Walking through the halls of Nisqually Middle School last fall, you might have imagined for a moment that you’d been transported to Hawaii. The sound of ukuleles was everywhere. Earlier that day, Applied Technologies teacher Craig Brown had handed out 85 of the instruments, all assembled by his students.

“It was the first time we’d done a manufacturing unit,” says Brown. “We built 150 ukuleles and every kid who got an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ got to take one home.”

North Thurston Public Schools
Each ukulele was crafted by students under the guidance of CTE teacher Craig Brown. Photo courtesy: NTPS

The ukulele project is a prime example of the type of learning that goes on every day in North Thurston Public Schools as part of the district’s Career & Technical Education (CTE) program. Each CTE section includes both applied learning and a leadership component, either through competition or collaborative events such as summits with other schools in the district.

Every program has an advisory committee comprised of business people from the community and competitions are judged by industry professionals rather than teachers. “The authentic audience makes a big difference,” says NTPS CTE Director Brad Hooper. The district currently has a national award winner in welding and the regional president of DECA, an international association of marketing students. This spring they will also have a slew of students headed to state competitions – 31 for DECA (marketing), 40 to FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America) and 25 for Skills USA (career prep competition).

Both the CTE curriculum and more traditional academic classes are aimed at preparing students for an ever-evolving job market.  “We want our programs to reflect the current market in terms of where there’s need,” says NTPS Superintendent Debra Clemens. “We’re preparing students for life through new programs that may not have existed when their parents were in high school.”

North Thurston Public Schools
Welding class is a popular option within the CTE department in North Thurston Public Schools. Photo courtesy: NTPS

Increasingly, students are signing up for classes traditionally dominated by the opposite gender; the national champion welder is female and more males are enrolling in courses that culminate in competitions like Cupcake Wars. “Our teachers do a really good job with helping students overcome any apprehension so that they don’t have to feel like they’re always blazing a new trail,” says Hooper.

CTE classes also teach students about real-world skills like working with different types of people and time management. Rachel Ward teaches business at Timberline High School and one of her sections is Project Management. “We partner with different parts of our school as well as elementary schools and the community,” she says. Currently the class is creating sock puppets for all of the characters in a book that a second grade class at Lakes Elementary is reading. The high school students will put on a puppet show for their younger counterparts as the final product.

“One of the things we really focus on is that in real life, you don’t have the opportunity to choose who you work with,” says Ward. Students also learn about the impact delays can have on interconnected parts of a project. “If you don’t take a timeline seriously and fall behind, the boss needs to know that right away rather than after the fact so that other plans can be implemented.”

North Thurston Public Schools
Through CTE classes, students get inspired for future careers. Photo courtesy: NTPS

Timberline student Jonathan Parker has already applied what he’s learned. “This class has a sense of urgency and purpose that is unparalleled in the other classes in my school day,” he says.  “I’ve implemented this feeling of urgency into my shifts at work during the weekends and I’ve already received a small but notable raise. The raise was only 10 cents, but I’ve also learned to treat every victory ­– no matter how small – as a trophy of progress.”

At Nisqually Middle School, Brown’s ukulele unit yielded lessons in entrepreneurship, productivity and outsourcing in addition to manufacturing. Students filled out applications to be either an assembly line worker or a foreman, which would earn them more points per day. “If you’re a foreman you get paid at a higher rate but there’s more responsibility,” he says.

Engraving the project’s logo on the back of the instrument a laser printer, but the school didn’t have one, so they outsourced that aspect to Salish Middle School. “They did the work and sent it back to us,” says Brown. “The kids learned that you’re paying for a lot of things in a product that you don’t necessarily see.”

The class made an impression on 8th grader Ashley Niemeyer. “All of the things I have learned make me want to continue this type of class in high school and beyond,” she says. “I would like to be an engineer when I get older, so it’s been helpful learning about things as simple as safety in the workplace and being able to use power tools.”

North Thurston Public Schools
Nisqually Middle School students create ukuleles from start to finish. Photo courtesy: NTPS

Across town at River Ridge High School, Sports Medicine teacher Stephanie Hjortedal has introduced an advanced class this year, offering students an opportunity to delve deeper into the subject. Highlights include a sports medicine summit with three other high schools in the district. “At the beginning of the year, students researched topics in Sports Medicine that they were interested in, either with partners or alone,” says Hjortedal. “The summit was a chance to present their findings and see what other students were interested in.”

This year, students from both her advanced and beginning classes can participate in a regional symposium. “I have a lot of beginning students who are a little hesitant because they’ll be going up against students from three-year programs,” she says. “There’s extra work studying for several tests that they can take.” She’ll be taking seven students to the competition this spring.

Meanwhile, the work she’s put into the program is paying off. “Especially in the second year, I’m seeing students learning critical thinking skills and picking up the foundation of what we’ve set from beginning,” she says. “They’re applying it and making those connections between anatomy and injury.”

North Thurston Public Schools
CPR training is an example of the hands-on work done in the sports medicine CTE class. Photo courtesy: NTPS

Senior Bryar Brammer is taking Advanced Sports Medicine. For him, studying anatomy has been rewarding. “I learn it really easily and I like learning it,” he says. “After high school I plan to go into the medical field, probably as a physical therapist.”

Regardless of whether they decide on a career path while still in school, students gain skills through CTE classes that can be applied anywhere. “There’s nothing more rewarding to me than when a student comes back after graduation and says, ‘What you taught me really made a difference when I needed to get a job or a scholarship or deal with a conflict in the workplace,” says Ward. “These classes prepare them to excel in the world rather than just cope.”
For more information about North Thurston Public Schools, visit them online.

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