At a busy, sprawling campus in Arlington, students are learning how to be car mechanics, physical therapists, emergency medical technicians, chefs, cybersecurity specialists and engineers — all while they are still in high school.
The Arlington Career Center hosts a variety of programs aimed at getting students ready for the workforce immediately after high school and giving them a head start for careers they might train for in college. But the courses are offered as electives, and students must ride buses from their home schools to take part in them.
Arlington Tech aims to change that. The proposed program would put career and technical education at the center of the school’s curriculum, allowing students to take all of their classes — including core academic subjects such as English and history — at the Arlington Career Center. The program would integrate academic lessons through projects and would cater to students who want to pursue higher education as well as those with plans to start working immediately after high school graduation.
Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy has proposed spending $750,000 to start the program next school year with 40 students who would start their freshman year there.
“It’s project-based learning, and the academics are anchored in career-technical education,” said Margaret Chung, principal of the career center.
The program is designed to give students a taste of various career and technical education programs during their first year in high school — they would take classes in sustainable technology, engineering, auto collision repair and video production. By their junior year, Chung said, she hopes to have most students taking courses that confer college credit in high school.
Students also would take all their core academic courses at the school, including English and history, but Chung is urging teachers to collaborate and formulate lessons that reach across all disciplines.
The career center already specializes in project-based learning, with students receiving hands-on training to learn the skills they’ll need for the workforce. Students work on totaled cars to learn about collision repair, learn about cybersecurity through simulated cyberattacks and work with 3-D printers to learn about engineering.
Chung said she’s still battling the perception that her programs cater to the less academically inclined or to those uninterested in higher education. Some of the students will go on to engineering programs in college or will use the trades they learned to finance their college education. Others are able to get good-paying jobs straight out of high school. Arlington Tech is designed for college-bound students.
“It’s for students who are above and beyond and understand that the work is important,” Chung said. “They’re not trying to follow a particular pattern. They’re trying to find their own passion.”
Cassidy Nolen, who will be the coordinator of Arlington Tech, said the school’s program will try to encourage alternatives to traditional textbook instruction; he and Chung are hoping to focus on project-based learning, conveying lessons through experiments, projects and simulations. The method has become more popular in an era when some are concerned that school is too test-driven and is not effectively preparing students for the real world.
“There’s a disconnect between skill on paper and skill performance,” Nolen said.
The program has special appeal for young people interested in hands-on learning. Tariq Thomas, an eighth-grader at Swanson Middle School, plans to be part of the program’s first class. He’s obsessed with technology and, to his parents’ chagrin, taking things apart to see how they work. He once disassembled an old printer that left an ink stain on the family’s carpet. He also fixed an iPod that Apple technicians said was beyond repair.
“I just like building things, taking things apart and figuring out how things work,” Tariq said.
Tariq, who aspires to study computers or engineering in college, said it was a tour of the Arlington Career Center — which has a television studio, an auto body repair shop and an engineering class with a 3-D printer — that really sold him. He was particularly impressed with the solar-powered cellphone chargers students had made themselves.
“They have a lot of really cool equipment there,” Tariq said. “They’ve already done really cool stuff.”
His father, Jordan Thomas, said he grappled with the old stereotype of vocational education and worried it would not prepare Tariq for college. But then he learned that it could actually give Tariq a leg up with dual-enrollment courses that would allow him to earn college credit. Thomas said he was hesitant at first but was won over by his son’s excitement to attend the program.
“Some kids, they don’t know what they want to do. They don’t have a sense of focus and passion,” Thomas said. “Tariq does, and for him this is a way to kind of begin going down that path.”