July 15, 2024

Advancing Business Excellence

Pioneering Corporate Success

CTE Letter-Of-Intent Signing Day Celebrates K-12 Graduates’ Pathways To Success

On April 24, 2024, sixty graduating students solidified their post-high school plans through Henrico County Public Schools’ CTE Letter-of-Intent Signing Day celebration. Through their chosen high school paths these students are entering the workforce with specialized credentials and skills. These highly employable young people, like this group of Carter Myers Automotive interns, proudly sat at the table with their future employers and signed lucrative employment agreements that included robust career options, competitive salaries, and for many, a respectable benefits package.

Like many others, Henrico Schools (Virginia) offers Workforce and Career Development programming, traditionally known as Career and Technical Education (CTE). This model recognizes recognizes that a “typical career path today does not necessarily follow the traditional course of high school, college, and long-term employment. Today, there are multiple pathways to rewarding careers.”

Well-equipped with technical field skills and professional soft skills, these graduates are “life ready” and career ready.

What Is CTE Signing Day?

Upon graduation, many K-12 students do not seek a traditional two-year or four-year college experience. Instead, they hope to establish themselves in professions that offer them stability, skill utilization, and opportunities for meaningful career growth.

Launched in 2018 and inspired by signing day ceremonies that celebrate graduating high school athletes committing to a college athletic program, Henrico County was the first school division to implement CTE Letter-of-Intent Signing Day. In doing so, Henrico Schools sought to recognize other students with post-high school commitments—students entering the workforce.

According to Mac Beaton, Director of the Department of Workforce and Career Development, CTE Signing Day is designed to celebrate varied visions of success for young people. This model beautifully dispels the narrative that the only valid and respected path after high school is a traditional college experience.

Occupational Needs For The Future

Many K-12 school districts are adopting a 3Es approach to high school completion. The goal is for all graduating students to walk across the stage Enrolled, Enlisted, and/or Employed. Some also include a fourth E, Entrepreneurship. And as this young entrepreneur shows, children can start early.

Here’s a startling reality check—according to the Social Security Administration, children entering kindergarten this year will be eligible for full retirement compensation in 2086. In our rapidly changing workforce, can we even begin to conceive of what their professional lives will look like in 60 years, much less in 25? Schools must prepare students for unidentifiable jobs of the future by helping youth develop durable skills necessary for any career, such as timeliness, dependability, project planning and completion, and operating as team members.

This is where workforce readiness and career awareness come into play.

According to the American Institutes for Research, the latest available data (2019) reports “nearly 85 percent of public and private high school graduates earned at least one credit in a CTE course” and CTE participation has a positive impact on students’ “academic achievement, high school completion, employability skills, and college readiness.”

The State Policies Impacting: 2023 Year in Review CTE publication released by Advance CTE, a non-profit representing state CTE directors and leaders, reports 47 states enacted CTE-related policies in 2023. Advance CTE tracks key policy trends in CTE and workforce development. Over the past ten years, the top state CTE-related policy categories have included funding, industry partnerships and work-based learning, and industry-recognized credentials, among others.

School Design Matters

As states look toward new visions for student success and future workforce needs, academic spaces dedicated to innovative workforce readiness matter. Currently, the U.S. Department of Education and multiple states are investing in CTE equipment and facility upgrades.

I had the opportunity to discuss school design with architect Jeff Chapman, Chief Process Officer and Principal of PBK, the nation’s largest educational architecture firm. We discussed how K-12 schools are embracing and intentionally planning for the inevitable future focus on the benefits of workforce readiness and CTE in K-12 education.

Chapman affirmed what he calls a shift in mentality about the value of trades skills, which involve both technical and interpersonal capabilities. Facilities such as PBK’s award-winning Ailef Center for Advanced Careers model “academic programs, courses and classrooms after professions and trades that offer students real world experience.”

This innovative learning environment, full of sunlight, flexible spaces, and modern equipment, mimics actual work environments. Students can pursue classes that range from architectural design and automotive technology to health and veterinary sciences. Apart from a full certification track, students can choose interesting elective course options in the CTE curriculum. For example, a student might find welding exciting to learn. Perhaps as a career option, perhaps as an artistic outlet.

According to Chapman, to “elevate kids to the quickest path to income and certification, multiple districts have built amazing, tricked-out CTE programs, offered in modern, beautiful schools.” Such intentional facility design promotes project-based learning, allowing students to develop workplace skills. Using his own field as an example, Chapman noted, “All architecture work is project-based learning” as students learn to think critically and successfully work in a team.”

Choices For K-12 Students

The benefits to children and local industries are clear. In Texas, Chapman has been working for over 10 years in building design for CTE clusters. He describes a “beautiful culture shift” and a significant positive step as students and families realize the value of the trades and alternate, nontraditional career pathways.

In Virginia, Henrico Schools intentionally promote several on-ramps for students to be “life ready.” A Career Rodeo to showcase students’ skills and Entrepreneurship Day spotlight a modern focus on long-standing but newly recognized pathways to career success.

The movement is gaining traction. According to Beverly Cocke, Administrative Coordinator for Workforce Development, since the first CTE Signing Day in 2018, Henrico staff have spoken to education representatives from 49 of 50 U.S. states and other countries who want to replicate this respectful, innovative recognition of career options for graduates. In addition, Today.com and other national media outlets have spotlighted the event. The model has also drawn respect and praise from Virginia’s General Assembly, which passed legislation in 2023 declaring the fourth Wednesday in April as Career and Technical Education Letter of Intent Signing Day.

Varied Visions Of Success

There has been active public discussion recently on the value of a four-year college degree. According to the Pew Research Center, the “public has mixed views on the importance of having a college degree, and many have doubts about whether the cost is worth it.” Of course, there are many benefits to a four-year college degree, but assuming it is the only post-K-12 path toward a fulfilling and financially sound life seems a false narrative.

In all aspects of a child’s life, choice is a good thing, in my opinion. The new and elevated CTE and workforce development movement that cultivates students’ interests and abilities and capitalizes on relationships with local business is a choice worthy of serious consideration.

As CTE supporter Jack Cocke noted as we walked out of the 2024 Signing Day ceremony, this academic pathway represents a remarkable opportunity for K-12 students to work with their hearts, their heads, and their hands. Can’t ask for more much more than that.


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