CUMMING, Ga. — Providing an immersive, hands-on experience for students in the college and career development program is always a challenge. Throw in a global pandemic and the work becomes harder.

The Forsyth County Schools Board of Education this month received an update on the district’s College and Career Development/Career, Technical and Agriculture Education (CTAE) program over the past year.

The goal of the CTAE program is to prepare students with skills necessary to succeed beyond high school through partnerships with business and industry.

“There have been impacts to the program we have experienced just like everybody else over the past year,” said Valery Lowe, director of College and Career Development for the district. “[But] there were a lot of unintended ‘good’ consequences as well.”

Over the past five years, student participation in CTAE has grown from 16,000 students in 24 career pathways to nearly 22,000 students in 49 pathways. That represents nearly a third of total students enrolled in the district.

Middle schoolers begin exploring their interests in 17 different career clusters. In high school, students narrow their pathway from a choice of career options including agriculture, business, computer science, marketing, healthcare and dozens more.

Students can also apply for work-based learning or job shadowing within their pathway.

“All before graduating from high school, juniors and seniors can participate in internships [and mentorships] which connect classroom learning to an engaging job opportunity…in their chosen career pathway,” Lowe said.

This year under the constraints of COVID-19, many internships and mentorships had to be redesigned or were not available. But other opportunities opened.

“We were very worried about [internships] over the summer, especially with some of our healthcare and clinical sites since we have currently over 600 students in the [healthcare] program,” Lowe said. “But placements were found for all students.”

The district also postponed in-person visits to the Discovery Center which provides an interactive environment to apply lessons learned. The visits resumed in the second semester.

“We had to pivot on some of these [programs] and move into a virtual environment [until] we got procedures in place in terms of safety, transportation and everything else,” Lowe said.

One of the biggest disappointments this year was the loss of competitions and meetings outside the classroom. Many students are part of the Career and Technical Education Student Organizations which helps students see the practical value of their academic studies.

“Usually, this time of year we're very busy because we're going from Athens to Atlanta to different places competing, [and] obviously we're virtual now,” Lowe said. “So, we’ve got a lot of disappointed students.”

Forsyth County Schools has among the largest student participation in the program of any school district in the state.

“The number of our students involved in career tech is impressive, [but] the number of our students involved in leadership positions [within the Career Tech Student Organizations] is incredibly impressive,” Superintendent Jeff Bearden said. “I'm just really proud of the growth we've had.”

The program is also a selling point for businesses looking to come into the county because it provides the potential for a future workforce. It has also changed the look of education.

“Nothing [in CTAE] looks like the schools [we went to],” said board member Tom Cleveland. “And yet it's real learning and it’s real life…and students are going to be productive when they leave.”

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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