Sussex Tech’s Career Capstone experience a work in progress

GEORGETOWN – Change for the better is ruffling the Ravens’ nest.

Sussex Technical School District is sowing seeds to return to its vocational/technical roots with a new work-based capstone experience, part of a transformation of the school’s award-winning career and technical education program.

A foundational piece in the district’s strategic planning, this innovative initiative is coined Tech Career Capstone, which involves partnerships with Delaware Technical Community College and a core group of employers who serve in an advisory capacity.

Sussex Tech will this coming school year will launch Tech Career Capstone, geared to link students with hands-on, workplace experience.

“We’re refocusing back on the original mission of providing a technical education with work-based learning experiences as a part of it,” Sussex Tech Superintendent Stephen Guthrie said.

“Our students graduate ready for careers or college, so no matter their path, they have a place,” said Sussex Tech board of education president Warrior Reid. “As a district, our path forward includes working hand-in-hand with local employers and business leaders to help prepare our students for success.”

Amid existing pilots, this new program is positioned for liftoff, starting with the 271 incoming freshmen in Tech’s Class of 2023.

Beginning with this fall’s freshman class, the goal is for all seniors will have the opportunity to work part-time in a job in their technical area for at least half of their senior year, gaining valuable real-world experience and supporting the needs of local employers.

Sussex Tech Superintendent Stephen Guthrie

“Every tech area has to have seven businesses registered as advisories. That’s who we start with. That is our core,” said Mr. Guthrie. “We do have a core number of employers that we going to reach out to. I don’t believe that they have sufficient spots to take 300 students. This year, as we begin, we are working with that core group to develop those spots. Quite frankly, some might not want some. We might have employers that are happy to be advisors but not able to take interns.”

In June, Sussex Technical High School hired its first career and technical education coordinator, Dona Troyer. She will continue to expand the school’s Career Capstone program and connect students with employers for real-world experience.

“Sussex Tech plays a unique role in educating our students and building up our workforce, and I’m pleased to be able to strengthen our connections and partnerships in this position,” said Ms. Troyer, who has worked at Sussex Tech for six years as assistant coordinator of student activities, organizing large- scale events, advising student organizations, and serving as a member of the instructional support team.

Ms. Troyer, who holds a master’s degree in secondary school counseling from Wilmington University and a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Salisbury University, has also worked as an adjunct instructor and academic counselor at Delaware Technical Community College and as office manager for her family’s business.

“What Dona’s job will be is over the next three years – because this is all starting with the incoming freshmen – is she will build those capacities, form those partnerships, develop those relationships so we have those spots to put 300 students,” said Mr. Guthrie. “Really, over the next three years, we’re going to have to create those partnerships. Our employers are begging for it. They really want our students.”

“We are glad to have Dona bring her experience and knowledge to this position, which will reinforce our mission of preparing students for their future,” Sussex Tech Principal John Demby said. “She will be a valuable connection between our career-technical areas and local employers seeking qualified, skilled graduates which Sussex Tech can provide.”

Developed in response to requests from local employers who need employees with real-world workplace experience, Tech Career Capstone will necessitate a change in high school schedules and curriculum modification to ensure students have increased time in their chosen technical area.

“We are going to front-load their graduation requirements in their freshman and sophomore years, so that will allow for that increased tech time in their junior year and release on a two-week on, two-week off in their senior year,” Mr. Guthrie said. “Ideally, the only courses seniors would have to take would be their English and math.” Everything else is done. They get their work-based learning experiences, which count as technical credit, and they get a job and they get paid for it.”

Students will have to be creative in their scheduling and electives. “We’re still going to offer the same electives, but students are going to have to be creative and strategic in their four-year plan to make sure they get the courses and electives that they want,” said Mr. Guthrie.

Students, who graduate with professional certifications and licenses, choose from 17 areas of concentration, such as automotive technologies, carpentry, graphic arts, media broadcasting, criminal justice, several nursing programs, marketing, athletic training and early child- care and education.

“We have a variety of stuff. We have the traditional skill trades – carpentry, machine shop – and more technical,” Mr. Guthrie said.

Strategic planning

From strategic planning arose the district’s new core statement, “Preparing Students for Their Future.”

“We are a vocational/technical school and students come here and concentrate in one of 17 technical areas,” said Mr. Guthrie, who assumed the superintendent reins at Sussex Tech in July 2018. “Prior to my coming here, they were running different versions of pilot programs of basically work-based learning experiences. But it never really caught on school-wide. One of the directives from my board when they hired me was to focus on technical education and focus on providing work-based learning opportunities for our students.”

“With all those different avenues to go through the best way to proceed is through strategic planning, so, I know I have buy-in from the staff, the stakeholder communities. We formed a number of different advisory groups, 35 people in all, and talked about the new vision,” Mr. Guthrie said.

Goals and the real world

Mr. Guthrie said the main goal is to “provide every student with the opportunity to have a work-based learning experience. We know that there may be impediments and obstacles for some students with transportation, other scheduling issues. We are working with a partnership with Del Tech … to provide simulated work experiences in their technical areas, and also trying to create opportunities here over the next three years that we can simulate it on campus; community projects, commercial projects that we can develop.

Mr. Guthrie said one of the complaints he has heard from employers over the last year is students, new employees are not connected to work-based learning experiences.

“But the commonality of the issues we are seeing is they have no idea how to behave in a business, workplace etiquette. I know the obvious one is cell phones,” Mr. Guthrie said. “From our own assessment we want improve on job- seeking skills. It’s no longer a cover letter and a resume, it’s online. And interviewing skills. That will be a piece of it as we build that capacity.”

The goal is twofold, Mr. Guthrie said. “One is that we get students their workplace experience in a career that they have trained for over their four years. The second is for the student, ‘Is this where I want to work?’ Is this what I thought it was going to be?’” Mr. Guthrie said. “We know from the job market it is not unusual now for millennials to change jobs frequently.”

Pilots

Sussex Tech 2019 graduate Gabrielle Guy of Laurel plans to become an oral surgeon, a goal boosted by her work-based learning experience in an oral surgery office in Seaford during her senior year.

About 110 incoming seniors at Tech have expressed in the Career Capstone pilot program this year.

“Students whose schedules permit, and we have a placement for them we will allow them to do that. It won’t be every student. I think we’ve had something like 70 students over the last couple of years who did take advantage of it,” said Mr. Guthrie. “They will get paid.”

There are levels of supervision. Ms. Troyer will make visits to sites. “Also, the employers will do evaluations of their students. If it is not successful; if they are being a disruption to the workplace or it is not a good fit, we’ll bring them back here and they’ll end up in some program with us,” said Mr. Guthrie.

About 75 seniors have piloted the Career Capstone program, either working after school several days a week or working full-time for two weeks and attending school full-time for two weeks.

Recent graduate Tabitha Harris of Milford, an automotive technologies student who worked at an auto repair shop in Dover, said the program has given her important experience solving a wide range of problems. “It’s a fantastic option and a great opportunity for people,” she said.

Class of 2019 graduate Gabrielle Guy of Laurel, a dental services student who plans to become an oral surgeon, said working at an oral surgery practice in Seaford helped her get a foot in the door. “You’re getting an incredible amount of exposure and experience in your field,” she said.

Recent Sussex Tech graduate Tabitha Harris of Milford got hands-on experience toward her career goal of working as a large-engine diesel technician while working at a Dover auto shop during her senior year.

Future expansion, growth?

Because the number of applicants exceeded available spots, a mandated random lottery conducted by a third party was held for Tech’s 201920 freshman class.

“The numbers are pretty striking. This year we had 271 spots open for freshmen. We had 801 applicants,” said Mr. Guthrie. “So, what we are working on now is creating additional opportunities for students to come here. We’re working on facility modifications and trying to work with our state legislators to let us raise the number of students we can accept, to try to provide more service to those students that want to come here.”

In conclusion

“I need to emphasize this is a new focus,” said Mr. Guthrie. “We went through a comprehensive strategic plan to make sure that we were heading in a direction that the stakeholders approved of, and we had a reasonable process to get there. This is coming from the community stakeholders, that this is the direction we should be moving in.”

“I want to draw a distinction. Our goal is to provide students with the skills that they need to prepare them for their future. Their future may be a work job, a job right after they leave us, or more education. We want to make sure that whichever path they choose they can come here and get assistance toward that path,” said Mr. Guthrie. “We are giving them hands- on experience in the workforce that will help prepare them even more for careers or college and enhance the quality of a Sussex Tech education. It’s a win-win that helps employers fill their own skills gaps and identify potential new hires early on.”

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