Hartford tech center revamps its education programs

Matt Ball wants to be a professional basketball player, but coaching is his back-up plan. This fall, the Rivendell Academy junior is one of seven students in the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center’s new Coaching and Leading course, gaining some skills that should serve him well whether he ends up running drills or sinking 3-pointers.

Just as students like Ball are trying to balance ideals with reality, so is the school. The new course, part of HACTC’s new Education Sciences program, aims not so much to prepare students for a specific career as to equip them with skills that are in demand across industries. At the same time, the change in course offerings highlights the challenge tech centers face in aligning student interests with workforce needs.

The new program replaces the center’s Human Services program, which prepared students for careers in early childhood education, senior care and social work. Last year, enrollment in the program plunged to a low of two students, prompting the change.

“I can’t run a program with just two kids in it. We have to find that balance,” said Doug Heavisides, director of the center, which serves about 300 students from 16 high schools around the Upper Valley. “The way that the funding works is that obviously we need to prepare kids for the workforce, but I also have to pay the bills, and the way I pay the bills is butts in the seats.”

The new Education Sciences program comprises two year-long, half-day courses, Teaching and Learning and Coaching and Leading. Teaching and Learning is designed to prepare students for a variety of careers in K-12 education, covering such topics as lesson planning, classroom management and public speaking. It offers several industry certifications, including CPR and First Aid and Multi-hazard Emergency Planning for Schools, as well as possible college credit for Introduction to Psychology.

“It’s still an education-based curriculum,” Heavisides said. “It kind of focuses on how humans learn.”

Coaching and Leading, a new course in Vermont’s technical education landscape, focuses on leadership skills such as conflict resolution and community leadership and has a strong outdoor component. It also offers several industry certifications, including Decision Making and Problem Solving and Wilderness First Aid, as well as possible college credit in Supportive Communication Skills.

“It’s really about life coaching and business leadership and ethics and morals,” said Heavisides, who conceived of the Coaching and Leading class in collaboration with Human Services instructor Michele Morrell and regional advisors from the center’s sending schools. “When we were looking at what we could do to replace Human Services … there are a lot of developing students who have great leadership qualities that could really benefit from a leadership program.”

That was the case with Taylor Summarsell, a sophomore from Woodstock Union High School and one of the first sophomores to study at HACTC: To attract more students, the school opened the new program up to sophomores, with the approval of sending districts, who agreed to foot the bill for any sophomores they send, although they’re not required to do so by law.

Last Monday afternoon, Summarsell and her classmates played a card game that entailed matching pictures on cards and then collaborating to solve a puzzle. Two educators from the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee, who are partnering with the class throughout the year, led the activity and a post-activity discussion.

“If you had to pick, do you think there were people who were clear leaders in that activity?” Katie Knowles, director of program development for the Hulbert Outdoor Center, asked the students.

Summarsell, who had devised a chant to help remember the items in the puzzle and coordinated the group’s strategies, got her classmates’ votes.
At 16, Summarsell doesn’t yet know what profession she wants to pursue, but she thought the class sounded appealing.

“I heard about it through my guidance counselor. She recommended it because she knows I like to be a leader,” she said.

While the programming change has helped the center gain new students like Ball and Summarsell, it also represents a loss to the community. Students who are interested in working with senior citizens are increasingly pursuing an LNA certificate, which they can still get through the Health Sciences program, Heavisides said. But with the loss of the Human Services program, the school will no longer offer credentialing for early childhood education careers.

“It’s so disappointing to hear about this program ending because this is a real area of focus for us,” said Sharron Harrington, senior program manager for Southern Vermont for Let’s Grow Kids, a Burlington-based nonprofit focused on improving access to affordable, quality child care. “One of the things that we’re continually running up against is the lack of early childhood workforce. ... Those of us working in early childhood recognize that building this pipeline is really critical.”

While a high school graduate can technically enter the child care workforce without any special credentials, recent state laws have made it somewhat impractical to do so because classroom aides and trainees cannot be left alone with groups of children, Harrington said.

Educators are well aware of the child care worker shortage, Heavisides said, but they can do only so much to attract students to child care work. HACTC, which once had an on-site child care center and in recent years had been sending students into internships at local child care centers, would be sending only a handful of graduates into the workforce even if it continued the program, he said.

The Family Place, a child care center in Norwich that partnered with HACTC, was already feeling the effect of declining enrollment before the program was eliminated, said Family Place Director Kim Toland. Still, she’s sad to see it go. The center benefited even from a small number of student interns throughout the year, and the partnership played an important role in the community, she said.

“The bottom line is that if students are not exposed to (Early Childhood Education) programs and possible careers they will probably not try them,” Toland wrote in an email. “There is a real issue with all area child care programs with recruiting good quality staff and being able to retain them.”

Wages are a likely reason young people aren’t choosing child care professions. Child care workers in Vermont earn, on average, $28,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In light of that reality, it’s no wonder tech centers such as HACTC are rethinking their Human Services programming, said Jason Gingold, director of the Randolph Career and Technical Center.

“Our responsibility is to our students,” Gingold said. If child care jobs don’t provide a living wage, it may not be wise to steer students toward them, he said.

Like other technical centers around the state, Randolph Career and Technical Center has revamped and renamed its Human Services program, but it still provides training for early childhood education as part of its Education Training program. That program has room for 16 students and is about half full this year, Gingold said.

Nancy Hutchinson, who teaches the Education Training classes, tries to prepare students for immediate careers while at the same time encouraging them to continue with their education after they graduate. She believes the internships in local child care centers give students critical information in making early career decisions, while the classes and mentoring can encourage those who enjoy the work to develop a successful career plan.

“In order to move up the career ladder in child care, you have to start taking college courses,” Hutchinson said. “I would love to have a class that’s half and half, half that want to go into child care and half that want to go into college and become teachers.”

Harrington, of Let’s Grow Kids, hopes more students and educators will take a long view of the early childhood education landscape in Vermont. In addressing the child care shortage, public and private organizations are increasingly looking at ways to make the profession more appealing and accessible, she said. Earlier this year, the state Legislature appropriated $300,000 for implementing a nationally accredited Child Development Associate Credential curriculum in Vermont’s technical centers.

“I have listened to folks who have been working in this field for 30 to 40 years, and they feel that there’s tremendous momentum,” Harrington said.

HACTC may be opting out of that movement, but staff hope the new program opens the door to a lot of other pathways for students.

Over the course of the year, students in the Coaching and Leading class will participate in a variety of team-building exercise, hands-on activities, outdoor excursions and adventures of their own design, Morrell said. All of the units are designed to cultivate in-demand skills they can deploy in a variety of settings.

As class ended on a recent Monday afternoon, Morrell instructed the students to write about their responses to different events in their lives, noting whether they were letting circumstances dictate their feelings or taking ownership of their attitudes.

“It will be interesting to see how the students change over the year,” she said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.

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