Maine Wants To Expand Tech Classes To All Middle-Schoolers, But Some Educators Are Wary

Jan 22, 2018

What was once called "vocational education" in Maine is now called "career and technical education," or CTE. More than 8,000 high schoolers are enrolled in classes at CTE centers around Maine, where they learn everything from carpentry and plumbing to biotech and digital media.

While most of the classes are largely limited to juniors and seniors, the state Department of Education wants to change that and provide every middle-schooler in the state with a similar experience.  But some local educators see several obstacles in the way of that goal.

For a couple of mornings every week, Adanica Keene is assigned to a cash register inside the Lake Region Vocational Center in Naples. As she hands out popcorn and breakfast sandwiches, the 10th-grader says the experience has changed her view of education.

"When you think of school and school programs, you don't think, 'I'll definitely need this algebra problem,'" Keene says. "You don't think that. But here, these are things, like, 'Oh! I'm actually going to need this some day.'"

The program here - called Diversified Occupations - is designed for about 150 local students in eighth through 10th grade. That's pretty young in the world of career and technical education. But Brian Langley is among those who would like it to become the norm.

"For me, I have a pretty clear-cut vision in my mind that those kinds of opportunities will bode our students very well," says Sen. Brian Langley.

Langley is a Republican state senator from Ellsworth who sponsored a bill last year to help expand CTE programming into middle schools. And the state Department of Education jumped onboard. It's setting a goal of providing every middle school student with a CTE experience within two years.

Advocates say that while some parents still take a negative view of vocational schools, research shows that CTE students actually end up with higher grades and better college completion rates than their  peers. 

Langley says he sponsored the bill because students have told him that if they hadn't engaged in hands-on experiences like boat building or cooking early on, they might have dropped out of school.

"So having those opportunities to explore - high wage, high tech - just gives them a better view of what's here in Maine," Langley says. "And where they might be able to go with it."

But some educators within Maine's tech centers are wary of the state's new goal.

"I think the people that are supportive of CTE have good intentions," says Peter Hallen, the director of the Mid-Maine Technical Center in Waterville. "I'm just not always sure they truly understand what career and technical education is."

Hallen says for the last decade he's tried to find ways to get more students interested in CTE, starting in early grades. But he discovered that labor laws make it tough to hand a power tool to a pre-teen. 

"It can look good on paper," Hallen says. "But they can't be working in a preschool. They can't be working in a kitchen. We're not going to put them up on the roof of a house, because there are obvious safety concerns. So then it's, what do you do with them?"

Ultimately, the school has settled on a much smaller introductory program, where a few seventh graders visit the tech center and learn from high school "mentors." 

But the other problem that has stalled these efforts is funding. Currently, state money doesn't cover middle school programs. And Don Cannan, the executive director of the trade group for Maine's CTE schools, says most centers are already filled to the brim with students.

So while he supports the effort to expand, Cannan says he still has questions over to how to pay for new teachers and classrooms. "We have programs with waiting lists, so we don't have the room. We just don't have the room."

Maine's Department of Education says it will fund pilot projects later this year to begin phasing in some middle school programs.

And Maine Education Commissioner Robert Hasson acknowledges the concerns. But Hasson says he wants tech centers to have freedom in what they create for middle-schoolers. He says it could be anything from a program at a job site to CTE teachers visiting a middle school and working with students there.

"So it could any of the above, is the way I would describe it," Hasson says.

Back at the Lake Region Vocational Center, Director David Morse watches eighth- and ninth-graders work on everything from auto detailing to retail sales. He says he's seen how these kinds of early CTE programs can make some students more engaged in school. "Because students got excited about the possibility of what was coming. So I think making it available at a younger age will improve their performance in math, English, science, and history."

But, as is often the case in public education, the challenge will be finding away to pay for that vision.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.