- Associated Press - Friday, July 25, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Eighteen-year-old Carolymar Rodriguez remembers her senior year of high school as a whirlwind of fast-paced classes.

The Topeka native spent the year splitting her time between her school, Washburn Rural High, and Washburn Tech, where she spent three hours a day studying to work in health care.

In just two semesters, Rodriguez became a certified nursing assistant, a certified medication aide and a certified home health aide. Two months out of high school, that’s helped her trade in a low-wage job at a fast-food restaurant for a home health position that pays $3 more per hour.

“Basically I needed a head start,” she said Friday, “and this was my head start.”

Rodriguez is one of thousands of Kansas high-schoolers who enrolled in career and technical classes last school year, and one of hundreds who completed coursework that allowed them to graduate from high school with industry-recognized credentials in hand, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported (https://bit.ly/1n56OZW ).

In the second year of a statewide initiative to promote courses like this for high-schoolers, enrollment has continued to swell, with the state picking up the tab for the tuition. The goal of the program, championed by Gov. Sam Brownback, is to prepare students for jobs straight out of school, especially in high-demand fields, and give them a boost toward their careers or a way to pay their way through college.

It has been a popular education initiative for a governor who has otherwise faced relentless criticism in education circles from critics who say he is grossly underfunding Kansas schools.

Previously, state funding for technical education didn’t cover full tuition costs for high-schoolers, meaning some schools were limited in how many students they could send to such classes.

Rodriguez says she enrolled in classes at Washburn Tech as a first step toward her ultimate goal - becoming a surgeon. That is a career she has had in mind for years.

“I’ve known ever since I was a little kid watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ” she said. “But I didn’t really know where to start.”

The decision worked well for her. At Washburn Tech she found a mentor, Mary Menninger-Corder, an assistant professor at Washburn University’s School of Nursing who also coordinates the health-field courses at the technical college.

Menninger-Corder says she saw Rodriguez’s potential and was surprised to discover she hadn’t applied for college yet.

“She was on task, engaged, intelligent and eager to learn,” Menninger-Corder said. “This is the kind of student we want.”

Menninger-Corder helped Rodriguez navigate the application process. In August she will begin premedical studies at Washburn University, where she hopes to become the first person in her family to finish a four-year degree. After that, she would like to attend medical school at The University of Kansas.

“Fingers crossed,” she said.

Rodriguez is an example of what advocates of career and technical education believe it can do for many teens - open doors they may need a little help opening.

“It’s about taking someone and saying, this is possible for you,” Menninger-Corder said.

In the first year of the initiative, statewide high-school enrollment in technical and career courses jumped from 3,870 to 6,101 students.

In the second year, that figure grew to 8,208, and those students earned a total of 1,419 industry-recognized job certifications, twice as many as a year earlier.

But as more high-schoolers take classes at technical colleges, the cost of the program increases, too. In the first year, the state spent $12.7 million on the initiative. Last year it spent $18.3 million.

At Washburn Tech, the demand has been so strong that there are waiting lists for classes in areas like graphic arts, diesel technology and welding.

“There’s no doubt that Senate Bill 155 changed the landscape of how opportunities are created for high-school students,” says Washburn Tech Dean Clark Coco, adding that it has affected nearly every two-year institution in the state.

Coco argues the state is giving students a chance to explore their interests and better compete in the job market.

“They gain a skill set that’s a viable opportunity for employment,” he said.

In the case of Rodriguez, it helped her stake out a path toward college.

But Coco says even if Rodriguez’s experience had convinced her the medical field wasn’t right for her, that would have been helpful in a different way.

“That’s good also,” he said. “Then you’re off to a different direction.”


Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, https://www.cjonline.com

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