Photos courtesy of Tempe Union High School District

Ask Hannah Watkins, a senior at Marcos de Niza High School, about her most valuable experience, and she’ll quickly list the four Career & Technical Education (CTE) programs she’s completed. Her diverse curriculum has included culinary arts, criminal justice, construction technology, and early childhood development.

“Once I transferred to Marcos, I discovered the hands-on nature of the CTE programs,” Watkins says. “From field trips to certifications, I fell in love with everything. The skills I’ve gained have been invaluable both inside and outside of school.” Currently working at a fast-food establishment, Watkins applies her culinary expertise daily, noting that her food handler’s card, obtained through her Culinary Arts class, was instrumental in securing her job.

CTE programs have been integral to the U.S. education system for over a century, originating in the early 1920s following federal legislation by then-President Woodrow Wilson. Despite a decline in support and popularity during the 1980s and 1990s, when the concept was more narrowly defined as “vocational education,” today’s CTE landscape has undergone a renaissance.

These days, CTE has exploded in popularity, and programs have been developed to directly cater to both student interests and future job opportunities. Tempe Union High School District (TUHSD) offers 62 CTE programs across six high schools and almost half of the district’s 11,500 students are currently enrolled in a CTE program.

Programs offer students hands-on training, internships, and the opportunity to tap into the latest technology and trends of a given industry. And unlike the former “vocational” programs, CTE programs can culminate in postsecondary degrees or certificates.

Students also work with industry professionals and receive certification upon completion of programs that allow them to take their classroom learning and apply it to the real world.

“These [CTE] programs have helped me to earn multiple certifications ranging from a guard card to a food handler card,” Watkins says. “These have granted me multiple job opportunities currently and will help me to prepare for my future.”
Tempe Union has industry advisors for all CTE programs and students are required to have multiple direct industry interactions every year.

Warren Cole, who serves as a program lead for the district’s Film & TV programs, says that having industry experts “on call” benefits everyone in the program. “We want our students to be relevant in the job market when they graduate, and one of the best ways to do that is with our advisory committee,” Cole says. “They give us support and insight so that we can stay up to date with our curriculum, and they even help arrange field trips, workshops, and guest speaker events for our students.”

Ultimately, all programs are designed to provide maximum opportunities for high school students to learn in-demand skills and provide a fast track to the workforce.

“CTE truly empowers students with wisdom and skills they can use throughout their entire careers and daily lives,” says Director of Career & Technical Education at TUHSD Eric Sorenson. “Not only does CTE give students an environment to discover their passion, but it also gives guidance, so their passion is given purpose and a pathway for further education and career development.”

Cloe Bolen, who graduated from McClintock High School in 2023, participated in the Film & TV program during high school, and it gave her a new outlook on what she wanted to do with her future. She is currently in her second semester at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“Film & TV opened up a whole new world for me and it truly changed my high school experience,” Bolen says. “I gained communication and teamwork skills through daily collaboration in the classroom by creating video announcements for my school. Until I took this class, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the future. I was immediately hooked and knew this was something I had to pursue.”

Each February, the Association for Career and Technical Education celebrates CTE Month, and the TUHSD Governing Board took the opportunity to showcase both CTE teachers and students during their February 21 board meeting.
There was much to celebrate – results from the annual review by Arizona’s Department of Education (ADE) had come back and all 62 of Tempe Union’s CTE programs were ranked as fully compliant, with 95% ranked as “distinguished quality,” which is the highest rating that ADE gives out.

Four programs throughout the district received perfect scores for both compliance and quality: Marketing programs at both McClintock and Desert Vista, the McClintock Film & TV program, and Photography at Corona del Sol.

“We are so proud of our CTE students and their accomplishments, and we celebrate all of our CTE educators who provide both the education and inspiration for our students to learn and succeed in these areas of industry,” says Dr. Stacia Wilson, Tempe Union’s superintendent. “These programs are truly exemplary and prepare students for their future by meeting them in the present.”

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This content sponsored by Tempe Union High School District.