CONCORD, NH — In early August, when Concord’s Board of Education voted to implement fully remote learning for the 2020-2021 school year, it surprised a lot of people — especially when it comes to the school’s career technical center.
The Concord Regional Technical Center is a four-decade institution in the capital region offering hands-on education in automotive technology, computer engineering, construction, cosmetology, culinary, graphic design, and other programs — many skills and subjects that cannot be completely absorbed educationally in a remote setting. The tech students spend part of the school day cooking, cutting hair, building structures, or breaking down car engines, and the rest of the day emersed in learning like any other high schooler.
Less than two weeks later, the district moved to a slightly modified hybrid model with in person learning for any student with an individual education plan and special education designation, English language learners, and Concord Regional Technical Center students. The plan was originally to be in tech classes a couple of days a week. And now, for some programs, it will be every day.
For director Steve Rothenberg, a vice principal at Concord High School, the question was not whether students would return in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic but would they want to.
“Anecdotally, we’re hearing overwhelming response,” he said of the students who made a commitment to the program from nine schools in the county. “All of them understand that coming back will not be the same as pre-COVID.”
Rothenberg said the center and its team focused on student and educator safety and sustainability of the program during the summer — when the center was open. About 80 students participated in programs this summer with a lot of safety protocols the center put in place.
“They are going to keep getting revised, with state and national guidelines,” Rothenberg said.
The biggest problem, however, will be lining up the tech center programs with the schedules of students at nine core high schools — Kearsarge, Hillsboro Deering, John Stark, Hopkinton, Bow, Merrimack Valley, Pittsfield, Pembroke Academy, along with Concord High. A handful of students will also be attending from Parker Academy, PACE Academy in Pembroke, the state’s first chartered high school, and a possibly new partnership with Bishop Brady High School, too. Figuring it all out has taken a bit of time this summer since it truly is like herding cats.
“Back in June, we began dialogue with all of our schools,” he said. “At that time, we made a conscious decision to propose a schedule to retain our core outline the way it has always been. It allowed all the other schools to plan. Without doing that, those schools would have been left with nothing to plan around.”
To their credit, the schools worked with the center and nearly all the students who planned to attend tech center classes will be coming to Concord. Some, like in Kearsarge, will have students attend the tech center and then take the rest of their classes remotely, as example.
Rothenberg said the center’s “stock has gone up” and the value of a hands-on education changed when schools went to remote learning. The center embraces an ethos of “value propositions” including the theory and practice of applied curriculum, the relationships between the student and educator, and building career pathways.
“In a time of COVID, our model is more valuable than it ever was,” Rothenberg said. “Logistically, it’s more complicated though.”
Before Rothenberg became director, the nine schools easily adapted to the schedule for the students, with buses moving students back and forth to school. During the past few weeks, the team has been developing how to adapt to what all the schools were doing and then, grow from there.
Social distancing is not a problem because there is a lot of space in the center. The bay doors open in the construction and automotive classrooms to let in fresh air. Other classrooms have labs where educators can separate students and teach them in different locations of the classroom.
“(The teacher) can be in a central spot,” he said. “And the great teachers that we have know how to build accountability with students.”
Career tech centers, work-based learning, and extended learning opportunities in the field are now at the forefront of many educational systems across the country and in New Hampshire. During the past two years, employees at the New Hampshire Department of Education and the Community College System of New Hampshire along with Rothenberg have been working at improving opportunities for students with a grant from the National Governor’s Association. They created an awards program to highlight the amazing programs offered and attended seminars around the country to hear and look at what other schools were doing to expand hands-on learning.
In Concord, the center has more than 700 students enrolled for the 2020/2021 school with around 9,500 are in similar programs at centers across the state. The structure of the tech center education parallels industries — it is self-direction with professional and competency skills. It is framed in the voice of industry, he added.
“You’re not going to make it unless you have self-direction,” Rothenberg said. “And our goal, over four semesters with us, is we have a particular process we work (with the student) on, make (them) reflect on their self-direction. We want you to know yourself. It’s a terrific holistic experience that is grounded in logistical structure.”
The Concord Regional Technical Center also has an entry directly into community college with the CRTC-Plus program which allows a student to take the second or third year and fuse high school, community college, and work together. It is one more stepping stone to getting to know students, giving them information, and open doors for them, and knowing what they want to do in the job market, Rothenberg said.
“The CRTC’s job is to help you to see a pathway, understand a pathway, and reframe yourself, and begin making a plan for your future, with our teacher’s help,” he said.
When presenting the program to parents in meetings, Rothenberg lets the students do the talking about their work — and the parent’s jaws drop.
“Regular kids do exceptional things,” he said, smiling.
That experience, for students, helps to “move the dial” in education and not just for the ones who do not have a future planned out but for those who know what they want to do and are willing to work to establish a career for themselves much earlier in their education process. Most careers center students, he said, go to college and take advantage of the jumpstart to get into college or certificate programs. Rothenberg said career technical opportunities are the future for not just Concord and Merrimack County but also New Hampshire and the United States. Students know they have a purpose and how they fit into the business world, he said, which is why students want to return — COVID-19 pandemic or not.
“We say to a kid,” he said, “‘We’re going to help you, be successful, two to five years out, not just get a high school diploma.'”
Rothenberg, who also has a superintendent certification, said he stays with the center and working as a vice principal at the school because of the success stories coming out of the center, year after year.
“We help students change their lives,” he said.
Rothenberg said parents, educators, and the district needed to “pause a bit” in order to look at all the moving parts and the past experience with online learning.
There were situations, like a new teacher who was just hired, as an example, where they need to be in the building. There are other situations, like an educator who mastered remote learning and has an abundance of experience, where it might be necessary. Combined with a fair discussion with parents and students and understanding how they learn — and how they were going to be disrupted, was also needed within the district but it did not occur.
Unfortunately, Rothenberg said, the way the discourse had occurred in Concord, “I think that we are not really able to talk this through.”
While some educators in the district were concerned about returning to the classroom, the gross majority of the tech center’s teachers were returning to class. Rothenberg said he did not ask a single educator if they were coming back or not. They spoke, yes, about their careers and how they wanted to tackle the new coronavirus pandemic and Rothenberg listened to “what they were thinking about” — and developed the center’s plan from there. Most of the teachers and employees have been working at the center during the summer which showed their commitment to students. Rothenberg said educator concerns about job performance were part of the district’s human resource process of providing options to them.
While calling it a “crazy situation,” Rothenberg said, “It wasn’t my job, and I say this in the right way, to ask people what they want to do. It was my job to find the best solution to serve teachers and students, in a sustainable, safe way, and where they get value.”
To read the full reopening plan for CRTC, view the 2020-2021 plan here.
To find out more about CRTC reopening plan and ask questions, there is a virtual meeting later this week.
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This article originally appeared on the Concord Patch