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Amid renewed focus on job training in high school, Memphis students consider their options

Melrose High School students (from left) Deshon Davis, Aaliyah Scott, and Jonterio Collins at RedZone Ministries in Orange Mound.
Melrose High School students (from left) Deshon Davis, Aaliyah Scott, and Jonterio Collins at RedZone Ministries in Orange Mound.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

For years, Memphis school leaders promoted the idea that college was the most logical next step for all of its students. Now they’re changing their tune.

Shelby County Schools’ new budget dedicates $6.7 million to overhaul its job certification classes, with a focus on training students for higher-paying, in-demand careers that don’t necessarily require a college education, such as information technology and carpentry. By contrast, that same budget earmarked $1.3 million for adding advanced college preparatory courses and readying students for college entrance exams.

That represents a big shift for a district that had once gone so far as to make t-shirts reading “Every Child. Every Day. College Bound.” It’s also part of a larger trend toward job training statewide and nationwide.

But it may take time to win students over.

Jonterio Collins, a rising junior at Melrose High School in Orange Mound, said he appreciates the option of vocational training, but that he and his peers think the district should provide more advanced courses to prepare them for college.

Collins said that Melrose has few Advanced Placement courses, which can count toward college credit, while “other schools have a lot.”

“Some students are really angry about that,” he said.

New focus career fields

  • Advance manufacturing
  • Architecture
  • Health science
  • Information technology (IT)
  • Marketing/distribution
  • Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)
  • Transportation

District leaders have said that both vocational training and college preparation are essential since either path can lead to a career. Since job certification classes have not gotten the same attention in recent years, the revamp is an opportunity to play catch up, according to Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

“We’re going to have a career pathway for every child, no matter what that looks like,” Powers said.

The state Department of Education will begin to count the number of students who earn industry certifications, such as horticulture, machining, or plumbing as “ready graduates.” Local educators say vacancies in the local job market provided the impetus to offer more job certification classes. Nationally, a push for more vocational training is fueled by muddied statistics that the job market awaiting students is changing quickly and dramatically. And a recent Massachusetts study shows job training classes encourage more students to finish high school.

Melrose High School alumna and a current school volunteer, Claudette Boyd, recently took it upon herself to survey about 80 students at lunchtime in an effort to gauge their educational and career interests.

According to the surveys she distributed and provided to Chalkbeat, most respondents want to go to college, and about half of the students said Melrose had course offerings in a career path they wanted to pursue. Health science was the most popular job field and is one of the district’s focus areas, but certifications related to that field will not be offered at Melrose. Other popular careers included business management, criminal justice, and cosmetology or barbering.

Under the district’s plan, Melrose will offer certification programs in advanced manufacturing, architecture, barbering, cosmetology, web design, marketing, criminal justice, and tourism.

A recent district report showed that poorer students are less likely to have access to advanced courses that are meant to mirror college coursework. Those classes give students a chance to earn college credit and therefore save on college tuition.

The Orange Mound school has the highest poverty rate among high schools in the district at 88 percent and had only five courses that can count toward college credit. By contrast, White Station High School has the most in the district with 56 such courses.

Some students like rising junior Aaliyah Scott are simultaneously pursuing career training and a college education. Scott is entering her third year in the school’s popular cosmetology program, which will stay at Melrose under the district’s plan. She’s also hoping to go to college to become a traveling nurse. But she acknowledged that she knows little about preparing for college entrance exams or about the application process.

“It makes me nervous,” she said.

Deshon Davis said his exposure to advanced classes and job training courses were noticeably different between his first and last years in high school. He was enrolled in an advanced program he tested into at Central High School for ninth and 10th grades; then he transferred to Melrose, from which he graduated in May.

Most students he knew at Central High School, where about 46 percent of students live in poverty, took advanced courses. When he got to Melrose, he said his options were limited. For example, he wanted to take a computer science course, but it had been discontinued.

“At first it was a little bit confusing,” he said, referring to choosing classes at Melrose.

In April, Melrose students were given a catalog of job certification classes that will eventually be offered at the school, said Michael Schulte, who taught English there. At that time, teachers and students discussed various fields, and went over job descriptions and average pay. Students had about 15 minutes to ask questions, before ranking the classes they most wanted. The district consultant who helped design the new program also surveyed some students to get a better sense of their interests.

The upcoming school year will be a transition for the workforce training program, as the district provides teacher training in one of the seven identified fields.

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