So many changes are happening at high schools in Bellingham these days. Never mind that students get to sleep in an extra 45 minutes (if not more, thanks to the elimination of zero-hour courses) with the new start time that went into effect this school year. The number of class periods for high school students increased from six to eight, and the number of credits required for graduation will ramp up over the next few years from 24 to 30 for current freshmen.

The eight-period day and the 30 credits follow the state’s decision to increase the number of credits required for graduation from 20 to 24, starting with the class of 2019. Bellingham’s heftier 30 credits isn’t intended to make school more difficult; rather, students now have the opportunity to make their educational experience more interesting and relevant.

The number of credits students can devote to electives is increasing from four to 9.5. “We’re allowing more ability for students to balance ‘have to take’ and ‘want to take,'” Career and Technical Education Director Jeff Tetrick said.

A growing number of students are already opting to spend their elective credits on CTE classes. Career and Technical Education is leaps and bounds ahead of the antiquated “three R’s” of yesteryear. Bellingham students can take Aerospace Manufacturing at a new facility at Options High School; or Forensics, Sports Medicine, Robotics or Video Game Design. All told, the 2018-19 course catalog lists 64 CTE classes.

Enrollment in high school CTE courses jumped 43 percent from 2016-17 to this year, due in large part to the new eight-period schedule. Another reason for the increase is a new required CTE class for freshmen. Technical Literacy includes lessons in digital citizenship and keyboarding — a skill teachers say has been in decline over the past several years, just as students are being asked to take standardized tests on computers.

CTE classes are geared specifically to prepare students for future careers. Boeing, the airplane maker with a strong presence in western Washington, recently visited Options and liked the district’s aerospace manufacturing facilities so much, the company is guaranteeing Bellingham Aerospace graduates the opportunity to interview for apprenticeships.

Also through the CTE program, juniors and seniors who may be at risk of dropping out can get credits for the jobs they now hold, under the guidance of Kyle Ringo, business teacher at Sehome High School. The Work-Based Learning Program occasionally honors a Student of the Month for their success in the program.

The CTE program also gives students an incentive to stay in school by offering college credit in several classes for a B grade or higher–including the required freshman Technical Literacy class.

CTE courses help eliminate barriers to higher education by teaching the skills colleges want to see in incoming students. Future engineering majors, for example, would do well to get hands-on experience in high school with machines and technology. The Bellingham schools’ robotics class provides just that. As Deputy Superintendent Michael Copland pointed out, robotics is a team-led experience that teaches students how to work together, develop leadership skills and persevere through momentary failures — the very core of the everyday skill set needed in today’s work environment.

Robotics and other “STEM” offerings–science, technology, engineering and math — are starting to achieve better balance between male and female students, Copland said, although he acknowledged the schools are seeking further improvement. The robotics classes had 6 percent female enrollment in 2013-14, but that was up to 11 percent in 2016-17. Computer programming went from 12 percent female in 2013-14 to 25 percent in 2016-17.

Bellingham schools have made a conscious effort to improve girls’ participation in STEM classes through programs such as the Innovators and Creators Club for girls at Kulshan Middle School, which has evolved into a thriving CTE program at Kulshan that recently benefited from the donation of a laser cutter — the go-to tool for custom design and manufacturing, and an everyday piece of equipment for CTE students.

A strong CTE program requires financial commitments both to expensive equipment and more teachers. Tetrick and grant writer Gretchen Pflueger have bolstered the Aerospace and Manufacturing program at all four high schools this year, with $84,000 in grants to pay for some of the industry-standard equipment students use to prepare for those “high-demand, high-wage” jobs associated with CTE. Bellngham Public Schools hired 18 new teachers over the past few years specifically for CTE, including some who brought industry expertise.

“You have to find people who can teach the content,” Copland said.

One recent staff addition who earned her teaching certificate after establishing herself in private industry was Sehome High School Sports Medicine teacher Maggie Hite. Sports Medicine has grown considerably in Bellingham schools since Hite, a certified athletic trainer, arrived three years ago. She taught one semester-long Introduction to Sports Medicine class her first year. Now she teaches 120 students, and she’ll offer Sports Medicine II starting next year.

The number of students getting industry certificates in Sports Medicine increased dramatically, from 50 in 2016 to 211 in 2017. Many of those became certified in CPR and first aid.

“We are the gateway into all health-care careers,” Hite said in an introductory video on CTE available on the school district’s CTE webpage.

Hite teaches a practicum course in which students help train high school athletes and care for their injuries. You’ll see these students running onto the field to look after an athlete who may have suffered an injury during game action.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing students spring into action and apply what they do in the classroom,” Hite said. “It’s a wonderful addition to Career and Technical Education because you get real work experience, like you would with job shadowing or a mentorship.”

Sylus Augustine, a junior at Sehome, already has more than 200 hours of practical experience as a Sports Medicine student aide. That’s enough to earn a full course credit.

“I didn’t care about the credits when I started going to games,” Augustine said. “I just enjoy the opportunity to help people.”

Photo: Sehome High School junior Sylus Augustine and Sports Medicine teacher Maggie Hite pose for a photo April 13 in the school’s Sports Medicine classroom. Hite is a certified athletic trainer.


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