How new CTE pathways are inspiring students to learn—and earn

Tularosa Municipal Schools
Shelli Montoya
Shelli Montoya
Shelli Montoya is the assistant superintendent of the Tularosa School District in New Mexico. She can be reached at [email protected]

My district, Tularosa Municipal Schools, is quite rural. Our student body is a fairly even mix of Caucasian, Hispanic, and Native American. We serve about 940 students, which is actually an increase of 130 students over last year. It’s common for our students to be expected to help their families financially, and many of them plan to work right here in our community without attending college after they graduate.

In light of this and the relatively large influx of students into our small district, we began building out our career and technical education (CTE) pathways. We are currently implementing 14 of the 16 pathways and even finding paid opportunities for many of our students along the way. Here’s what it looks like.

Launching CTE pathways

We hired a CTE coordinator in April of 2022, and she has made it her focus to look into all the courses. She also pulls together licenses, looks into who could teach what, ensures alignment with state requirements and standards, and provides curricula for teachers. Through her work, she helps expand our community partnerships so that local business leaders can visit as guest speakers and hire our students. There has been a lot on her plate in this first year!

Nevertheless, she managed to pull together a career fair that brought 72 people representing 32 local businesses. They spent four hours on our campus, offering 15-minute presentations, chatting with students about the jobs they offer and even accepting applications from some students.

We also launched an automotive program in the 2022-2023 school year that has partnered with a car dealership in nearby Alamogordo. We helped the head mechanic become certified to teach through the community college, and now he’s teaching on our campus for two hours each evening, Monday through Thursday. The owner of the dealership has encouraged students to apply for jobs, so they have an opportunity to get paid while they’re learning a skill set and figuring out what jobs are interesting to them.

Agriculture, construction, and healthcare are priorities for us as well because those sectors represent a lot of careers in our area. We also have a civic pathway that allows students to shadow police officers and have other experiences that give them insights into public service and law.

We’ve hired some students who are working on pathways for careers such as electrician or plumbing to do maintenance work within the district. Others who are working on a technology pathway have become an in-district “Geek Squad,” helping teachers and other students when they have trouble with their computers, printers or other technology. We’re grateful for the opportunity to pay these students as they learn, and they also play an important role in the operation of our school.

Those are a lot of programs to launch in a short time. One of the reasons it was possible at all was that we converted our existing elective classes into our new CTE pathways. It was still a big job that required working with the Bureau of College and Career Readiness at the New Mexico Public Education Department. They helped us understand the pathways, look at our existing classes and bring them into alignment. They also clarified what our teachers could teach and what additional licenses they would need.

Earning teachers’ buy-in

One of the challenges was helping teachers understand why things needed to change. For the most part, it was just getting them licensed, changing the codes on the class names, and making some tweaks to what was taught or how.

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Fortunately, they were mostly able to continue teaching the same stuff, and once they saw the benefits, they were actually excited. Changing the codes on the class names to CTE codes means that additional funding is available for those classes, and we were able to bring in approximately $1 million to purchase new furniture and technology such as smartboards, teacher computers, and student laptops. Elective teachers don’t often see that kind of investment in their programs because most schools give that money to the core subjects, so they did come to see the value in making some changes.

They still get to be elective teachers in one sense, but now their students can follow the pathway that allows them to pick up some certifications and experience to make themselves more marketable to employers.

Computer science for everyone

Our computer science program is a good example of how our CTE expansion has worked. We adopted Ellipsis Education’s curriculum because our teachers felt comfortable that they could implement it and were confident that it would be effective with students. In lower grades, we wanted to use a year-long process for computer science, while in high school we wanted to go with a semester schedule, and Ellipsis was flexible enough to be used for both.

At our intermediate school, which is grades 3-6, nearly 300 students use Ellipsis in a specials rotation. At our high school, we had a retired technology teacher who was working as an educational aid overseeing a credit-recovery program. When we launched our computer science CTE program, he said that he’d like to work full-time to help students develop those skills, and he has been phenomenal in that role.

One of the biggest challenges that we’ve encountered with computer science is that every student wants to jump right into game development. Everyone wants to build the blockbuster game that’s going to set them up for life, so we have to slow them down and make sure they follow the pathway correctly and gain some exposure to the various job opportunities in computer science. It includes game development, but it also includes fixing and troubleshooting computers, securing data and so many other possibilities.

Computer science students get paid

Our students have really taken to computer science as well. In their first year competing in an IT services competition, they came in eighth out of 24 teams in a regional competition. Shortly after we implemented our computer science curriculum, we were offered tech initiative funding to set up a help desk program run by our students. Because our students already had some computer science experience, we were able to get it off the ground in two weeks. Now they receive calls from state facilities all over New Mexico and help adults troubleshoot their technology for $15 an hour. They even have a repair depot to fix hardware. Some other schools have joined, but our students have been the only ones ready to get to work so far.

We also have a community partnership that allows students to earn money for their computer science knowledge. Tularosa Communications has provided spots for students to do cybersecurity work as well as maintenance work on their telecommunication lines.

We’re looking for more opportunities for students to earn money in computer science. We have about 10 of them currently working on the state helpline, and once students saw that they could earn money down the line, many began signing up for the initial courses that build towards that opportunity. For our students, ensuring that there’s money available at the end of the line has proven to be a huge motivator. If that money isn’t available through community partners, we’ll find a way to pay for it through the school or district. Money is always going to talk to kids, especially in poor, rural areas like ours.

I spent 13 years in high school classrooms and career-focused education was always very poorly funded. This is a really exciting time to be in education because those attitudes are changing. Not all kids have to go to a four-year college, and the world is desperately in need of the kinds of skills they can develop in CTE programs. There’s tons of funding available for it these days and we get to use it to develop these kids and see them bloom. And that’s what education is all about, right?

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