Technical Schools are Gaining Popularity Around the Main Line

Students who don’t fit the conventional academic mold are able to flourish at these schools.

He couldn’t even say his name. 

When Emerzon Cedano stood up to introduce himself on his first day at Central Montco Technical High School, he had no words. Mostly, he had fear. “I about passed out,” he says.

“Great,” he thought. “It was freshman year all over again.” 

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Cedano had spent nine months at Norristown High School sitting alone at lunch, remaining stone silent in class, and wishing away the long minutes and hours of the day. He was bored and unable to find friends and a comfortable place at school. A native of Mexico, he connected with no one who shared his love of photography, and he did all he could to stay invisible. “I wanted to talk,” he says. “I just never found the courage.”

Things started to change during his sophomore year. Yes, he nearly fainted when he had to say his name, but as the days passed, Cedano found Angel and Vinny, who loved the camera as much as he did. He began to talk more and even smile. 

At the beginning of this school year, Central Montco staged a public speaking competition in which students were to discuss following their dreams. Cedano entered on a whim. And he won.

How do you characterize such a metamorphosis? The answer is relatively simple: Cedano finally found something that ignited his passion and showed him what his future might be. His confidence grew, and he blossomed from an unsure, awkward teenager into a young man whose future is bright. He now speaks with a sense of purpose, looking others squarely in the eye.

Central Montco Tech is filled with stories like Cedano’s. Some gravitate toward automotive technology, engineering or construction, while others choose the culinary arts, cosmetology or plumbing. For Alejandra Villanueva, it was healthcare. “I wanted something new,” says Villanueva, a senior from Conshohocken who attends Plymouth Whitemarsh High School half the day. “I saw that [Central Montco] could open different things for me.”

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While Villanueva has been accepted to Elizabethtown College, she plans to spend two years at Montco to save money before transferring to complete a nursing degree. CMTHS director Walter Slauch says that 70 percent of students go on to postsecondary education—be it a four-year or community college or a certification program. The old image of tech students as troublemakers or inadequate students is largely gone, replaced by a collection of young people looking for career paths in fields that interest them. 

Cedano plans to start a business photographing weddings and other events. He expects to attend community college and perhaps apply to Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. He also has his own website, where he displays the portraits he’s taken. 

Cedano has found a mentor in Fred McCarthy, Central Montco’s digital media instructor and a tech-school alum. “I have a question,” says McCarthy. “When did it become a bad thing to work hard?”

On the Main Line, party discussions among parents often revolve around their kids’ collegiate destinations, and status is conferred by the accomplishments of our offspring. So is it any surprise that the tech-school path is so often looked upon with disdain? CMTHS’ Slauch has friends in the academic world who laud the work he and his staff do, though they typically offer this quick disclaimer: “I wouldn’t send my kids there.”

It’s a long-held viewpoint that perpetuates the stereotype that tech students lack the intelligence to manage standard college-prep work and are destined for inadequate futures.

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This past February, Pennsylvania state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr. was excoriated for saying that poor students from Philadelphia would be better served in tech schools than on collegiate tracks. Critics called his remarks racist, arguing that he was denigrating the intelligence of blacks by maintaining that they are unfit for college. Funny how no one stood up for the tech and career schools. What’s wrong with the work they do? Why should their students be considered unfit for more stringent academic work? The “less intensive track” Eichelberger described is often one of fulfillment and success.

“I suffered from the same stereotypes,” McCarthy says. “I was looked at as a troublemaker and called dumb. They said, ‘Why did you go to tech school?’ If I sat in a cube all day, I’d get in trouble. But when I work with my hands, I’m happy.” 

According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, students with only high school diplomas earned, on average, 56 percent less than their college-educated counterparts in 2015. But technical and career-school grads often don’t end their training in high school. And by starting early in specific fields, they can tailor postsecondary instruction to their individual needs. “Here’s the misconception: People believe this is the terminal end, where you send kids who don’t intend to go to college or where you send
bad kids,” says Slauch. “Our students go to post-secondary schools, and we’ve given them a leg up—a three-year opportunity to work out whether they like what they’re doing.”

Just about everybody who works in career and technical education has the same view: Get people in the door to see what’s going on, and their perceptions will change, almost immediately. Phil Lachimia, director of Delaware County Technical High Schools, recalls a 2006 tour with Sharon Parker, then the new superintendent of the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District. At the time, enrollment from Strath Haven High School in the Delco program was low, and attitudes toward the idea of tech education were poor. “She told me she expected to find a lot of disenfranchisement and students who were not engaged,” Lachimia says. “She saw exactly the opposite.”

Within a year, enrollment from the district in tech programs swelled to “at least double,” says Lachimia. 

Lachimia and his fellow administrators can certainly talk to others about what happens inside the schools. But unless people see it in person, there is no real impact.

And there is a lot to see. Since these schools are preparing students for careers in specific fields, it’s imperative they have the most modern equipment and substantial room to provide training that will translate directly to the workplace. 

At Central Montco, that means a collection of “classrooms” that hardly replicate the usual model of desks, whiteboards and the occasional A/V setup. The school opened in 1967. It was remodeled in 2007 at a cost of $20 million. The result is a space perfectly suited for technical and career curriculums. The school was designed to encourage creativity, with plenty of open spaces. Most traditional facilities are a little more confined.

The auto technology center mimics the
service area of a dealership. There are several lifts students can use to work on cars, and people from the community often drop off their vehicles for repairs that come at a significant discount. While the days are gone when local sales managers would deliver new trucks to be taken apart and put back together, with the requirement that they’d never be driven off the premises, there are plenty of projects underway and a tremendous amount of equipment for training purposes. Included is a mammoth frame straightener, which Slauch values at about $50,000. 

“Everything we do is designed to replicate what goes on in the industry,” Slauch says. “We own pieces of equipment you don’t see in an ordinary high school. We try to give real-world experience. If a student’s goal is to go into an entry-level job, then we feel we’ve done our job.”

Students at tech and career high schools typically spend three years in a program that involves a few hours a day there. The rest of the day unfolds at their “home” high schools. 

Villanueva studies English, anatomy and infectious diseases at Plymouth Whitemarsh and participates in Central Montco’s health sciences program in the afternoon, with the ultimate goal of becoming an R.N. Cedano takes English, history, geometry and P.E. at Norristown High School and studies photography and other visual arts at the tech center. It’s a balance designed to provide crucial real-world training and an academic base that will prepare students for postsecondary study.

Other instructional areas at Central Montco include a cosmetology center that resembles a modern salon, with local residents arriving frequently for haircuts, manicures and other treatments. The school has a restaurant with a professional kitchen that serves meals throughout the day. “We’ll sell you a steak for $4, but the person cooking the steak may be doing it for the first time,” Slauch says, explaining the commercial realities of a good deal. 

As the economy changes and the characteristics of the job market become ever more unpredictable, it’s important to provide programs that go beyond today’s employment offerings. By next year, the Chester County Intermediate Unit—which oversees three schools—will be providing four new instructional paths: engineering and advanced manufacturing, CNC precision machining, media systems technology, and avionics. “We’re looking at future employment needs and matching them to our curriculum,” says Kirk Williard, director of the Career, Technical & Customized Education division at the CCIU. 

The CCIU relies on a collection of advisory committees, made up of employers in the region, to advise instructors on how to cover the right material and ensure that the schools acquire the proper equipment for emerging fields. Chester County adds an interesting twist to the equation by partnering with a variety of colleges—including Immaculata, Delaware County Community College and Harcum—to give students the chance to accrue postsecondary credits that will transfer to other four- and two-year schools. 

Williard tells of one young woman who accumulated 32 college credits while in high school and entered Temple’s nursing program as a full sophomore. This year, there are 217 in the “dual enrollment” program earning 1,311 credits at a total student cost of $24,000. Williard estimates the total value of the college work they’re completing at $521,000. 

The Eastern Center for Arts and Technology in Willow Grove serves nine Montgomery County school districts. It offers many of the same programs as its counterparts, but recently introduced veterinary sciences and a “Business and Technical Professional” path, designed to help students build the skills to work in and manage offices. 

Executive director Tom Allen studied automotive tech in high school and worked for a few years in the field before switching to the world of education. “It’s a really interesting myth that you have to go to college to be successful and that a career in technical education is a dead end,” he says. “People think that, once you study to be a plumber, you’re always a plumber. These myths continue. They were around when I was in school, and they’re not true.”

Glenn Siegele casts a worried look around his 80-person staff at Omega Design Corporation in Lionville. It’s not about sales. Things are going well for the company, which manufactures packaging machinery for pharmaceutical and lifestyle companies. “We sell the machines that process, handle and fill bottles that hold various products,” he says. 

Instead, Siegele is wondering who will replace the more than 25 employees who are likely to retire by the middle of next decade. “Thanks to the graying of America, one-third of our workforce is likely to retire in the next five to seven years,” he says. 

For Siegele and Omega, the CCIU’s three-year program is a godsend. He has input into the programming taught in the engineering and advanced manufacturing classes. He uses students as interns, and then he hires them after they graduate. While they work their way from the manufacturing floor to testing sites to roles as field reps, Omega provides them wages and helps pay for their post-secondary training. The result is an educated workforce with substantial experience and the opportunity to make “good wages to raise families,” says Siegele. 

By the time graduates of Chester County tech and college high schools are in their mid-20s, they can have college degrees, six or more years of work experience, and career paths that allow for continued growth and good salaries. “And the skills are transferable,” Siegele says. “People aren’t getting pigeonholed. Our workers can move into any kind of manufacturing work. The guy down the street making washing machines needs the same kind of skills we do—electro-mechanical technicians.”

When Tim Hilsey hears anybody denigrate the value of a technical-school education, he has to laugh. With driverless cars on the horizon, repairs will require a computer scientist more than a traditional mechanic. “If you can’t operate a computer, forget it,” says the parts and service director at Hill Cadillac in Newtown Square. “Today’s technician has to be one of the smartest people out there.”

Hilsey makes use of students from the Delco tech high schools to assist his senior mechanics. The older workers have the knowledge but are “slowing down,” he says. 

The youngsters can handle some of the more physical components of the work while learning from the experienced hands. As they become more experienced, they can move up the ranks. An A-level tech can make between $80,000-100,000—and those who start their own businesses can earn much more. 

“The schools do a fabulous job preparing the kids,” says Hilsey. “They’re ready to work and have the foundation for a career.” 

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