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College? Career Tech? In Nashville, Teens Do Both


John Scarborough, a fourth-year pharmacy student at Lipscomb University, talks to high schoolers during a vocational career training class.
Courtesy of Lipscomb University
John Scarborough, a fourth-year pharmacy student at Lipscomb University, talks to high schoolers during a vocational career training class.

Schools don't like to use the V-word anymore — "vocational," as in "vocational education." Administrators say the word is outdated, along with the idea of offering job-training courses only to students who are going straight into the workforce.

Nashville, Tenn., is trying a new approach. The public school system there is encouraging every high school student, regardless of college plans, to take three career-training classes before they graduate.

Kiara Beard, a senior at Overton High School, is taking a pharmacological science course and learning how to interact with patients in a pharmacy.

"I need your name, date of birth," she says to her fake patient, Justin Kirby, who is in the very real pharmacy program at nearby Lipscomb University.

"My name is John Overton," Kirby answers. "August 17, 1951."

"Do you have any allergies?" Beard asks as she fills out a form.

"Yes, the medication that I had an allergic reaction to is Zithromax," Kirby says.

Kirby may be playing the patient, but he and a handful of other graduate students are leading this job simulation, helping Beard and her high school classmates count fake pills and measure solutions.

At the end of the school year, students in the class will be able to take the national certification exam to become pharmacy technicians — right out of high school. That job pays, on average, more than $14 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Having a certification will make the students instantly marketable, says Ronda Bryant, a pharmacy professor at Lipscomb.

"Even (compared to) someone who has pharmacy experience but may not have a certification, these students at John Overton may be more qualified," she says.

This kind of qualification is the focus of what's called "career and technical education" — essentially, vocational training for the modern workforce. More than 90 percent of public high school students across the country have taken at least one class that fits into this category, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But most students in Nashville now take three career tech courses before graduating. Its high schools offer dozens of options, including computer integrated manufacturing, healthcare administration and web design.

Chaney Mosley oversees the district's career tech program, and what gets him really excited is the idea that some of these students will finish with a certificate in hand, setting them up for a good job without needing a college degree.

"When the student from our high schools graduates with one of those certifications and chooses not to immediately pursue higher education, that could be a game-changer," he says.

But he's quick to point out: Career classes are not just for students going straight into the workforce. Many of the classes also count for college credit, and they still try to create what he calls a "college-going culture."

"I don't think it encourages students to not go to college," Mosley says. "In fact, I would say it does the opposite. It lets students experience success and realize that they have a great potential in a related field."

And it helps them understand the importance of continuing their education, he believes, wherever that might happen.

Back in Overton High School's pharmacy class, senior Sadiq Rahmatullah says he is planning to go to college. He might want to be a physician, but now that he's taking this class, he hopes to work in a pharmacy during college.

"You can earn money so you can pay your school bill," he says. "I don't want to depend on my parents, because I need to depend on myself. I can help myself, and I can help my family too."

The district says ambitions like this are a change from vocational education of the past. Students aren't separated by who wants to go to college and who wants to get a job. Instead, they're all preparing for both.

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