CTE surge: Sixth grade is never too early for welding!

Sixth-graders “playing with fire” may make some educators uneasy—but what about when it’s part of a hands-on CTE program? That’s the case exactly in Michigan’s Orchard View Pubic Schools, which sends sixth-graders to the local career tech center to begin exploring—and experiencing—a wide range of potential careers.

Orchard View Middle School students start their journey “career cruising” on the Xello platform, where they can connect their personal and academic interests to job fields such as computer science, welding, automotive repair and cosmetology. They are then introduced to those trades at after-school sessions at the career center.

The “Middle Vision” program, which now includes two other districts, puts students on a path to deeper career exploration in high school and also engages them more deeply in what they are learning in middle school. It also encourages students to stay on track with their grades so the are eligible to attend the career center in 11th and 12th grade, Principal Joshua Smith says.

“We’re helping these kids figure out their passions … and school make much more sense when they can say, ‘Oh, now I know I want to be in food service,'” Smith explains. “They’re more invested and more excited about school.”

About 60 students now attend two-week CTE sessions in writing and illustration, culinary arts, environmental and veterinary medicine, auto collision, medical and health sciences and cosmetology. For example, sixth-graders in the writing and illustration pathway created their own books and showed them off in a presentation to parents, Smith notes.

CTE and design thinking

The exploration continues in seventh- and eighth-grade electives where teachers have been trained in design thinking to embed career-readiness concepts into subjects such as health and STEAM.

One outcome of this process was the creation of the school’s fabrication lab. Students and a STEAM teacher were given free rein to design the space. The students did “empathy interviews” with their classmates to learn what equipment they wanted in the lab. They then built dioramas that they presented to the school board for funding.

The lab is now home to robotics and e-sports teams, among other features. “Middle school is often a time when we see kids start to disconnect,” Orchard View Superintendent Jim Nielsen says. “All of the students involved have found connections to school that weren’t available four or five years ago, and it’s been vital to our sense-of-belonging goals for our district.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is the managing editor of District Administration and a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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