The Bottom Line Career Technical Education

The USA is waking up to the disconnect between jobs available and the lack of American youth with the skills to fill them. Apprenticeships and skills-based learning for students is a big focus of our nation’s educational reform today. Many of these models are crafted from the success of Germany, Switzerland, and other countries who long ago recognized that technically skilled wage earners are the backbone of their country’s economy.

Public Private partnerships are leading this innovation. IBM started the P-Tech model as a six-year public school career program for grades 9-14. AJAC (Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee) and other apprenticeship programs are offering high school students paid adult apprenticeship hours, and high school and college credit, during the public school day. (

Though the P-Tech model has continued, a number of other programs have developed that give students numerous options for career training, while still attending high school. Today, in several areas across the County, high school students are being offered high school career academies in legal, medical, aerospace, finance, pharmacy, firefighting, engineering, information technology, and business technology, to name a few (

Numerous benefits accrue from these academies. They create hands-on learning opportunities that engage students in real-world experiences. As students get engaged, learning expands. They see relevance in their schooling. Dropouts decline as students become invested in their own learning. In addition, students learn how to work in teams, how to communicate both orally and in writing and they learn math, English and science by applying those learnings to the task at hand. It is a win-win situation for the student and for our society.

Let’s take a look at one of the most successful programs in the Country.

WHO: A national leader in Career Academies for middle and high school youth is John Small. Discovery Institute recently sat down with him, to understand how he built, in Polk School District (Florida), over 120 career academies with 16,000 students enrolled.

John was born in Germany and came to the U.S. as a child. He grew up in Pittsburg, and majored in Industrial Technology and Technology Education at the California University of Pennsylvania. With a Master’s degree in Education Leadership and a Career Technical Education certificate, John started teaching drafting and shop at a high school before working into administration.

In 1997 John became Assistant Director at a Technical College and began designing educational programs with local businesses: automotive, manufacturing, food, healthcare, and other technical skills. He wanted to create similar programs for high school 11th and 12th graders, who would earn both high school and college credits for their study. He approached his local school district with his idea and they turned him down. With this door shut, John convinced the local college President and a Business Advisory Council (with County Commissioners, Chamber of Commerce Presidents, Economic Development Board Members, Mayors, and CEOs) to create high schools on college campuses. Subsequently, John started two Charter Schools. The Business Advisory Group provided direction, resources, guidance, and connections to the business world. John provided the education program.  To keep these outside groups interested and engaged, John held monthly luncheons with the Board, and they in turn opened doors for him. In fact, they became so engaged that they wanted a school like his in every city in the county.

WHY: While John was offering opportunity to some students, through his charter schools, he realized that the real need was to make these opportunities available to all students. Instead of pockets of excellence, he wanted systemic career options throughout the education system. With a new superintendent in place, in 2006 he became the Senior Director of Workforce Education and the Deputy Superintendent of the Polk School District.

WHAT: John sought out private partnerships. When Jet Blue asked how they could help, John told them “We need your experts. Join our advisory committees and send your experts to the meetings. Then you will know what we need.” Millions of dollars came from that. A 727 was donated. Gulf Coast Avionics, Spirit, Delta, and American were just a few of the aerospace partners to join the advisory board. Students were flown to airline headquarters, spent time on simulators and benefit today from curriculum and instruction of adult flight training schools. By 2017 ninety high school students had obtained their private pilot license through these academies.

HOW: John trained two students at each academy to be ambassadors and show interested business partners around their school. (The Chamber bought kids blue blazers, khaki slacks, and a white dress shirt to conduct the tours.) These students provide a vision to the business leaders of the new academies that can be developed. James C. Ray, a WWII pilot and successful businessman, went on one of these tours. He came back to John and said: “What do you need?” John said: “I need a building and a way to generate money for poor kids to fly”. First James gave $300,000 to hire an architect and an attorney (who set up a Foundation with a 501c3 to own the building). Next James Ray gave millions to build the school which the district leases from the Foundation at a good rate. The Foundation now pays for any student with a good GPA and discipline record to get a free pilot license. Every student who graduates with an Airframe & Pilot program certificate is hired, and most before they graduate. Students can also get a scholarship from the foundation to finish after graduation. The foundation will also give tuition for the student to get a Bachelor’s degree of Science in Aerospace, or a Professional Pilot Bachelor’s degree after graduation. These degrees students can start earning credits toward during their studies in the high school academy.

WITH WHOM: John partnered with colleges, the State Department of Education, the Legislature, and the State Workforce Council to incentivize schools to offer industry certifications matching industry need ( ,

He reached out to local businesses. One company, Geico Insurance, had a 3,200 employee facility in Lakeland, Florida. John asked: “If Geico could educate the children of all the employees, customers, and vendors, grade 9-12, what would the graduates need to know and be able to do? What would the curriculum need to produce?” Answer: “A strong enough foundation to qualify for entry into a 4-year institution and soft skills to make kids successful in the workplace. If high schools produced that at the end of four years, we would hire the kids sight unseen.” John offered to be partners with Geico providing the school building, kids, and graduation requirements; everything else Geico would design. They would co-teach.  Today, students attend the Geico academy where they not only learn traditional subjects, but they have internships and the Geico Human Resources Department teaches a one-week program with interviewing and other employability skills, taken directly from the Geico new employee induction program, and fit in the high school educational frameworks.

How can you have real world professionals (not career teachers) teach in your schools?

John prepared and gained approval for a local certification program that would allow him to hire people who were not certified. These candidates would have to provide six years of work experience in their field to qualify. He then partnered with local universities to include four courses people had to complete within two years of being hired to teach, in order to get their full-time certification (teaching practices, etc.). They were given up to sixteen years of service credit for their business experience on the state teacher salary schedule. As a result, an auto mechanic could start almost at the top of the teacher salary grid, which removed barriers to finding qualified applicants. To find interested professionals, John posted positions in places the business sector sees. For aerospace instructors, John didn’t advertise on the School District website, but rather with national trade organizations which marketed to the Airlines Pilots Association. This approach generated many qualified applicants.

WHERE: Most high schools in the Polk School District now have multiple career clusters to select from tied to economic indicators. Bartow High School, for example, has Academies of: design, engineering, legal studies, criminal justice, culinary, medical, firefighting, military, construction, future educators, idea academy, agriculture, technology, and robotics.

Not every high school has the academy a student might want. If a student wants to go to a pharmaceutical academy and the local high school is a manufacturing academy, they have to find their own transportation.  John is now focused on how to virtually serve remote locations, to expand career choice options.

John has continued to work public private partnerships to extend brick and mortar options to rural students. An example is a high school with a total student population of 200. Mining had left that community and agriculture was the only viable sector left. A Pharmacy company was considering relocating there. The County Commissioner, who sits on the district Academy Advisory Board, lobbied the company to partner with the small school and create a pharmacy academy. They agreed, and paid for: equipment, uniforms, transportation, a robotics program, internships in business, a teacher’s salary, and all supplementary costs necessary to support the academy.  Not only has the company built a pipeline of future employees, it has helped make the community a more attractive place to live.

Broader Impacts: Early on, John partnered with Ford Motor Company and they funded a major program. John wrote a Department of Labor grant and Ford supplemented the grant to build a five-year plan for creating academies in more Florida districts. Ford helped create the Manufacturing Advisory Board on which 25 CEOs sit to oversee all the manufacturing academies in Polk County. Today, forty-three districts around the country are involved in the Superintendent’s Council Ford has put together, entitled Ford Next Gen Learning. It’s a think tank engaged in the sharing of best practices (

Is this Tracking? Today, John Small’s Polk School District is offering choice and opportunity for all students to study aerospace, agriscience, audio production, automotive, biotechnology, business, communication wiring, construction, criminal justice, culinary, distribution/logistics, early childhood education, education, engineering, fashion, finance, firefighting, graphic design, hospitality and tourism, interior design, information technology, journalism, legal, marketing, medical, power, robotics, veterinary, video game design, video production and web design.

We know of no other district in the Country that is offering its students such an array of career training options.

Next Steps: John currently works at K12 (, building business partnerships and CTE pathways delivered on-line, to provide career connected learning options to underserved students in urban and rural areas nationwide. His bucket list includes writing a book about business partnerships in education, and integrating business in schools. Save us a signed copy John.

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