Episode 5: Alaska Doubles Down on Career and Technical Education
Brad Billings, the career and technical education program administrator in Alaska, describes steps the Last Frontier has taken to bolster career and technical education using federal recovery funds. Efforts include the development of a resource clearinghouse serving industry representatives, schools, university systems and others as well as funding skills camps. Billings also tells of how career and technical education has transformed to better help students develop more advanced skills.
Jim Cowen This is Jim Cowen from the Collaborative for Student Success, and this is the “Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery” podcast. Each week, we travel the country on a kind of “road trip” to talk about the ways federal recovery dollars are being used in states to reshape education. Along the way, we’ll hold up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.
Today I am joined by Brad Billings, the administrator of Alaska’s Career and Technical Education program. Alaska has made a sizable “bet” on the importance of career and technical education. They’re spending more than a million dollars of their federal relief funds to improve local, regional, and state level programs. We’re talking about preparing students to be ready for high demand careers relevant for home, like healthcare and forestry. Brad can speak about the work happening in Alaska, but also more broadly about how career and technical education has evolved to help students develop advanced and valuable skills that are going to prepare them for their careers.
Jim Cowen Our guest today is Brad Billings, director of Alaska’s Career and Technical Education program. Welcome Brad. How’s it going?
Brad Billings Great. Thank you for having me on.
Jim Cowen Of course. So, listen, the theme here is road trip, right? “Route K-12 Road Trip.” So, before we kind of go into other subject matter, I’ve got to ask you what’s the best road trip you’ve ever been on and is there a song that captures the spirit of that road trip you were on?
Brad Billings Yeah, the epic road trip for me, and it has to do with Alaska, I was coming up the Western states. This was back in the late ‘90s and it was a multi-week driving over the Alaska-Canada highway up through Canada to connect into Skagway and then put my car on a ferry that brought me down to Juneau.
I was coming up here for a summer sales job and it was just amazing. I was just out of college and was ready to go. I then left to finish school and then came back. That was kind of the trip that gave me the bug to come and settle in Alaska and to become a teacher up here.
Jim Cowen Nice. Congratulations with that development. We’re going to talk about career and technical education in Alaska, and this was one of the practices that we highlighted on the EduRecoveryHub. It was particularly around this real “big bet” that Alaska has made around using recovery dollars, you know, $1.3 million to go towards pandemic recovery in the state. And I’m just wondering, can you tell me big picture what was the strategy about how you’re going to use those dollars? And are there some, you know, major focal points in there on how that’s going to work in the state?
Brad Billings As we were looking at how the pandemic had affected us and especially CTE—very hands on, it’s very partnership based—I think the pandemic had torn those things down a bit. And so, we were trying to think, how can we reinforce and build back those partnerships? And then also help our CTE folks around the state to connect, to share resources, et cetera. And so, as we were looking at that we, first of all, invested in a clearing house—it’s an online clearing house. We’re working with a contractor to build an online platform where school districts, industry representatives, the Department of Ed, Department of Labor, university system can start to talk to each other and actually post and share the work that they’re doing and the resources and opportunities that they have. So that was the first area of focus.
And then the second was career and skills camps directly to students. The idea being that, you know, when we closed down in person learning, one of the first programs to go, if you will, were career and technical ed. It was a hands-on stuff that we weren’t bringing kids back for those. We were focused on the core reading, writing, math, et cetera. And so, we wanted to infuse some resources and build back those connections. In Alaska it’s really geographically diverse and often isolated. A divide between our urban larger urban centers, the Anchorage, the Juneau, the Fairbanks, and then we have a number of rural communities that are often just fly in communities—that’s the only way you get to them. And so, we needed to create opportunities for those smaller communities to connect back with the training opportunities that the urban centers just have naturally. Yeah, so that’s kind of what was driving our movement on that.
Jim Cowen I went to your site and looked at some of the materials you have up there around CTE of the state and there was just one particular statistic that I thought was really noteworthy. It was around this 75% of CTE learners go into post-secondary education after high school and they have a 10% higher graduation rate than non-CTE students. And I don’t know if that data was national [but] I think it was a national percentage that I was looking at. So, I would imagine it’s probably similar in Alaska or maybe higher, but regardless it’s a big number, right, for CTE? In your mind, do you think that is the normal statistic around CTE in your state? And I say that because do you feel like the value of this kind of organized and publicly available skill training has increased both, you know, over the years before the pandemic, but now in particular, are you seeing changes in how it’s being received?
Brad Billings CTE is all encompassing, so I’m speaking from the K-12 perspective, the kindergarten, 12th grade perspective, and I think what it’s doing for us is twofold. The first is you’re engaging a certain type of student that maybe isn’t succeeding elsewhere. And so, there may be a target audience there of the kids who may be more inclined to drop out. And this is more anecdotal, but that’s the first thing that CTE is providing. And then the second thing is it’s connecting kids to post high school opportunities. It’s making them think about it. It’s getting their hands on those opportunities. And so especially with, as I mentioned, the rural urban issues that we face in Alaska, the small size of many of our rural communities, they sometimes struggle to get the economy of scale to offer some of those opportunities to students. And so, I think CTE is solving that issue.
So, you’re speaking of a higher graduation rate among CTE concentrators. Like I don’t think that statistically we’ve established that that’s causal, that CTE participation is causing that, but I would vouch for and give my own experience of kids who have stayed in school, who have been engaged, who have a vision for what they want to do after high school. And I think that’s where the payoff is for these career and technical ed type opportunities.
Jim Cowen I see how it’s being positioned now, phrased now, spoken about now. It feels much more inviting and valuable in the way that’s being laid out by the skills. The talk of, I don’t know how old you are, “when we were in school.” You know, it went when it was shop class.
Brad Billings Yeah. Yup.
Jim Cowen Or, you know home ec, or whatever, that’s gone. The types of tech we’re talking about now are super valuable and applicable to legitimate real jobs in well-paying industries. And it feels like this would be particularly good right now when, you know, in a post-pandemic world when there have been, you know, dips in learning and availability of this kind of training for kids. So, it’s a long way for me to get to the point of where do you feel like the stigma that may have been around this more when we were in school is beginning to trail off because of that?
Brad Billings Yes, I’m not sure about because of our reaction to the pandemic but definitely like so starting from the wood shop class that I took in seventh grade—I still have a, you know, a beautiful bookshelf that I made in that class.
Jim Cowen I still have my pencil holder and it looks like a whale.
Brad Billings There you go, yeah. And so that’s like, that’s the product, but for me it ended there. And I think nationally, our dialogue about this has developed over the last two, three decades shifting to the idea of a program of study. So, okay, there’s nothing wrong with a wood shop class in seventh grade. The question is what is it making me think about as far as where I go next in high school and then beyond high school. And then also what are the courses that I’m building toward? So, the program of studies is not just a course anymore, it’s about dual credit, you know, linking to a college. It’s about having stacked courses where you’re moving through and progressing to, you know, some more advanced skills. It’s about connections to industry and work-based learning. I think that’s become much more rich and robust in pushing us beyond that classroom, if you will, to giving kids something, students something, that they’re walking from the class with beyond just the bookshelf that I made—which I’m very proud of, don’t get me wrong.
Jim Cowen I do not want to disrespect your bookshelf and you can still see my pencil holder if you’re ever interested. Talking about those kind of partnerships you’re mentioning, like, have those been increased in Alaska too? Like that sort of recognition by industry in Alaska to be tapping some of those skills that are coming out of these programs?
Brad Billings This was our intent with using this pandemic stimulus money. I actually had two partners in mind and I’m going to call them out by name because they’re just awesome. The first: the Alaska Works Partnership. They receive significant funding from our state Department of Labor. There’s, I think, federal dollars related to registered apprenticeships and they are focused on the construction trades and that sector and they have introductory training courses. They have weeklong courses that they offer in Anchorage and they’ve just started to partner with our Anchorage school district. And so, as we’re looking at pandemic recovery, we’re saying this is a great opportunity for some rural kids. So, let’s take some of these funds and let’s plug it into providing those kind of one week training career skills camps around the construction trades and make it available to some rural students coming into Anchorage. So, the first partner was in the construction trades.
The second partner was our area health education center and in Alaska we have a group called the Primary Care Association and they’re in the healthcare field. And they’re doing the same thing and they have courses and entry into training for healthcare professions for adults and they were primed to offer that. And they were starting to offer it on their own to middle and high school students. And so, we said let’s partner with them, get some of these resources into their hands so they can build back those connections that are serving middle school and high school students.
So that was the intent of our career and skills camps for high school kids. The other thing, and this was prior to the pandemic, Alaska has developed a short-term residency program model. So, back in the day we had residency schools for students in rural communities and that went out of fashion. There were issues with that. And so what’s evolved over the course of the last maybe 10 or 20 years are short term residency programs where we’re bringing students into a regional hub or into an Anchorage, you know, our urban hubs for just a week for them to concentrate on, you know, a career in technical opportunity or employability skills. It’s taking students out of a rural community where they may not have as many economic opportunities. It’s bringing them into, you know, a Nome, or an Anchorage, or a place like that just for a week and there’s a dormitory attached. So, we have probably a dozen of these organizations around the state. Some of them are, are strictly district based.
So, a district will open up their own training school in Anchorage. Or we have four districts, or five districts, getting together to pool their resources and provide this kind of a resource in Nome. We have kind of a nonprofit organization that’s based at one of our private universities in Anchorage and they essentially sell seats to school districts that are sending students in for you anywhere from a week to four weeks at a time to work on these kind of intensive CTE intensives. So, this was a model that we are growing. It’s serving kind of our geographic diversity. The pandemic obviously shut these down, you know, because we’re not sending kids to travel. We’re not gathering them into a dormitory setting for sure. And so, these programs were shut down and part of us putting these resources back into these kind of organizations is to say, let’s build those back up. Let’s get those relationships that you’re building with school districts back up and running so that when this money is gone—the pandemic money is not going to be around forever—when this money is gone, we’re still left with the partnerships and then the rapport and the arrangements that districts can then decide to send their kids to participate in.
Jim Cowen That was going be my next question around that cliff that everyone talks about on the finances. So, is there anything, you may have just alluded this in your last answer, but is there anything you’ve learned overall about that sustainability part of this about, you know, how are you thinking through when this is all gone? How do you keep the, you know, the thrust of the benefit of these programs alive?
Brad Billings CTE is all about partnerships, right? It’s about a school district getting out of the classroom and talking to local industry, local business, the local employers, talking to the regional mine, whoever it is, talking to you know the Alaska Work Partnership in Anchorage. Like it’s about partnerships because like the benefit of CTE is pushing kids beyond the classroom to connect with wherever they’re going to land next. And so that’s, I guess, that’s the lingering thing that I’m hoping for from these funds. That’s, that’s the first aspect of it.
The second issue is, again, we have three cohorts, two or three cohorts of students who missed out on CTE opportunities, right?
Jim Cowen Yeah.
Brad Billings …from 2020 to 2022. And like, they’re moving out, they’re graduating, they’re moving out into the workforce and if I can just apply, it’s almost like steroids, that just for this one little moment, we’re going to give them the opportunity to go to this construction camp. We’re going to give 10 students here an opportunity to go and talk about health careers in Alaska. Yeah it’s not, for systematic purposes, going to last beyond three years, but there are individuals that maybe missed out that we’ve provided an extra opportunity that they may not have had. So, two aspects of that; the first is the systematic partnerships and arrangements that will last beyond the money. And then secondly, we are helping out a handful of students to get caught up, if you will, or get an opportunity they wouldn’t have had.
Jim Cowen Yeah, we’ve been asking this of all of our guests too, because it’s such a deep issue in the country right now, and that is that the kids that have been hurt most by the pandemic are unfortunately the same kids that have been hurt historically, marginalized historically. Are there some signs in Alaska that these students are benefiting because of some of this use of these pandemic dollars?
Brad Billings I hope so. I think the jury’s still out on that specific to pandemic dollars. So, the school districts, and I’ll speak to the rural school districts, so Perkins funds, federal funds, school districts in Alaska, many of them get the minimum, which is like $15,000. There’s just not a lot you can do with $15,000. It’s something, and we appreciate that. And so, the rural school districts, I think, have been developing partnerships and collaborations to kind of pool those funds so they’re providing higher rigor, number one. And then also shipping them into these intensive programs that I mentioned. I think that’s addressing an equity issue in Alaska that’s urban versus rural.
We have some wonderful urban school districts. I’ll give a shout out to Anchorage, to Matanuska-Susitna, to Fairbanks. And these districts are partnering with rural districts to make their resources available to rural districts. It takes a lot of work to make these arrangements where you’re, you know, you’re taking on the liability of other students, bringing them in. So yeah, when you raise that equity question, I’m thinking about for Alaska the rural versus the urban equity issues that we’re still struggling with, and we will be for a while.
Jim Cowen For each of these podcasts, we ask a question from a parent:
Jessica Graves Hello, my name is Jessica Graves and I’m an active duty military spouse who has worked very hard to ensure my son has a consistent education and access to a wide range of opportunities, even as we transition between placement communities and schools. At various points in the past, career and technical education felt like it referred to auto or wood shop classes, which can be great experiences for students, but often aren’t cohesively supporting a career pathway. How is Alaska working to make sure that parents understand the range of options available to kids and possibly addressing misconceptions about CTE programs?
Brad Billings Yeah, there’s a bit of a stigma, you know, that is attached that we’re maybe dealing with what a CTE course is. So, we have a formal arrangement. It’s an advisory committee that we formally include parents on so that they can focus on, you know, determining what a local CTE program should be. We still struggle with that, right—reaching out to parents and addressing those attitudes. I guess I would also shift the question back to how do we do that with students? Because I think the recruiting of students, making them aware of what CTE opportunities are, how they’re linked to their academic work—the reading, writing math skills—how they’re pushing them toward, you know, employment after school, connection to industry standards, et cetera. So yeah, I think that may be the bigger question, if I can shift it to say, how are we doing that with students? Because we’re still working with them to redefine what CTE is. Not just the wood shop, the metal shop, it’s something that’s going to build their skills for what they’re going to do next.
Jim Cowen Brad billings, director of Alaska’s Career Technical Education program. Brad, thanks for joining us today. I have to say, I’m looking forward to heading out your direction soon. We’re taking my family to go on a sailing trip from Sitka to Juneau. So, you may hear from me sooner rather than later.
Brad Billings Wonderful. No, we’d love to have you, and it’s been great to talk with you about CTE.
Jim Cowen Thank you very much.
Jim Cowen This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery. For each week, we’ll travel the country to showcase the ways federal recovery funds are reshaping schools. Along the way we’re talking to people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Got a question or insight you’d like to share about what’s going on in education? We’d love to hear it. Reach out to us at EduRecoveryHub.org/RouteK12 or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.
About Jim Cowen
Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.