Pathways for students: Harlingen has new strategies for teaching children

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first part in a series of articles on the Harlingen school district’s plan to redesign its Career and Technology Education program.

HARLINGEN — Study all you want, but if you don’t know how to use that knowledge, it’s not worth much.

The real education takes place in the world of work. That’s why the Harlingen school district is redesigning its Career and Technology Education program. This redesign will apply only to certain trades such as the medical professions, audio-visual trades, mechanics and welding. Academic classes such as English and history will not be affected.

“All this is being driven by our Strategic Plan,” said Superintendent Art Cavazos. “And so our Strategic Plan speaks to some very specific things, including developing a curriculum with an emphasis on preparing for postsecondary education and endorsements.”

The redesign will take about three years and cost the district $625,000 per year, paid for by funds collected through the property tax increase last year. Voters approved the rate increase from $1.21 to $1.31 through the Tax Ratification Election.

The Harlingen school district seems to have been in a perpetual state of redesign for quite some time. Only fitting in a time when trades, industries and technology are advancing so quickly. Changes require new tools in the workforce, new procedures for their usage, and the development of new products. All of this demands the creation of new markets.

The most significant arrival, of course, is that of young people with fresh new ideas. They’re entering a workforce filled with endless changes, new needs and expectations. In order for young employees to perform well in an evolving workforce, they must be taught the skills required by that workforce.

By necessity, this requires progressive school districts to develop new tactics, new strategies and new training programs. You might compare these unceasing changes to a kaleidoscope in which pieces of color split and whirl around and then come together in fresh patterns. They don’t remain there very long. Soon they’re pulling apart and forming the next pattern which works for that particular moment. Such is the nature of progress. If a process remains constant for very long, it degenerates into mediocrity.

The antidote to such stagnation is movement, and the district has engaged in movements on several levels for quite some time. Much of that movement is outlined in the Strategic Plan. The new endorsements spelled out in House Bill 5 in 2013 were a powerful impetus toward flexibility and change, addressing the specific needs, talents and skills of individual students.

House Bill 5 called for students to identify programs of study they would follow through high school. Those programs provide students with multiple pathways to graduation and allow them to earn certifications, called endorsements. The five endorsements are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics); Business and Industry; Public Services; Arts and Humanities; and Multidisciplinary Studies.

Within those five endorsements are 16 career and technology clusters including automotive technology, building trades and architecture and construction. The Harlingen school district offers 14.

The endorsements are included in the Strategic Plan as is the major redesign of the Career and Technology Education classes. The CTE is being redesigned to meet the changing demands of the workforce and also to prepare students for postsecondary education. The Strategic Plan also includes six principles to guide the redesign. One of those principles is the creation of Programs of Study using House Bill 5 as a foundation.

Under the redesign, students will be able to explore these trades more deeply. Some trade classes, such has those in the medical field, already reflect the changes to come.

“That School of Health Professions transformed the way we do CTE on the medical side of the house,” Cavazos said. “And so, when we think about the School of Health Professions, it focuses on the medical profession and that in itself is a pathway from Career and Technology Education.”

Another one of the six principles is the creation of small learning communities. The Strategic Plan describes those communities as a team of teachers who monitor the same group of students throughout their public school career. They tend to the students’ needs and address any issues which may arise.

While these teams of teachers have already been implemented, the current redesign seeks to take the concept further. Cavazos said the district is currently determining how to create small learning communities centered around the new pathways to graduation as outlined in House Bill 5.

“Small learning communities means that we’re going to have a very strategic focus on a pathway,” Cavazos said.

The students at HSHP are gaining a deeper understanding of medical careers within the medical profession. Those careers include patient care, surgical procedures, biomedical research, pharmacology, dentistry and sports medicine.

“We give them an array of exposure and real authentic learning in that space,” Cavazos said. “So when they go to post-secondary, they are very comfortable in the decision they’ve made to pursue an area in the medical field.”

The use of simulation labs in specialty rooms such as the surgical procedures and patient care rooms is part of that deeper understanding of a trade. The school also invites guest speakers such as veterinarians and cardiologists to give presentations. This is the kind of redesign planned for other trades.

This type of deeper learning in various trades is what Cavazos calls a “deep dive.”

These deep dives are created to ensure that the district is creating opportunities for students to thoroughly understand the subject matter and gain exposure to the rigor of the career and gain a feel for the pathways offered by the district.

Six principles

These are the six principles of high school redesign as outlined in the Strategic Plan.

Programs of Study: Implementing academic, career, and technical courses to provide numerous pathways to graduation. House Bill 5 provides the foundation for these courses.

Technology Rich Environment: By providing access to information and learning resources as well as an array of useful informational, instructional and communication tools, technology can strengthen the teaching and learning environment.

College and Career Readiness: Raise standards to better prepare students for the workplace.

Collaborative Learning Platform: Students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge.

Professional Learning Communities: Teachers are organized into working groups to promote collaborative learning among fellow teachers within a particular content area or grade level.

Small Learning Communities: These are teams of teachers who take responsibility for a group of students. They track the educational progress of those students throughout their public school career. They also address issues that may arise.