A student uses a woodcutting machine


When Chris Ubben attended Virginia’s Rappahannock County High School nearly 20 years ago, students taking career and technical classes had to ride the school bus for two hours to the closest trade school. “These days,” says Ubben, a Rappahannock County school board member, “it’s all in-house.”

Connecting students to real-life career and technical education (CTE) experiences can be a challenge to rural school districts. These districts are less likely than urban and suburban districts to offer work-based learning activities. They have fewer businesses to serve as partners and often are too far from two- and four-year colleges and universities to collaborate on certification or degree programs.

In Rappahannock County, school leaders, educators, and administrators have found innovative ways to link with the community to give their students access to CTE. “We’re trying to bring the magic of people having opportunities,” says Rappahannock County High School Principal Carlos Seward. “And opportunities are universal, no matter where you are, no matter who the student is.”

Rural by design

Rappahannock County is where Washington, D.C., metropolitan sprawl meets the Blue Ridge Mountains. Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive make up its western border. The mountainous county is rural by choice and by design.

Zoning and density policies restrict commercial and residential development with the goal of preserving the county’s rural character. The county has a little over 7,000 residents in 266.6 square miles. There are no supermarkets, pharmacies, large stores, or large office buildings. It is the only county in Virginia without a stoplight and one of the last places on the East Coast where it’s possible to see the Milky Way.

Residents include landowners who have been in the region for generations, and retirees and weekend visitors with second homes. Some working-class families also are residents. The county is a land of contrasts: It ranks among Virginia’s top 10 wealthiest jurisdictions, but much of that wealth is concentrated among a few residents.

The wealth of the county skews the district’s funding formula. The lack of a commercial tax base also strains the district’s budget. Student enrollment is just under 1,000, with one elementary school and one high school. About 44 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. About 86 percent of the students are white, 7 percent are Hispanic, and 2 percent are Black.

CTE can especially help students from disadvantaged backgrounds and can be part of a strategy to boost rural economies and stop people from leaving rural areas. According to CTE Advantage, CTE students are more likely to graduate from high school, have higher achievement in academic subjects, and be prepared for credit-bearing college coursework immediately after graduating. At the postsecondary level, four out of five students who earned a CTE certificate or associate degree were employed within six years of starting their degree, and more than half considered their job to be the start of a career.

Ubben is a law enforcement officer with the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office. He avows that he himself was not fond of school, and he recognizes the value of hands-on activities for some students who would otherwise be disconnected from the school community.

“I’m proud that the school had been able to engage those kids who they couldn’t seem to reach and get them engaged and on a more solid career path,” he says. “Some kids haven’t had their eyes opened that they could dream of something bigger, that they didn’t have to just react to live, that they have a choice and a chance.”

Real-life projects

Rural schools often struggle to recruit CTE teachers because of “competitive industry wages, declining CTE teacher preparation programs, and a limited industry base from which to recruit,” according to the National Rural Education Association.

Scott Schlosser started at Rappahannock High School in 1993 as a new teacher. The technology education and business trades teacher has spent his career working to create the district’s current CTE offerings and enhance the classes for his students.

In a place with long distances and few businesses, Schlosser took an innovative approach to his classes. Schlosser saw that creating projects that students could work on for people in the community would be a way to connect with community members and business owners. It would also be an avenue for students to see their work in the community and learn entrepreneurial skills along with woodworking.

“I just started talking to everybody that I could find: parents, people in the community, even county administrators. And they were like, ‘Oh, that’s a neat idea.’” The more he explained, he says, the more people realized how important it was for students to work on real-life projects. “When you take a student and you have a real-life project, then that changes the game a little bit because that product is hopefully going to stay there for a long time. And we use that a lot of times as an incentive. “

Schlosser’s students make tables, chairs, and fire pit rings for a local winery, Chester Gap Cellars. Other projects have been short-term and long-term. The larger projects served to connect students with the community, raised the bar for student engagement and learning, and reinforced high-quality standards, Schlosser says.

The community projects serve as a source of material for the classes, which solves the problem of finding funding for the materials. “I was fully supported by the school and community when working with real-life projects,” he says. “Students were succeeding, attendance improved, and student engagement and learning improved.”

Profile of a graduate

In addition to Schlosser’s building trade classes, the district offers other CTE classes, including agriculture, welding, plumbing, and health care.

Before she became Rappahannock County Public Schools superintendent, Shannon Grimsley oversaw CTE as the director of academic services. She has witnessed the change in the educational landscape over the past 15 years from a college prep focus to “becoming life ready. As an educator, I was thrilled with that because not every kid is a cookie-cutter child for college preparatory classes.”

The district made a shift in how to prepare students for life after high school with the implementation of the Profile of a Virginia Graduate conceptual framework. This framework calls for high school students to learn content knowledge, workplace skills, community engagement and civic responsibility, and career exploration.

“The design is to give every child the opportunity to experience many different facets of education to develop their interests, their capacity for what they’re great at, their love of learning wherever that may be,” says Grimsley. “That’s how we’ve shifted.”

Communication and education through the comprehensive planning process were necessary, says Grimsley. That included making sure the conceptual framework was understood by everyone, including the students. “Because the future is wide open, and there’s so many different opportunities now,” she says. “The job market is different. In the labor market in Virginia, vocational tech has had 550,000 job openings and not enough graduates. And people understood.”

Part of that career focus is on stackable credentials, says Principal Seward. Students earn stackable credentials for taking a course sequence of multiple classes. And at the end of that course sequence, students earn a certificate they can use in the workforce when they graduate.

An example of stackable credentials is the high school’s certified medical assistant program, done in partnership with a community college and the regional health system. Another example is in the agriculture industry as a veterinary technician. The high school partners with the nearby veterinary clinic, giving students hands-on experiences at the clinic. The district offers a stackable credential for students to become veterinary technicians. “When they leave high school,” says Seward, “they have a certificate and can work in (a veterinarian’s) office.”

The students taking Schlosser’s manufacturing technology class learn to make products that they sell to local businesses. Says Seward: “Through that process, they learn the career and technical education competencies related to their curriculum. They’re able to learn how to be young entrepreneurs. What do they need to do to make a product to sell for market and also to be successful and profitable? That is the type of experience and opportunity that we want students to be able to walk away with and be able to use for the rest of their lives.”

David Roberts is a parent of a student in Schlosser’s class. The classes have given his son a sense of confidence, he says, especially when he’s been able to master using the equipment. “It’s great for kids who might have learning disabilities but can be proficient in other ways. It gives a child knowledge on how to use these machines outside of high school and in everyday life, opening the door to learning other things.”

Community connections

Chester Gap Cellars is one of several wineries in the county. Not long after he opened the winery, owner Jeff Seese says he was looking to expand “the outdoor space and really take advantage of a 45-mile view that we have here on the property.” He mentioned to his neighbor that he was buying furniture that wasn’t good quality and was falling apart during normal usage.

That neighbor was Schlosser, and the idea of students building and selling furniture to the winery was born. “Engaging the students in a local small business here lets them see that there are real opportunities here to grow business within the local community,” says Seese. “When I purchased this winery, it was a much different space than it is today. I hope that as these students have worked with me over the last several years, they’ve been able to see how you can develop a business from something into something bigger, bigger, and hopefully even bigger yet.”

One of Schlosser’s students, junior Austin Clem, says of the furniture building, “You really take more pride in it than doing homework for a math class. Obviously, you’re going to try to pass, but you’re not going to be thinking someone else is seeing it. This is going to be in someone else’s possession. So, you really want to take pride and take the time to make your furniture look good and be stable and sturdy, so it’s not falling apart in three years. And hopefully, they’ll want to come back and get more.”

Junior Nathaniel Lowe adds: “It’s encouraging to know that the people are actually wanting to buy the products made by students.”

Several years ago, students in Schlosser’s class made a wooden sign for Kim Nelson’s hair salon in Sperryville. Late last year, Nelson asked Schlosser’s students to build giant wooden snowflakes to use in the town’s Christmas festival. “These programs,” she says of CTE, “they ground kids and give them a tangible thing in their hands, other than reading and being tested. We need college, but we need the trades.”

Nelson, who also is an equestrian and riding instructor, works to get and keep students involved in community events “for fun and experience, and so they’ll do it in the future.”

She sees that connection as a way of keeping the rural community alive and vital. If they feel connected, instead of going to college and moving out of state, students will want to return to Rappahannock County after they receive their education. “Because they were involved, they found that they loved their community and needed to come back to the community that nurtured them. They will have a sense of returning and keeping their community alive, sustaining it.”

Kathleen Vail (kvail@nsba.org) is editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal. 


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