Can Burlington Build a Tech Center That Meets the Region’s Needs? | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Can Burlington Build a Tech Center That Meets the Region’s Needs?

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Published May 25, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Victor Colon (left) and Austin Daigneault disassembling a plane engine at the Burlington Technical Center - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • Victor Colon (left) and Austin Daigneault disassembling a plane engine at the Burlington Technical Center

Braeden Stevens was a sophomore at Milton High School when he learned about the Burlington Technical Center's aviation and aerospace technology program, the only one of its kind in the state.

"I'm not one to sit in the classroom," Stevens said. "It looked cool." 

So, he enrolled. Now a senior, Stevens has spent the past two years learning how to take apart engines, use a welding machine and taxi an airplane.

As the Burlington School District prepares to build a new tech center, it's eyeing ways to attract more students like Stevens: expanding its aviation program with a $10 million federal grant, possibly adding construction and urban agriculture programs, and creating a bigger space that will allow for larger enrollment.

Still, some in Chittenden County have questioned whether district leaders have fully considered how a new center could best serve the region. The district's plans will have implications not just for Burlington students, they argue, but for all students in the region — and for the state's economy, as well.

Across Vermont, 5,000 students attend the state's 17 career and technical centers, developing skills that will launch them into jobs in a range of fields, including nursing, cybersecurity, digital media and construction.

In 2019, just 53 percent of the state's working-age population held any credential of value — defined as an associate's, bachelor's or graduate degree; professional license; or industry-recognized certification. Students who attend tech centers can earn those credentials "and immediately hit the labor market and have the skills needed to get a high-quality job," or can further pursue education, said Tom Cheney, executive director of the Winooski-based workforce development organization Advance Vermont.

Despite the potential benefits of technical education, barriers discourage students from enrolling. Some are deterred by long bus rides or because the program they want is full. Others simply lack knowledge about what's offered.

In Chittenden County, only about 15 percent of high schoolers attend the region's two tech centers, Burlington and the Center for Technology, Essex; the state average is 30 percent.

Based on a Vermont Agency of Education survey, students at Cold Hollow Career Center in Enosburg Falls have a clearer understanding of how tech programs can prepare them for high-skill, high-wage, in-demand jobs than students at the Essex tech center, according to the agency's career and technical education director, Ruth Durkee. That leads Durkee to believe that students and parents in some regions are better informed than others about alternative education paths.

Students and their families in Chittenden County may not fully grasp the level of sophistication in today's programs. Compare a car made in 1960 to a 21st-century Prius or Tesla, Burlington Technical Center director Jason Gingold said, and you'll get a sense of how tech ed has changed in the decades since today's parents were teens.

His automotive students aren't just learning how to use a wrench or change a tire, Gingold explained, but how to operate complex computer and electrical systems. As aviation and aerospace technology instructor Jason Cooper put it: "This is not woodshop."

Jason Cooper at the Burlington Technical Center - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • Jason Cooper at the Burlington Technical Center

Sixty-two percent of last year's Burlington Technical Center students earned college credits, and 91 percent of its graduates went on to college, employment or the military. Gingold points to that as evidence that tech centers are doing a good job of preparing students for the future.

And yet, as Burlington prepares to build a new, modern tech center, some board members from neighboring districts whose students will attend the program say the district needs to hear from a broader cross-section of stakeholders in the region to chart the right path.

"This is probably going to be the biggest investment in technical education for 30 to 40 years," Mount Mansfield Unified Union school board member Chuck Lacy told Burlington school commissioners last month. Lacy, who is president of the venture capital Barred Rock Fund and served as president of Ben & Jerry's from 1990 to 1995, has been outspoken in his call for regional collaboration.

Others joined him at a Burlington School Board meeting to urge its leaders to include the eight other school districts served by the Burlington Technical Center in planning for the new center.

"I invite you to open up the process ... to create the appropriate seats at the proverbial table for all sending districts as a way to share both the burden and the opportunity," Champlain Valley School District school board chair Angela Arsenault told the Burlington school commissioners.

The state is divided into 15 technical center regions; students in each typically have just one tech center they're eligible to attend. But, because of Chittenden County's large population, students in its eight high schools, as well as Bellows Free Academy-Fairfax in Franklin County, can choose between Burlington and Essex. About 64 percent of the Burlington tech center's 235 students and 75 percent of the Essex center's 363 students come from outside their respective school districts.

Lacy argues that the Burlington School District has "a fiduciary responsibility" to the 7,300 high school students in the region to ensure that the new tech center is a good fit for all.

"Your job is to provide equitable access to all students," Lacy wrote to the board.

Burlington superintendent Tom Flanagan seemed receptive to that message at a recent meeting of the advisory board for Chittenden County's tech centers. Every tech center region is required by state statute to have such a group, composed of representatives from each school district. Flanagan said that even though a conceptual design has been selected, there's still plenty of time to refine the specifics based on feedback from other districts.

Flanagan said he and Essex Westford School District superintendent Beth Cobb are planning to invite the districts in the region to a collaborative planning session this summer.

Architect Carl Franceschi of DRA Architects, one of the firms designing the new center, told the regional advisory board he's well aware of the importance of planning the tech center with flexible spaces that can be converted to different uses as needs change.

Lacy and regional advisory board cochair Mary Anne Sheahan have also questioned whether the tech centers in Burlington and Essex are collaborating enough. Essex already has a robust construction trades program, for example, so Lacy wonders whether Burlington needs to create its own.

Gingold and Bob Travers, director of the Essex center, said they do communicate regularly and work together to try to accommodate all students in the area who are interested in tech ed.

Essex's tech center is a full-time program, with academic subjects such as English and math offered on-site, while Burlington offers half-day programming, so the centers might appeal to different students, Gingold said. For example, some might choose Burlington rather than Essex because they still want to be able to take some classes at their home high school.

There's a waiting list for Essex's construction trades classes, Travers said, so it makes sense for Burlington to explore a similar program. The state comprehensively reviews new programs to guard against unnecessary duplication.

Another issue Lacy and others have raised is whether tech center programming can be more decentralized — using remote or hybrid instruction or setting up off-site programs — to cut down on transportation time for students from different towns.

"We don't bus kids across the county to take English or physical education. We don't need to do it for engineering or digital media, either," Lacy wrote in a recent op-ed. "We need less tech infrastructure and more tech faculty serving students where they are — in their own high schools."

The Essex center is taking baby steps by launching an advanced manufacturing class for sophomores at Mount Mansfield Union High School in Jericho next year, hoping it leads to a new advanced manufacturing program for juniors and seniors at the tech center.

But the Chittenden County tech centers' administrators said they also see advantages to having all programs housed under one roof.

When Burlington's center was abruptly shuttered in fall 2020 after the discovery of PCB contamination, the district had to scramble to figure out where students would go. Its 11 programs had to be spread over nine locations; this year, they're on five sites.

Transportation, delivering meals, safety and communication pose challenges, Gingold said. Recruiting is harder because students can't visit a central location to learn about all of the center's offerings. Scattered programs also hinder the sense of community.

Gingold is leaving the tech center in June to become the principal of Montpelier High School. Its next director will have a lot to manage. Milton Elementary School assistant principal Fieh Chan is the sole finalist for the position but has not officially been named to the role. Six years ago, Chan built a new STEM Academy at Stafford Technical Center in Rutland from the ground up.

At an online public forum on May 12, he fielded questions about his vision for Burlington's tech center. Outreach to other school districts is critical, Chan said.

"We want to make it easy for students to have this experience," Chan said, "and they may find a lifelong passion."

Or perhaps just a clear path to a good-paying job.

Braeden Stevens, the aviation program student, personifies the potential tech centers hold. In the fall, he'll attend a one-year, postsecondary program at Burlington International Airport run by the tech center. Upon completion, he'll be able to earn his aircraft mechanic certificate.

Stevens is looking forward to it. So are his parents, who Stevens said were ecstatic and relieved when they realized he'd finally found an academic program that captured his attention. 

The original print version of this article was headlined "Tall Order"

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