Career technical education opportunities at Jasper High School — and in the county as a whole — are continuing to change the lives of students.
"With a new school came new opportunities for career and technical education," Beth Kennedy said at the beginning of her speech to the Rotary Club of Jasper on Tuesday.
Kennedy serves as an assistant principal and is the director of career and technical education at Jasper High School. She told Rotarians of the many career tech options that Jasper High students can take advantage of — some of which are only offered at the school.
She said five main career tech pathways are available for students at Jasper High, including culinary arts, work-based learning, precision machining, business management and administration, and the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program.
All of the programs offer certification opportunities that ultimately help students secure employment after high school.
When Jasper High was constructed, special career tech classrooms were structured to provide hands-on training. The school's culinary students get to cook in an industrial kitchen. There is a special classroom area of JROTC students that includes a firing range and a space to store uniforms, and health science students get to practice medical skills in a realistic hospital setting.
Kennedy said 100 youth participate in JROTC, including 30 students from Walker County Schools.
"We have multiple kids that go into the military and find their place," she said. "It's a game-changer for so many students. It can truly, truly change lives."
The health science area of the high school, equipped with hospital beds and equipment is referred to as the Jasper High School Medical Center. Students in that program can earn their patient care technician certification.
"It's incredible. We have three hospital rooms, an ICU room. We have everything it takes, almost, to make it seem real," Kennedy said.
Jasper City Schools students also participate in a number of programs at the Walker County Center of Technology and Bevill State Community College.
She said the partnership between both school systems and the college will continue to be critical in the years to come, so that students can take advantage of all career tech options in the county, regardless of what high school they attend.
Of the 16 career tech pathways available, Kennedy said 14 are offered in Walker County between both school systems and the college.
Kennedy said one challenge is exposing students to all the career tech options available, and she said the sooner students can know what programs are out there, the better.
"We've got 60 to 65 percent of our students who need to be in a CTE program, and they don't need to realize it when they're seniors in high school," she said.
To increase career tech exposure, Jasper Jr. High School has implemented Project Lead the Way programs that involve STEM activities and an introduction to career tech pathways.
Kennedy said the junior high school is currently offering a robotics program and medical detectives activities for students interested in engineering and medicine.
Another challenge in career tech education is scheduling conflicts. According to Kennedy, many high school students who play sports find it challenging to also juggle the demands of career tech studies. However, she said coaches have been working closely with career tech programs to make scheduling work.
She said the school is also committed to offering career tech options to advanced placement students who also wish to pursue a technical degree.
Kennedy spoke of the stigma that has long surrounded career tech education. Like many career tech leaders across the state, she's hoping to change the perception that career tech is only for students who aren't planning to pursue a four-year degree after high school.
To illustrate her point, she showed a breakdown of the most popular professions in the state of Alabama — the majority of which are in career tech fields.
"Career tech is workforce development," she said. "It is soft skills, technical skills, and it's building leaders."
Prior to Kennedy's speech, Lisa Myers was inducted into the Rotary Club of Jasper. Rotary member Josh Gates was also recognized as a Paul Harris Fellow. The honor recognizes those who have contributed or have contributions in their name of $1,000 or more to The Rotary Foundation.