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CT's Technical High Schools-Preparing Students For Much More Than Just A Job

AnnabelleDiaz-VicePrincipal-PrinceTechAnabelle Diaz, Prince Tech’s vice principal

Bill Sarno

When Anabelle Diaz entered A.I. Prince Technical High School in Hartford about 20 years ago, the Puerto Rico-born teenager had a specific vision of what she wanted to achieve.
The Hartford resident’s goal was to earn a high school diploma and a license in hairdressing and cosmetology. These would be the tickets to take her beyond the tough neighborhood where she grew up.
However, along the way she learned that the Connecticut Technical School System is all about choices and options. The path she elected eventually brought her back to Prince Tech where she is now a vice principal, supervises 26 instructors and serves as a role model to Latino students. She also is on the verge of earning a doctorate in educational leadership with a focus on adolescent literacy.
Within the state’s Latino population, there is a growing awareness that through the tech schools students can develop a  “Plan A and a Plan B” for their careers, as well as learn in an atmosphere that supports diversity, says Diaz.
As of last October, the last time figures were tabulated, 3,566 of the 10,790 full-time students enrolled in the 18-school Connecticut Technical High School System were classified as Hispanic or Latino. This compares to the state’s overall population which is about 14 percent Latino.
The technical high school that young Latinos are lining up to attend are not their grandparents’ vocational schools. These schools now offer a well-rounded academic experience plus an opportunity for state-of-the-art training in a variety of fields, some traditional like automotive, and others cutting edge, such as health care for the elderly and the financial side of the business world.
Diaz credits one of her role models, Dr. Nivea Torres, who is superintendent of the CTTHS system, with the vision to take the tech schools far beyond just being vocational schools.
Last year about 50 percent of the CTHSS’s 2,000 graduates went on to a two- or four-year college, another 7 percent enrolled in work and study or educational programs, more than 30 percent went directly into the civilian workforce and 3-5 percent entered the military.
Among those who chose the career path is Jose Alves of Danbury.  When he was considering where to attend high school, he was showing an interest in electrical work and his mother suggested he go to Henry Abbott Tech, the local state technical school. Five years later, he says, “I loved it. … .the whole nine yards.”
When he graduated last June, Alves, who is of Brazilian descent, had to make another choice between two potential employers. He chose a local company where almost all the staff were Abbott Tech grads.
At Prince Tech, Diaz found she had a love of education, which was nurtured by teachers who recognized that she was college material. She graduated second in her class and was the salutatorian.
“So, I said, ‘let’s give college a try,” she said, and enrolled at Central Connecticut State University. In doing so, she drew upon the experience of another role model, her mother Ana Santiago, who when Anabelle was eight, bought one-way tickets for her family to come to the United States. She took a big risk leaving Puerto Rico as a single mother, Diaz said, but provided an example of how, through perseverance and drive, that one could make progress toward the “American Dream.
Diaz went on to earn both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the New Britain school. “Central is my academic family,” she says, adding that the concept of family means a lot in her Hispanic culture.
As for a career, after nearly a dozen years as an art teacher, she decided to “go home,” and became an assistant principal at Prince Tech about two years ago. The school is still the “safe haven” that attracted Diaz 20 years ago, but she has noticed significant changes.
“I am so amazed at the transformation,” Diaz said. In her student days, she recalled, Prince Tech was more of a vocational high school, with a focus on preparing students for trades.
“Now the focus is on college readiness, and providing a bridge between the trade and academic areas,” she said. “We are preparing students to master college and career readiness standards.”
Diaz is currently the only Latino administrator at Prince Tech and goes back and forth between English and Spanish in talking to the students and parents.
The tech schools are actively recruiting diverse applicants and staff, said Dr. Torres. This includes having faculty that can work with English language learners (ELL), a need which has required additional resources at some schools, said the Puerto Rico-born Torres whose credentials include a master’s degree in English as a second language.
At Prince Tech, there are ELL specialists who co-teach with the regular instructors. “Many are Hispanics themselves and have an excellent relationship with the ELL students,” Diaz said.
A similar situation exists at Abbott Tech. Gabriella Cercere, who graduated from the Danbury school’s culinary program in 2014, said “If you don’t speak English, all the teachers are really great in providing help.”
At the same time, for Cercere, who is not Hispanic and moved to Danbury from a mostly white suburb, the diversity of the student body was a plus. “You get comfortable with different styles and culture” and learn to talk with people from diverse populations, said Cecere, who was president of the National Honor Society at Abbott Tech.
Many of the tech schools are located near urban areas where Spanish and Portuguese speaking newcomers to this country are clustered, which is seen as an asset.
Accessibility to the type of higher education the tech schools offer from urban centers is important to pull families out of poverty, said Richard C. Mullins Jr., executive assistant to the president for community and business programs.
Moreover, the CTHSS programs are essential to develop the abilities that the state’s workforce needs, said Mullins, who also directs CCSU’s Institute of Technology and Business Development.
What the tech schools are teaching includes basic academics and a wide range of technical course work. The evolving curriculum includes traditional trades such as carpentry plumbing, automotive, electrical, baking and hairdressing, and also addresses the need for skilled people in fields such as digital media and biotechnology.
In developing its career programs, Torres said, CTHSS works closely with the regional workforce boards.
Mullins praises the leadership of the tech school system for their agility and ability to respond to current and future employment needs.
What the tech schools are doing has resonated at the Capitol. “The state has been most supportive of our goals,” Torres said. This includes generous financial support of the school renovation projects, she said.
State Sen. Dante Bartolomeo (D-Meriden), who is a member of the legislature’s appropriations and education committees, said the tech schools are a huge asset to their communities and, if anything, the state could use more.
In terms of the changing public perception of the evolving tech school, the superintendent said, “We have tried to shed light on what we are doing as a district.”
Some of the “hot job” areas are digital medical information systems, culinary and hospitality, health programs that apply to the state’s growing elderly population and manufacturing, which Torres said, is “huge for the state of Connecticut.”
The schools have seen a dramatic shift upwards in the number of female applicants who are enrolled in a wide variety of areas, including automotive and plumbing. Overall, the application pool has been steady and healthy,” Torres said.
For most of the CTHSS graduates, a high school diploma and trade/technology certificates they receive from the CTHSS is only one landmark on their educational journey.
Cecere is typical of the students who attend tech schools for a particular goal, in her case to become a chef, and found the school offered a lot more in terms of exposing her to different trades. “It helps point you in the career direction that is right for you,” she said. This fall she will enter her second year at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island where she is majoring in sports event entertainment management, hoping to work at venues such as Fenway Park or Madison Square Garden.
Alves has not ruled out attending college and plans to take post-graduate courses at Abbott Tech, but for now he is enjoying doing what he has wanted to do for many years, working as an electrician. He credits the school’s staff for setting him up for success.
In fostering an ideology that bridges career and college preparation, the tech schools are interacting more with the communities they serve. This includes encouraging parent participation and using technology to communicate with the students and their families, Torres said.
Part of this is the establishment of family engagement centers, Torres said. These are places were parents can access information, such as the center at Windham Tech were parents can come in anytime to use computers.
Diaz stresses the importance of her special relationship with the community, “especially Latino families.” She said that having someone who is Hispanic and speaks Spanish in the school administration creates an additional comfort level with Latino parents who appreciate that there is “someone here who understands me.”
At Prince Tech, Diaz also serves as a role model. The students ask, she said, “how did you do it.” In framing her answer, she draws upon the experience of her role model during her student days, her mother. Her answer is drive and perseverance plus a lifelong commitment to learning.
These are attributes that Diaz and others say are flourishing in the state’s tech schools.
Alves, who as president of the system’s student body, takes this endorsement a step further, stating that someone given the opportunity to attend Abbott Tech “would be an idiot not to take it.”

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