Sparks fly as students in Thomas Jackson's welding class prepare for a test at the Cape May County Technical High School in Cape May Court House.
Working in small booths, seniors train for the American Welding Society certification, which if successful, will lead to a job or entry into a college or technical program.
"Right now, I can't meet the demand for welders," Jackson said. "I have a representative from the Iron Workers Union coming in to recruit."
Most area high schools offer at least a few classes in which students can earn state or nationally recognized certificates ranging from the Microsoft Office series to auto repair and cosmetology. But schools get no credit for those programs on the New Jersey Department of Education's school performance report measure of college and career readiness. The reports track only student participation and performance in the national SAT, PSAT and Advanced Placement classes.
Vocational school advocates say that is unfair and wrong. They are working hard to change the perception that standardized academic tests alone are the only indicators of a student's potential for success.
"Right now, all five indicators just show college readiness," said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational Schools. "There is nothing about careers."
She said members have met with state Department of Education officials and are working on adding career training to the report. The old state school report cards included student results on state licensing or certification exams, but the numbers often were redacted, because each group had too small a number of participants to be publicly reported.
"You'd just see a lot of asterisks," Savage said.
She said one option might be a listing similar to what was done this year with the arts that would calculate what percentage of students participated in different career areas. She said many schools also have dual credit or enrollment agreements with local colleges, and those, too, should be included.
State Department of Education spokesman Richard Vespucci said the agency has been collecting data on industry certification exams for several years and hope to include them in next year's reports to more accurately reflect the mission of career and technical education schools.
While the greatest impact would be on the vocational schools, many traditional local high schools would benefit from adding a measure of career programs. In Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, no high school met more than two of the five current benchmarks for college and career readiness. But many also offer certificate programs.
Students at Egg Harbor Township High School and Greater Egg Harbor Regional's three high schools can become certified in Microsoft Office Specialist areas. Millville and GEHR students can earn the culinary ServeSafe certificate and Millville students can get ASE auto technology certificates.
But the biggest impact would be on the county vocational schools. Atlantic County Institute of Technology Superintendent Philip Guenther, former president of the state council, said if the state performance report included career programs, he would be at 100 percent rather than 20 percent on the state's college and career-readiness scale.
The Ocean County Vocational School offers 13 certificate programs ranging from child care and computer science, to HVAC, plumbing and welding.
Nancy Wheeler-Driscoll, director of curriculum and instruction at the Cape May County Technical High School, said all of its 21 career and technical education programs lead to an industry-recognized credential.
"All students should graduate with one or more certificates," she said.
For those going on to college, the certificates can provide them with a job while in college. Law and public safety students at Cape Tech can earn their Class I Special Police Officer certification and work as summer officers. Cole Sawyer, of Wildwood Crest, a senior at Cape Tech, is applying to be an officer there this summer with the goal of becoming a full-time police officer in the city.
The 35 students in the Emergency Medical Technician course at ACIT recently completed a multicasualty disaster drill as part of their preparation for the state EMT exam. The course is co-taught by Chief Barry Bruner from Mutual Aid Emergency Services in Absecon, who said it is the same course adults would pay $1,250 to $1,600 to take.
"They can walk right out of here and get a job," he said.
Teacher Maureen McPherson said of 40 students who took the EMT test last year, 90 percent passed on their first try. She said the students actually get more than basic EMT training, because the Health and Sciences Academy program prepares them for college, as well.
"Some of of them can work on an EMT squad or in a college infirmary while they are in college," she said.
Senior Mikale McKay, of Absecon, hopes to get a job after graduation in June.
"I signed up for it as a class, but it's way better than I expected," he said.
Cape Tech Superintendent Nancy Hudanich said with the high unemployment in Cape May County, it's important to teach students skills that can help them find jobs locally but can take with them anywhere. Certificates help make those skills portable, just like a college degree.
"A lot of graduates don't stay, because there are so few year-round jobs," she said.
The school is modifying its construction program to include property management and is working to train students for the types of jobs local employers will want.
Jackson said students in his welding class might have to travel a bit to find jobs, but there are jobs out there for them.
Senior Morgan Teller, 17, said she plans to join the Navy.
"I like working with my hands," she said.
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