Head to the Heart September 14, 2023

A new generation of career and technical education is readying students for a rapidly shifting workforce

From cybersecurity to medicine, see how high schools are leveraging design to set students up for success.

Many employers in the United States are struggling to find skilled workers in roles that don’t necessarily require a college degree. A study published last year by McKinsey indicated that the number of nurses in the workforce dropped by 100,000 in 2021. Manufacturing, meanwhile, could risk losing $454 billion by 2028 if jobs continue to go unfulfilled. And in tech, which has been dropping college degree requirements for many roles in the industry, only 65 out of 100 job postings are being filled, mainly due to a lack of training focused on emerging technologies.

While higher education may not be a necessity for getting a job in these fields and others, students coming out of high school with special training have a better chance of being hired. In response, high schools throughout the country are currently expanding and specializing their technical and trade curricula—also known as career and technical education (CTE), a concept that evolved from vocational education but offers broader learning for more long-term careers—and they’re doing so to help students find a place in the evolving workforce.

ASCTE's classrooms offer hands-on experience in cybersecurity via a curriculum that resembles college more than it does high school.

The Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering (ASCTE) in Huntsville, Alabama, for example, prepares students for the growing industry of cybersecurity. “We’ve gotten to the stage where cybersecurity touches everything from banking to medical care. I mean, you can YouTube how to hack a car now,” says Matt Massey, president of the school. “And yet, there’s just this tremendous shortage in that workforce, so we’re trying to address that.”

Unlike typical high schools, ASCTE’s organization, curriculum, and design are modeled after a university. There’s no principal or assistant principal, but rather a president and deans. In their junior year, students pitch a project they want to build, be it an invention, a tool, or another sort of innovation. Then, in their senior year, they complete that project while interning off-campus and getting field experience working on real-life projects.

To provide a state-of-the-art facility that matched the school’s ambitions, architect Barbara Crum and her team designed a light-filled, multi-story structure that encourages collaboration around a long, central atrium. Bridges that, in Massey’s words, seem to float “like the moving staircases from Harry Potter” cross the atrium on the second and third floors to connect various classrooms and gathering areas. Outside, meanwhile, terracotta panels across the facade are subtly angled in opposing directions to give the building a different look depending on the time of day.

The school’s first class of seniors, consisting of 17 students, graduated last spring with an average ACT score of 31 out of 36 (the national average currently sits at 20.8). In 2024, they expect to ramp up to about 80 graduates. “Our students have broken through a lot of barriers,” Massey says. “It feels good to be part of the legacy of schools such as ours, with hopefully more to come.”

The Regional Science and Technology Center at Dobyns-Bennett High School features facilities designed to house a wide range of learning and social programs.

In some cases, CTE schools are programmed specifically to support local industries. Kingsport, a town of 50,000 situated among the Appalachian Mountains of Northeast Tennessee, is home to the headquarters of global specialty materials manufacturer Eastman Chemical (formerly a subsidiary of Kodak), as well as a large hospital system. Both employers need workers skilled in various sciences. That led the town to build a more focused addition onto Dobyns-Bennett High School: The Regional Science and Technology Center—a space designed to inspire a culture of innovation with flexible facilities capable of a wide range of training programs.

Originally constructed in 1967, the school was made up of a collection of hexagonal, beige-brick pods arranged in a honeycomb pattern. As Randy Watts, the school’s assistant principal, remembers it, when Crum, who designed this school as well, first visited, she compared it to “a big city with no downtown and nowhere for people to gather.” To create a public center for the school, Crum and her team designed a triangular-shaped, three-story atrium that expands out from the original entrance. The broad end of the triangle forms a new transparent front door for the campus, shaded by a generous brise soleil, that invites people inside.

New classrooms designed to support the science and technology curricula open onto the atrium space—putting these programs front and center. Each classroom can be reconfigured, which gives instructors flexibility in how they conduct their classes. The design team located all fixed furniture, plumbing, gas, and electrical along the perimeter of the classrooms, and arranged moveable tables and chairs in the middle where they can be easily rearranged. “Every classroom can function in a dozen different ways,” Watts says. “We really wanted to give students the tools to succeed, and here that meant putting an emphasis on doing and living science rather than more textbook-based learning.”

“We wanted our kids to be able to explore more so that, when they go out into the real world, they can say they have experience from high school."
Tammy Caesar, CTE Director at Austin Independent School District

CTE isn’t only growing in smaller cities. In Texas, leaders of the Austin Independent School District saw the need for a more advanced version of a health science program to train nurses, dentists, surgical technicians, and future doctors for the healthcare industry. The curricula alignment starts in elementary and middle school with medical vocabulary and filed trips. The pathway culminates with real world simulation environments designed for the LBJ Early College Medical High School in the northeast part of the city, with a concept spearheaded by Austin-based architect Angela Whitaker-Williams.We wanted our kids to be able to explore more so that, when they go out into the real world, they can say they have experience simulating many real-world scenarios from high school,” says the district’s CTE Director, Tammy Caesar.  

The medical high school’s large simulation labs are encased in floor-to-ceiling glass walls that open views into the type of learning the program provides. Prior to the completion of the new lab, faculty would take students to local hospitals for roughly six weeks of hands-on experience throughout the year. Now they’re able to gain field experience without leaving campus using life-like interactive mannequins. The school includes a simulated operating room for surgical technology, a trauma room, labor and delivery simulation, a medical exam room, and a dental suite to advance all areas of allied health. The spacious laboratories feature ample equipment, medical-grade seating, and beds. The renovation also works to create a sense of openness by removing some walls to visually connect the first and second floors and carving out a sizable common area for collaboration with professional partners. 

“I’ve had seniors say that they wish they had this as underclassmen,” Caesar says. “The students have genuine pride in their school and their community.”

“Our students have broken through a lot of barriers. It feels good to be part of the legacy of schools such as ours, with hopefully more to come.”
Matt Massey, president of the Alabama School of Cybertechnology and Engineering
Students at Dobyns-Bennett High School can already move up in the workforce as the school partnered with local company Eastman Chemical for paid internships.

Some of the schools that have been ahead of the curve in providing this level of specialized training at the high school level are already seeing results. For example, Eastman has partnered with Dobyns-Bennett High School for an internship program in which students spend half a day at school and then half a day at the company’s facility, where they get hands-on experience and a paycheck.

Meanwhile, enrollment is on the rise at LBJ High School, potentially leading to a larger teaching staff and a greater variety of programs. “This is how all health professional schools should be designed,” Caesar says. “Students should be motivated to come to their high school because they know it leads to opportunity. When they’re in the real world at their job, they’ll be able to say, ‘I did this in high school,’ versus ‘I’ve only seen that in a book.’”