Newark has an employment problem — and the school district wants to help.
While more than half of jobs in the city pay more than $40,000 annually, just 10 percent of those jobs go to Newark residents. Instead, most Newarkers have lower-paying jobs, while about 8 percent are unemployed.
The mayor has targeted local employers, challenging them last year to hire 2,020 Newark residents by 2020. Now, the school system is focused on the other side of the equation: training workers.
“We can hire more Newark residents,” said interim schools Superintendent Robert Gregory, “but we need to make sure that they’re prepared for the positions that they step into.”
To do that, Newark Public Schools is looking to strengthen and expand its vocational programs — also called “career and technical education,” or CTE — that provide students with in-demand job skills and sometimes even college credit by the time they graduate high school. Many Newark high schools advertise programs in fields ranging from carpentry and engineering to cosmetology and the performing arts, but some disappeared after teachers left and many are not recognized by the state.
Gregory said he wants to “revamp” the district’s vocational offerings so that there’s a “seamless pipeline” from schools to jobs — whether students choose to enter the workforce right after high school, attend college, or get specialized job training. To oversee the effort, the district recently brought on Chamiris Mantrana, a former teacher and vice principal at Technology High School who began her career as a chemical engineer. She said that, just a few years ago, vocational education got scant attention from the district.
“Then all of a sudden,” Mantrana said, “we’re back again.”
It won’t be easy to shore up the district’s vocational programs. Many schools struggle to find qualified teachers with up-to-date industry skills, and to offer programs matched to the demands of local employers. Meanwhile, the county-run vocational and technical, or “vo-tech,” schools offer selective programs that lure away many of the district’s top students.
To help navigate those challenges, the district has joined a new coalition of Newark industry and education leaders called the Newark CTE Network. The group, which hopes to steer more students into high-quality vocational programs, held its first meeting Monday.
It was founded after regional employers complained that they couldn’t find workers for “middle-skill” jobs — electricians, dental hygienists, or crane operators, for instance — that require specialized skills but not four-year college degrees, said Monique Baptiste-Good, vice president of programs for Newark Alliance, who co-founded the network with the nonprofit, Schools That Can Newark. At the same time, many schools are unsure what types of vocational programs to offer, Baptiste-Good added.
“Right now, a lot of institutions are just researching online,” she said. “There’s no reason for that when you’ve got industry leaders right here.”
The network’s inaugural meeting was held in the downtown offices of the Newark Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes the city’s economic revitalization. About a dozen people gathered in a sixth-floor conference room including Mantrana, her counterparts at the county and the state education department, and representatives of local education-focused nonprofits and employers.
Most agreed that a top challenge is attracting qualified teachers, who must have a special CTE certificate issued by the state. Individuals who have studied or worked in certain industries can get provisional teaching certificates, but they must then undergo two years of classroom supervision and coursework to become fully certified.
Convincing skilled workers to switch to a lower-paid profession with a demanding certification process all to teach teenagers is not easy, several people said. Dicxiana Carbonell, assistant superintendent of the Essex County vo-tech district, which serves about 2,200 students across four high schools and adult-education programs, said she recently interviewed a prospective automotive-technology teacher. An automotive technician for BMW, the interviewee’s current salary topped $150,000.
“How do we compete with that?” she said.
The difficulty of finding qualified teachers can lead schools to offer vocational courses based on their teachers’ certifications, rather than employer demands. Gregory, the interim superintendent, said the district has “a lot of archaic CTE programs that are not mapped to current industries.”
And while several of the system’s roughly 15 high schools offer CTE classes in areas including dentistry, the performing arts, and telecommunications, only a handful have programs that meet the state’s stringent requirements, said Mantrana, who became the district’s special assistant for CTE earlier this year. (The requirements include at least three sequential courses, a combination of classroom and hands-on learning experiences, and a culminating skills assessment.)
The district is looking to create more state-approved programs, which would make them eligible to receive federal funding that could be used to buy updated equipment and curriculum materials. Officials want those programs to tap into local job markets. For instance, Gregory said, the district is launching a transportation and logistics program that could help prepare students to work at the nearby ports, which have been criticized for hiring few local workers.
To design the new programs, the district has turned to local universities such as Rutgers and New Jersey Institute of Technology. It has also partnered with the group Schools That Can Newark, a nonprofit focused on real-world learning.
A couple years ago, the group helped West Side High School build an advanced manufacturing program from scratch — a labor-intensive process that involved finding a curriculum, setting up mentoring and internship opportunities, and establishing an advisory committee with industry representatives.
Now the group is partnering with other high schools, advising the district on its CTE strategy, and helping lead the Newark CTE Network. Its goal is for every Newark high-school student to have the chance to take high-quality vocational classes that lead to well-paying jobs, said Erin Sweeney, the group’s executive director.
“You should have employers that are lined up,” she said, “ready to grab those kids when they graduate.”