few years ago, and some districts were slower to realize how you can take advantage of it.”

As a result, Portsmouth is one of the few districts with a net positive cash flow in CTE enrollments. It is receiving about $525,000 in tuition from outside districts this school year, while spending about $408,000 to send students to outside districts (mostly to the career and tech. center in Newport). The net gain of $117,000 doesn’t do much to offset significant losses in state aid, but it doesn’t hurt either.

Kenworthy believes they’re on the right track for the future. “If you look at any educational organization that has any clout, expanding CTE education is part of what they consider critical goals for the future,” the superintendent said. “This whole space is going to keep expanding.”


Not all are marketing

Some districts are either slow to embrace the marketing side of CTE programs or they’re not interested. The Bristol Warren school district has never really marketed its programs to outside students, but it began trying this spring. With the help of a public relations consultant, it promoted and hosted open houses to raise awareness of its programs, which have so far attracted very few students from neighboring communities.

This school year, Mt. Hope High School has only two students from outside districts (one each from Barrington and East Providence), while it has 30 students attending other districts. The result is net tuition loss of almost $400,000.

The Barrington district does little to promote its CTE programming to its own students, and even less to outside students. The CTE programs have no obvious presence on the Barrington High School website, though they are included in a lengthy document describing the school’s “Program of Studies.” There, the district warns that students from outside districts can enroll at BHS only if they pass certain assessment or proficiency tests, and Barrington residents have priority for available seats in the programs.

Superintendent of Schools Mike Messore admitted that Barrington is not interested in recruiting outside students. “We promote our CTE programs on the RIDE website, and our guidance counselors share CTE information with other schools,” he wrote in an email. “Without having many seats available, we do not aggressively promote the CTE program.”


The East Providence phenomenon

This story about education ends with a spotlight on East Providence High School, the gleaming new facility that opened less than two years ago and is at the center of a revolution in high school programming.

The building itself is something to behold (see photo gallery), with CTE programming the lifeblood of the facility. Its 10 career tracks (soon to be 11) are built into the core of the school, with each program on full display through wide windows that showcase the classes, equipment and students working inside.

“That’s how this school was designed,” Hanlon said. “They definitely wanted to showcase the CTE programs. It’s all on display. Everything is clearly marked. There’s a lot of glass, so students walking by can see into the programs.”

Through deliberate marketing (print ads, social media, emails) and word of mouth, families have noticed. During a January open house, the school welcomed more than 100 prospective students from other school districts. Prior to this school year, it received 400 applications for 250 available slots. “We had to turn away 150 kids,” said Hanlon, the school’s CTE director.

East Providence High School enrollment has grown from 1,550 students in 2021 to about 1,700 students this year. That happened through out-of-district enrollments, and because families are moving to the city for that high school. “For every kid that we’ve accepted from out of the district, we’ve had two or three move into town for this school,” Hanlon said. Today the school is operating at about 90% capacity.

“We’re living in a unique time and place,” Hanlon said. “We’re turning people away, and I feel terrible. We’ll have at least 100 kids who apply to our programs that we have to turn away.”


Looking for that passion

While living through a unique time, Hanlon and his team have developed a unique way of screening applicants for their programs. Rather than rely on assessment tests or grades, they’re looking for something else.

“I’m really looking for a student’s passion,” he said. “We have them write a cover letter, to introduce themselves, to explain why they want to be part of this program.”

Hanlon said their assessment of a student has nothing to do with his or her ability to write, and it depends only partially on their academic record. He said a student who is disinterested in core subjects may appear to be a bad student on paper, but that may not reflect the true potential for that young person.

“We look for students who can demonstrate a passion for the subject. Maybe they have a  family connection, maybe they have experience in that field,” Hanlon said.

Once accepted, those students join a growing body of CTE enrollees at East Providence High School. Hanlon predicted that more than 50% of the student body will be participating in one of the school’s 11 CTE programs next year.

Standing inside the enormous Graphic Communications room during a recent tour of the school, Hanlon reflected on the future of high school programming. “You ask if this is the future of schooling? The answer is yes. The challenge is, how do you get this to every single kid? How do you make English class, Math class, Science class, Social Studies, more like this? Part of what we’ve done here [at EP High] is expanding electives … When I went to school, you had English 9, English 10, English 11 and English 12, and everybody did the same curriculum. Today we have Mythology classes. We have a class called Urban Legends. So kids get to branch out and try genres that have more interest to them.

“But there’s even more to that – more voice-and-choice for students,” he continued. “Even within classes, you might be differentiating. One group of students might be working with this text, and another group of kids might be working with a different text.

“In social studies, we have Criminal and Family Law, we have Psychology, we have a class on military history, we have Rhode Island history. So it’s not like everyone takes Western Civ. like it was back in the day. It’s not a factory model of schooling. We’re trying to tailor the model to kids.

“One of the things I tell my teachers at the beginning of the year, my pep talk, is ‘Be the reason that a kid comes to school today.’ ”

Hanlon continued: “How do kids find their joy at school? Some kids do it through athletics, some kids do it through music. Well, Career and Tech. is another reason. Kids can identify themselves by that. They can say, ‘I’m a band kid,’ or they can say, ‘I’m a Graphics kid,’ or ‘I’m an Electrical kid.’ Kids want to do well for their core program, and that translates over to their other classes. We need to have more opportunities for that.

“That’s how schools will be in 50 years, and that’s what we’re working towards.”



The Ins and Outs of CTE Programs in Rhode Island

The chart below captures the amount of student and tuition movement throughout East Bay area high schools in 2022-23. East Providence and Newport have the greatest disparity between students enrolling in their district and students leaving their district for Career and Technical Education programs. Accordingly, they also have the greatest net-positive tuition cash flow. For example, East Providence is receiving $1.2 million in tuition revenue from other school districts, while it is spending just $42,000 on tuition for the three students who left its district to enroll elsewhere. At the other end of the spectrum, the Bristol Warren Regional School District has a net-negative of about $392,000 in tuition payments, because it has only two students from other districts, while 30 of its own have chosen to enroll elsewhere. *Middletown did not respond to multiple requests for its outgoing-student and tuition data before publication.

District # of CTE Programs What they are Students coming in (from other districts) Money coming in (tuition) Where they're from Students going out (to other districts) Money going out (tuition) Net students +/1 Net tution +/1
East Providence 9 Automotive, Construction, Culinary, Electrical, Forensic Science, Graphic Communications, Health Occupations, Information Tech., Engineering 86 $1,200,000 Barrington, Bristol-Warren, Central Falls, Cranston, Johnson, Pawtucket, Providence, Warwick, West Warwick 3 $42,000 83 $1,158,000
Newport 10 Information Tech., Automotive, Construction, Hospitality, Cosmetology, Culinary Arts, Visual Arts, Army JROTC, Ad Design-New Media, P-Tech (cyber-security) 115 $1,300,000 Tiverton, Little Compton, Middletown, Portsmouth, Newport, Jamestown 20 $310,863 95 $989,137
Portsmouth 4 Child Dev./Education, Engineering, Visual Arts & Design, Video & Media Prod. 35 $525,000 Newport, Middletown, Tiverton, Bristol-Warren 39 $407,947 -4 $117,053
Barrington 5 Engineering, Architecture, Computer Science, TV Production, Graphics 11 $185,963 N. Providence, Bristol-Warren, Portsmouth, Central Falls, Middletown, Cranston 17 $251,960 -6 -$65,997
Tiverton 6 Engineering, Carpentry, CNA, Computer Science, Public Safety-Law Enforcement, Visual Arts 2 $37,500 Little Compton, Middletown 30 $234,279 -28 -$196,779
Bristol Warren 3 Arch. & Construction, Engineering, Businss & Finance 2 $28,000 Barrington, East Providence 30 $420,000 -28 -$392,000
Middletown* 3 Engineering, Comp. Science & Info. Tech., Biomedical 19 ___ Tiverton, Portsmouth, Newport, North Kingstown, Bristol-Warren ___ ___ ___  

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