The rebirth of Louisiana's career and technical education system could become one of the state's biggest education success stories in recent years.
Not only has the number of students graduating with career diplomas skyrocketed. Some new high school graduates are landing jobs paying $40,000 or $50,000 per year or more, and starting careers that are in no danger of disappearing.
"I believe there has been a paradigm shift in Louisiana from 'everyone has to go to college' to 'there are multiple, excellent options for all students,'" said state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, an engineer herself.
The program, called Jump Start, was launched by the state Department of Education in 2014 and has long been a key focus for Superintendent of Education John White.
The push was aimed at reviving a program that was all but dead in public high schools.
By any measure the number of public high school students earning career diplomas is up dramatically – 23 percent last year versus just 2 perce…
In 2013, only 2% of high school diplomas were career-focused.
In 2018, more than 1 in 5 students — about 9,500 — finished high school with a career diploma.
The number of industry-based credentials issued to students has risen from about 18,000 in 2014 to more than 90,000 in 2018, according to the state Department of Education. Credentials show that students have at least entry-level skills to perform their jobs.
Four students who are pursuing Louisiana’s revamped career education path said Tuesday the courses are changing lives.
The goal is for 40% of high school graduates to leave with a Jump Start degree and ensure options other than the military or low-wage jobs for those not headed to college.
"We would like for those students to have the opportunity to be successful in the workforce," said Ken Bradford, assistant superintendent in the state Office of Student Opportunities who oversees day-to-day Jump Start operations.
Troy Borne, lead Jump Start teacher at the St. James Parish Career and Technical Center, said the success stems in part from changing a mindset.
"We have pushed students and families that 'you have to go to college, you have to go to college,'" Borne said.
"Because of that we have created a skills gap," he said. "Now the push is to create career and technical education to close that gap."
One of the early beneficiaries is Gabriel Bland, 19, who graduated from Lutcher High School last year with a Jump Start degree.
Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday praised Louisiana's fast-growing program aimed at reinventing career education.
Bland, like other Jump Start students, had to earn nine of his required 23 high school credits in fields like welding, cybersecurity and preengineering.
"It helped me go through high school and figure out what I wanted to do when I got older," he said.
Now Bland works at a plant in Gramercy as a millwright, sort of the jack-of-all trades that keeps the plant running.
Canera Miles, 18, a millwright himself and another Lutcher High School graduate, said some of his friends are envious of his 40-hours-per-week job, working from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Louisiana's bid to re-energize its career education program got a $2 million boost Wednesday to expand the effort.
"I came out of high school with a full-time job and they are trying to go to college for four years and not even sure if they are going to get a job," he said.
Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, was among the roughly 1,400 school counselors, teachers, principals, business leaders and others gathered in Baton Rouge on Jan. 28 for the sixth annual convention of Jump Start.
"What you have built is career pathways that didn't exist before," Sullivan told the group.
Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed told the convention her late uncle was a master carpenter who took great pride in his craft. "There is honor in all pathways," Reed said.
The push has not come without growing pains.
The state is about to launch Jump Start 2.0, in part because lots of the early credentials were not aligned with high-need, high-wage jobs.
The number of pathways — the sequence of nine courses needed for an industry-based certificate — would be trimmed from around 40 to 11 under a plan set for review in March by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
"So we have a Jump Start we can actually explain to business," White told the convention last week.
The changes would take effect for freshmen students in the 2020-21 school year.
Another challenge is the stigma still linked to career and technical education.
"I still hear this phrase, 'That kid is a Jump Start kid,'" White said. "We have to change that or so much of this is a missed opportunity."
Under new state rules, career and technical education students will be eligible to be named student of the year.
Those who pursue post-secondary training in construction will be eligible for $1,000 scholarships, with up to 40 per year offered.
Borne, the Jump Start teacher who also was defensive line coach at Lutcher High School for 21 years, has launched a "signing day" similar to what high-profile football commitments experience.
This one recognizes students who earn career-industry credentials and first jobs.
"We have about 15% of the population with a college degree in St. James," he said. "So what do we do with the other 85%? We have to close that gap, get people qualified and create a work force to serve the industry coming to St. James."
Tara High School senior Caleb Dangerfield, 17, is one of the rare students who will meet the criteria for both the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students and Jump Start.
Dangerfield splits his time between Tara and his $10-per-hour internship at Accutemp.
He is already certified in HVAC — heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Last summer, he had an internship at Acme Refrigeration. The work is overseen by the East Baton Rouge Parish Career and Technical Education Center.
Once he is done with high school, Dangerfield will be qualified for jobs that pay up to $20 per hour.
"I didn't want to sit around and focus on just school work," he said. "I always thought ahead five years: What would I be doing in five years?"