A look at technology’s role in 21st century career and technical education with Dr. Nivea Torres of the Connecticut Technical High School System

nivea-torresDr. Nivea Torres has held a variety of roles during her 23 years as an educator, from teacher, to bi-lingual coordinator, to elementary school principal. The variety of experience likely comes in handy as she juggles the various moving parts in her current role as Superintendent of the Connecticut Technical High School System, a rather unusual district. CTHSS is actually a statewide system of 17 technical high schools, an alternative education center, and two adult schools of aviation, funded in full by the state of Connecticut.

“I was drawn to this district because I was very intrigued by this model of instruction,” explained Torres. “It’s a very project-based approach to learning that’s very different from the traditional model of lesson delivery and instruction that students receive at comprehensive high schools.” The district is career-focused, with 33 career pathways for more than 10,000 students.

eSchool News recently sat down with Torres to find out more about her experience at the helm of CTHSS, and technology’s role in the technical high school setting.

eSchool News: As an educator, what is it about the career prep model that excites you?

Dr. Nivea Torres: I think as an educator, we want students to graduate with a strong academic background, and at the same time to have problem-solving team-building communication and competitive skills, and I clearly see that this model really works for kids. We have a lot of kids who are a testament to that who are very successful entrepreneurs now.

eSN: Is it common for your students to go straight into the work force or into business for themselves?

Torres: Over a third of our graduates are gainfully employed, and over 50 percent of them go into some form of higher ed. I think that’s a testament to the work we do here. Our core vision is to provide that world-class career and technical education. It’s very different from a career and technical education class at a local district where you explore career options. Our goal is to make sure that kids are gainfully employed. We work very closely with the department of labor. So this is an occupational program versus a non-occupational program.

Next page: Technology at the career prep level

eSN: What is it about this type of occupational model that’s attractive to students?

Torres: The students attracted to this model have an affinity for project-based learning. This is really STEM learning at its best. We like to say, as a technical high school system, that STEM instruction is not separate and distinct, but STEM is really a form of instructing here. It’s what we do on a day-to-day basis. It’s really allowing our students the opportunity to engage in problem solving, critical thinking.

eSN: What are some challenges that are unique to overseeing a technical high school district?

Torres: Our biggest challenge is our ability to pivot and be able to respond quickly to the emerging needs or trends within industries. For example, now we see this resurgent need for folks who are trained in manufacturing, and we have to respond to that as quickly as possible. We can’t always do that because that means that we need to retrofit or create a new program and that can be challenging.

The other challenge, closely linked to that, is our ability to project, three to five years ahead. We look at our state’s department of labor statistics, and also at national statistics as well. What are businesses going to need here in CT or nationally? That’s incredibly challenging, and both of these issues are very unique to this kind of system.

eSN: How does that compare to STEM learning that takes place in a traditional district?

Torres: It’s not confined to a specific course. It’s what is achieved on a day-to-day basis. Our teachers do a fabulous job of integrating technology into the education via science, technology, engineering, and math. So, when you think about all of the things that appeal to students and their parents in this particular economy, to see that once students leave here, they could potentially be earning anywhere from eighteen to twenty dollars an hour in a field like manufacturing. For an 18 year old, that’s huge.

eSN: I imagine that the way that technology is integrated and deployed is very different at your district than it would be at a traditional high school. Whereas most districts are focusing on district-wide one-to-one initiatives, are your technology needs much more specific?

Torres: We are also doing the one-to-one transition for our academic-track students. We started implementing that model this year at Kaynor Tech in Waterbury. But overall, technology plays a very different and active role in our district. We have over 33 career pathways, and technology is used in a variety of ways in each one.

Next page: Forging business-community relationships

For example, we’ve invested over ten million dollars in renovating and updating our provision manufacturing machine equipment. If you look at our sustainable architecture program or carpentry program, technology is used for blueprint reading, or to design a home, or to create a roof. If you look at our digital media shop, technology is used there to produce sound and images.

eSN: With all these different needs in all of these different programs, how do you ensure that the students are getting to use the technology that they’d be using out in the field? How do you prioritize within the district which upgrades get funded?

Torres: We have a coalition of business and industry partners. At each of the schools we have what we call a trade advisory committee. Those are folks from the field who can really help us get a better understanding of what is needed out there so that our program really emulates and aligns with business and industry expectations. And based on that, we review our curriculum. We prioritize our purchasing because there are areas that need more updated equipment than others. We also have a lot of support from the state. We are a completely state funded system. We work very closely with our sister state agencies to ensure that we have access to bonded monies to update equipment. So, for example, the $10 million in manufacturing upgrades was an allotment that we got from the governor and the bond commission, because they truly understand that we play a pivotal role in workforce development in the state.

eSN: It sounds like the relationship that you have with business in the surrounding communities of each of your locations is probably pivotal to your program’s success. Is there a lot of interaction outside of the trade advisory committee?

Torres: Those partnerships are very active. Our teachers and principals are responsible for coordinating two meetings a semester. Soon we’ll be having a career recruitment fair with different industry partners so they can get access to our talent pool and help us with job placement.

We also have many business and industry partners who come into the school and serve as mentors and guest speakers providing that perspective to students. And then the most important partnership is our work-based learning program, where all of our 11th and 12th grade students get placed within a local business so that they can have access to that full experience of working out in their industry. And there’s no way that we could do that without our business and industry partners who partner with us and help us create those placements for our youngsters.

eSN: Do you have any advice for superintendents at traditional districts who are looking to implement a more career-focused program at their district?

Torres: You really need to take the time to identify the needs of your local city or town. You really shouldn’t be starting a career and technical education program for which there’s no career pathway. Right now manufacturing and Information Systems Technology are great for our district, but we started phasing out fashion merchandising and fashion design state-wide because labor projections really don’t support that. So my best advice would be when starting a program, you really need to understand the unique needs of that community. You want to be able to prepare students to move directly into a job or a career in the future. That should be the ultimate goal.

Jennifer Welch is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.