By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer
Dylan Orbaugh gave up his study hall this year to take a physical therapy class at the Kokomo Area Career Center.
He was almost certain he wanted to pursue a medical career after graduation. That’s where his plan ended, though.
Orbaugh enrolled in the new career center course in an effort to narrow his focus. He would either hate the class and figure out that physical therapy wasn’t the career for him, or he would love it and make it his major in college, he said.
The Kokomo High School senior just submitted his application to Indiana University. He’s crossing his fingers and hoping he’s accepted into the university’s pre-physical therapy program.
“This class was perfect for me,” he said. “It will save me the hassle of taking a class in college thinking it’s something I want to do and being completely blown out of the water realizing it’s not for me. I’m saving a lot of money I’m sure.”
Orbaugh is among the more than 1,300 students from 10 area schools who are enrolled at the career center this year.
Enrollment has continued to climb over the past two years.
More students are realizing the value of career and technical education courses, said James Stradling, the career center director.
State officials are beginning to see that value, too.
“The time has come to make career, technical and vocational education a priority in every high school in Indiana,” Gov. Mike Pence said in his State of the State address Tuesday night.
Not every student is going to be college bound, but they all deserve the same opportunity for success, he said.
Stradling said it’s about time Indiana officials realize what he’s known for years — that these classes are important, too.
“It’s great news that the state is finally catching on,” he said.
The governor called for creating regional councils that would work with businesses and educators
to tailor high school vocational programs to available jobs.
Stradling is already envisioning the benefits of that.
“These councils could open up some avenues for our kids,” he said.
He sees it leading to more internships and work cooperatives with local businesses. Stradling called that a “double win.”
The employer gets to see the student’s work ethic and potentially train a future employee.
It would also benefit students like Orbaugh who aren’t initially sure what kind of job they want, he said.
But Stradling pointed out that the career center is ahead of the pack in some respects.
Officials there already choose programs that are in high demand. As part of that, they consider the local job market.
They’re constantly monitoring the labor market statistics.
Traditional jobs like doctors and lawyers aren’t in as much demand anymore, Stradling said.
“We need the same percentage of doctors and lawyers as we did when our moms and dads were in school,” he said. “If you want to go where the job market is growing, you need to go to these technical careers.”
These are careers that need more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree, Stradling said.
The career center has 15 programs.
Some of them are stepping stones to an associates degree or even a bachelor’s degree, like the physical therapy course Orbaugh took.
Stradling said the beauty of their programs is that many of them offer dual-credit courses.
A student could potentially be halfway to an associates degree by the time they graduate high school, he said.
Last year students earned 834 credits from Ivy Tech, 444 from Vincennes University, 25 from the University of Southern Indiana and 21 from Purdue University.
Students in the cosmetology and certified nursing assistant programs are ready to launch their careers as soon as they leave high school, though.
The career center courses prepare them to take their state boards after graduation.
The bottom line is that career and technical education courses provide students with an alternative path to success, Stradling said.
That’s part of the reason the career center expanded to allow some eighth graders to attend.
Career and technical education students seem to enjoy their classes more and are more likely to stay motivated in school, he said.
“We have students getting A’s in our classes who aren’t doing so well in math or science or social studies,” Stradling said. “They’re motivated. Hopefully that reduces dropout rates and increases graduation rates.”
He said in his address that vocational courses can launch entrepreneurs, give kids a reason to finish high school and create a well-qualified workforce that will encourage businesses to build here and grow here.
Stradling said he was encouraged by Pence’s words. But maintaining good vocational programs will require the state to fully fund public schools. Whether that will happen remains to be seen, he said.
“We need to wait and see if he’s going to put his money where his mouth is,” Stradling said.