Not Your Grandpa’s Woodshop

Angela Mike unpacks career and technical education in Pittsburgh.


Angela Mike, Executive Director of Career & Technical Education at Pittsburgh Public Schools / Photo: Ben Filio

Angela Mike, Executive Director of Career & Technical Education at Pittsburgh Public Schools / Photo: Ben Filio

Angela Mike’s parents worked hard to move their family into an affluent neighborhood in Pittsburgh where their children would attend Allderdice, one of the best public high schools in the city. Their goal was for Angela and her 6 siblings to attend a 4-year university. It’s understandable, then, why they bristled when she told them she wanted to attend a cosmetology program at Westinghouse in Homewood. Her parents reluctantly signed the enrollment forms, but then watched as Angela’s grades improved. She was able to earn good money doing manicures as a teenager, a job she kept through her four years at Indiana University of Pennsylvania until she got her teaching certification. Now, Angela is back at PPS as the executive director of the Career and Technology Education (CTE) programs, and she’s eager to explode all misconceptions about today’s CTE.

What made you so passionate about expanding CTE in Pittsburgh Public Schools?

CTE changed my world. I learned there are many routes to success, and some students need a different style of learning. I was one of those students. I didn’t know when I was mixing hair colors I was studying ratios or that I was learning geometry when I studied a 90-degree haircut. I was able to jump-start my career and feel engaged in project-based learning.

What does CTE look like right now at PPS?

We have 15 different programs (ranging from carpentry to finance to HVAC) at 6 different high schools across the city, plus dozens of elective courses. In a program, students commit to 3 years of coursework and spend half their school day in their area of study. Electives are single-period classes that meet either for one semester or the one school year. We are working to increase our elective offerings to middle school students, so we’ve got aerospace engineering and even a sewing course for these students. We’ve got about 3,900 students taking these exploratory electives and 500 students enrolled in our comprehensive programs.

Finance? Aerospace engineering? What happened to greasy gears and metal shop?

People imagine antiquated Vocational Education from decades ago…our students in CTE are earning cost-free industry certifications and also earning college credits while using state-of-the-art technology, learning from industry professionals as well as college instructors. If they pass their assessments, they get college credit for the work they completed as high school students. Our automotive technology students are studying programming they’ll need to operate the complex diagnostic computer systems used in the industry today. Our programs match “High-Priority Occupations” defined by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Additionally, PPS uses information from the [Partner4Work] and other organizations to align our programs with in-demand jobs in our region. CTE is no longer an either/or choice, but a both/and opportunity for success.

There’s been a lot of hype recently about the new Emergency Response Technology program at Westinghouse.

This program is completely full with a wait list. This grew from a beautiful partnership with Mayor Peduto and the City of Pittsburgh, where students can learn what they need to prepare for careers as police officers, firefighters, or paramedics.

Westinghouse is a school that doesn’t appear too successful on paper, and it’s located in a neighborhood that struggles with poverty and crime. Was it difficult for you to fill program slots in that location?

We put the program there because one of the goals set by the mayor was to increase diversity in our police force and our firefighting bureau, and [the majority of the students who attend Westinghouse are African American]. People feared nobody would enroll, but I’ve got students bussing from other schools! I’ve got students from Allderdice, University Prep…nobody thought white students would come to Homewood, but I said if you show a parent a good program, I think they’ll send their kids. We are in our second year, with good retention rates and a waiting list.

How do the CTE programs align with state curriculum requirements for high school students?

Our programs all meet common core standards and follow task lists used across the state. If you transfer from a health career program in York, you’ve been doing the same vetted activities. Our programs make the connections with math and science explicit. So our carpentry students are reviewing the Pythagorean theory. Our students are doing rigorous work that is above high-school level, so they are occupationally and academically ready for the workforce or post-secondary education by graduation

How does your students’ performance on standardized tests compare with district averages?

Our Keystone exam scores are not where they should be, but our students demonstrate wonderful success with their National Occupational Competency Testing Institute exams. This is a national standardized assessment that adults take to prove their technical competence and earn certifications. Our students see the tangible value in passing, for instance, their OSHA certification test. These certifications feel relevant to them and they use them right away. We have a carpentry student who passed his certifications and is working for the City of Pittsburgh earning $20/hr while he’s in high school, so we know our students have these necessary academic skills to experience success.

Can you tell us more about the integration of academic concepts in these hands-on environments?

We have math and English integration teachers who work with our CTE instructors. Since many of them are industry professionals, they often don’t realize they are teaching STEM skills to our students. Our integration teachers make these connections explicit, so that, for instance, the HVAC instructors see that their technical manuals are filled with high-level math. Our students are doing a lot of writing. Our health sciences students, for instance, mirror charting and record keeping that is done in health careers, so our English integration teacher works with them bedside in our facilities. Most of our students go on to continue their schooling, but are able to work at the same time because they leave with industry certifications.

So rather than work in a coffee shop during college, they find lucrative jobs?

They build their resumes in their career field, gain experience, and yes. They earn a good wage.

How do high-quality CTE offerings contribute to a more equitable, relevant, and engaging learning opportunity for students in Pittsburgh?

It’s very helpful to have opportunities when you know what you want to do. Our programs and electives offer so many transferrable skills! This opens doors for kids they might not realize are there for them. CTE might be a place they make a connection to STEM that helps them be successful on the other side of academics in here. Everyone learns differently, and this type of project based learning is equitable because it’s engaging students in a different way. If we stick with [traditional education models], we’re going to lose them.

Can you share a recent success story from one of the PPS CTE programs?

We have a young man, Eric, who amazes me. He is being raised by a single father in Homewood and bussed every day to our automotive technology program at Brashear in the south hills. For three years, Eric never missed a single day and was on time. He had to get up early to be across the city for a 7:35 AM start time. When he earned his OSHA and ASE certifications, he carried them in his wallet and would show me. He was so proud. When executives from the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Association came to tour our facility, they were so impressed they created a scholarship program for our students to attend CCAC for 2 years, and Eric won that scholarship. Eric’s books are paid for and so is his tool set. He also got a job offer that day of the tour, hired on the spot. Auto techs are in such high demand! This young, African American man from Homewood is thriving in college. It’s the dream story. It’s why I love my job.

Published January 16, 2018

Authored by: