A recent New York City high school fair for career and technical education—otherwise known as CTE—offered a brief glimpse to students and parents of what high school education should be. Prospective students roamed from table to table, surrounded by robots, jet engines, firefighting gear, mock trial demonstrations and freshly baked cookies (advertising one school’s culinary program).

Individually, each attraction represented a different New York City CTE high school. Collectively, they represented a radically different vision for high school, one in which students learn by doing the work of real professionals, instead of sitting in rows listening to the same subjects schools have offered for the last 75 years.

Of course, the reality of many CTE high schools is far from this ideal. Nonetheless, the promise of CTE, and its capacity to motivate kids, led me to the Urban Assembly (UA) last fall, and inspired me to partner with the public school network to launch the city’s first CTE charter school—Comp Sci High—officially, the Urban Assembly Charter School for Computer Science—will open in the South Bronx in August of 2018, as the city’s first CTE charter high school.

WHY CHARTER?

The UA has a long tradition of opening small, career-focused high schools in New York City, including seven CTE high schools that operate within the NYC Department of Education.

By working with the UA, but branching out into the charter world, Comp Sci High gets the best of both worlds. We have the chance to learn from some of the UA’s best CTE schools, building on the success of the Digital Design program at UA Gateway or the effective use of higher-education partners at UA Maker. But, we also have the freedom and independence to experiment, and that is exciting to me as an educator.

With fewer restrictions on certifications and salary, we are free to hire tech industry experts. Without the constraints of the typical school calendar, we can extend the day and year to include a summer program in which every student gets real work experience at a paid summer job (yes, we are actually doing that), and yet still have time for a complete, college preparatory program.

In short, we have the flexibility to design based on what works for kids, without many of the constraints that often frustrate my CTE colleagues.

WHY CTE?

In part, for the reasons on display at last week’s CTE fair. When learning is hands-on, useful, and directly related to the real world, kids are more motivated, happier, and more successful.

But, it’s not just about motivation. It’s about the moral obligation to genuinely prepare students for the world after high school. The US economy has shifted radically over the last few decades, but high school education has stayed basically the same. As a result, today’s typical high school graduates aren’t prepared for anything other than minimum-wage work. And they’re certainly not prepared for the jobs of the future.

In response, urban districts and charters have spent the last decade in a frantic effort to increase college attendance and graduation, especially for low-income students and students of color (only 9 percent of whom graduate from college, nationally). Some schools have made incredible gains, getting 90 percent, or more, into college.

I was part of that effort, having worked at KIPP, Achievement First, and Success Academies—all charters that have made great strides in preparing low-income students of color for college.

But, even at the best open-enrollment schools, most of the students who go to college don’t graduate (less than 40 percent earn diplomas). They drop out with debt, few marketable skills, and even fewer prospects for the future.

IF COLLEGE ALONE ISN’T THE ANSWER, WHAT IS? CAREER TECHNICAL EDUCATION.If college alone isn’t the answer, what is? Career Technical Education. On average, CTE students are more likely to graduate, attend college, and earn more after high school. By design, the best CTE schools also work with local colleges to grant college credit while students are still in high school.

In partnership with the UA, we founded Comp Sci High to take these gains to the next level. Our students will graduate with a rigorous STEM education, college credits, an industry credential (in programming, cybersecurity, or computer-aided design), and four years of internship experience, including summer jobs with industry partners like Goldman Sachs and Verizon.

The best charter schools have built their reputation on a relentless focus on student outcomes—specifically, getting kids from underserved communities to college. We aim to direct that same relentless focus toward a new, and even more important outcome—getting our students to rewarding, well-paid careers.

And if the number of students and parents walking with purpose through last week’s CTE school fair is any indicator, we expect students and parents to vote with their feet, seeking more and more of these radically different schools.

With the best learning from New York City’s leading CTE schools and the nation’s highest-performing charter schools, we plan to deliver for our kids and families. And as we find success, we hope to help other schools do the same.

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