Feb. 24, 2020-- An engineering student uses a computer-assisted drafting application to design a widget, then uploads it to a lasercutter to create a model from wood. A digital arts student crafts a 3D world using physics software and has classmates interact in a virtual reality simulator. A business student develops plans for a shop downtown, then makes her vision come to life in an empty storefront. These aren’t vocational school programs; students at Toms River Regional’s three high schools now have these opportunities and more.
Wrapping up their third year, the district’s three Career Academies (Arts, Business, and STEAM), each with three specialized schools within the schools, have quadrupled applications and doubled enrollment since 2016. More importantly, methods, resources, and courses piloted within them are available to non-academy students.
When Superintendent Dave Healy was hired in 2014, one community interest he vowed to address was more career-oriented experiences for students. Rather than separate programs, the Academies were designed as testing grounds for new ideas, from courses to extracurriculars, from which all students could benefit. Competitive robotics, for example, has exploded in the district as STEAM clubs and courses have been added.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average number of career and technical education (CTE) credits earned by U.S. public high school graduates declined, from 4.2 to 3.6, between 1990 to 2009. By 2018, 94% of students were served by CTE programs, with an increasing non-vocational high schools.
“The academies were designed to complement rather than compete with the offerings at Ocean County Vo-Tech, whom we consider valued partners,” says Director of Secondary Curriculum Norma DeNoia. “We want our students to have as many options as possible.”
In the past two years, both Trenton and Washington have made CTE a public priority, with funding, training, and support becoming increasingly available. Statistics clearly show these programs have many benefits.
Toms River Regional Schools is known across the state for leadership in active and problem-based learning models and STEAM events, like the annual New Jersey Makers Day and the Jersey Shore Makerfest. Its work has been replicated in other districts and influenced conversations in Trenton on equity, PBL, the maker mindset, and computer science. Teachers and administrators have written articles and books on these subjects, won dozens of grants, and are in demand to share their approaches at state and regional conferences, most recently at the NJ Association of School Administrators’ TechSpo in January in Atlantic City.
“The academy program has let us rethink spaces, technology, materials, and teaching methods, with new ideas flowing constantly from teachers, students, and community members,” says Marc Natanagara, Assistant Superintendent and lead grant writer and architect of the academies, maker, coding, and other initiatives. Through the academies, the schools have developed over a dozen new partnerships, internships, and new courses and learning pathways unique in the state.
Reallocating a position to create a Grants and Communications Coordinator three years ago has furthered the district’s ability to access alternative funding sources. Mike Kenny, a former journalist, helps bridge gaps between classrooms, funding, and other sources of support. With Natanagara, dozens of teachers, administrators, and community members, the district has earned over $3 million in grants since 2015, with Kenny now coordinating writing, managing the applications process, and facilitating communications.
Grants from the Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation, the Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and the NJDOE have helped train teachers, renovate spaces, buy equipment, and provide summer STEAM camps. A $30k grant from the United Way of Monmouth and Ocean Counties is funding Project SPEAR-IT at High School South to help prepare students for vocational schools.
One of the cardinal rules of designing new programs is assuring their sustainability. At the prompting of the NJDOE, the district recently applied to have course pathways recognized as CTE “Programs of Study.” These include a minimum 3-course sequence as well as dual credit, the ability to earn industry-valued credentials, and real world experiences like job shadowing, internships, and research projects. CTE recognition provides schools with access to federal Perkins funding, currently worth over $140,000 annually. Two applications have already been approved, with another is under review. (See flyers for the programs below.) Approval of these programs is well timed; the NJDOE has declared February the state’s first “Career and Technical Education Month.”
“The academy program has let us rethink spaces, technology, materials, and teaching methods, with new ideas flowing constantly from teachers, students, and community members." -Assistant Superintendent Dr. Marc Natanagara
College dual enrollment courses have also tripled. Working with Dr. Henry Jackson, Executive Director of Academic Success at Ocean County College, the high schools have maxed out dual credits and are now working to become offsite campuses to make the entire course catalog available to students, with a focus on CTE.
With the district losing millions in state aid, progress on these fronts couldn’t come at a better time. “Despite funding cuts over the past 10 years, and with financial recovery from Sandy still years away, we have still been able to innovate and provide model opportunities,” said Healy. “If not for our hardworking staff and support through grants, partnerships, sponsorships, and the TRRS communities, our schools would be back in the previous century.”
To quote the Association for Career and Technical Education, “CTE prepares students for the high wage and high demand career fields of the 21st Century.” That’s a goal Toms River Regional is committed to!