Hands-on once more: At vocational-technical school, students and staff get back to business of learning

October 12th, 2020

Michael Lopez, left, completing his safety assessment in his Construction Science I class with oversight from his instructor, Charles Lachner. – Photos courtesy New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical School.

Read this article as it originally appeared Oct. 5, 2020 in ROI-NJ

The half-dozen sheds framed with two-by-fours sit unfinished in Charles Lachner’s construction technology classroom, a junior-year project abandoned after the coronavirus shuttered Hunterdon County Polytech in March.

Now that students have returned to the school in person, they’ll be able to start working on their construction projects once again.

“I’m really happy to be back,” said Lachner, who has been teaching at the county vocational-technical school in Flemington for the last nine years.

Despite having to wear masks and social distance, students are also glad to be back in person in the school, which they attend for half-days while attending their home high schools for academic classes for the other half of the day.

“It feels like the school is taking the right safety precautions,” said Francesca Morella, a senior at Voorhees High School who is studying commercial arts. “I’m just happy that we’re not just on a computer screen, because it wouldn’t be as engaging.”

After Gov. Phil Murphy shut down schools in March, teachers at New Jersey’s 21 county vocational-technical school districts did their best to ensure students continued learning in their career programs. But, at schools dedicated to career-focused experiential learning, remote education has its limits, which is why it was so important for career and technical educators to get back into the classroom.

Todd Bonsall, superintendent of the Hunterdon County Vocational School District, said his first priority is the safety of students and staff. To that end, the district developed an 87-page plan that guides the school’s reopening, a task made more complicated by the fact that its students come from other high schools — each with its own reopening plan.

“We also understand that social interaction and in-person instruction is essential to our children’s emotional well-being, as well as their educational growth and advancement — especially in CTE programs — as they pursue valuable industry-based credentials and licenses,” Bonsall said.

Hunterdon County Vocational School District operates shared-time programs at two campuses in Flemington with 457 part-time students, as well as full-time career academies enrolling another 181 students at North Hunterdon High School.

They are among the 35,000 New Jersey students who attend county vocational-technical schools statewide that not only provide education in traditional areas such as construction, automotive technology and culinary arts, but also in fields such as health care, biomedical engineering, advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity and other high-demand careers.

Laura Pinkman, who teaches exercise science, said students and staff took the closure of in-person learning in stride when schools closed in March.

“We tried to provide the best education for a CTE school, but it was extremely difficult,” said Pinkman, who worked as a physical therapist prior to becoming a teacher at Hunterdon Polytech three years ago.

The exercise science classroom at Hunterdon Polytech is filled with equipment you would typically see in a physical therapist’s office. There are treadmills, weight-training equipment and examination tables, where Pinkman instructed students on how to wrap an ankle.

“Everything we do is hands-on,” Pinkman said. “We practice splinting and wrapping a lot in the classroom.”

During a portion of the class, students participated in an anatomy and physiology class live-streamed from Raritan Valley Community College. Another allied health class at Hunterdon Polytech also was watching the collegiate course from a different classroom.

Students who take the class can earn college credit, getting a head start on their career path toward becoming physical therapists, medical assistants or other health care professionals.

Down the hall in Cindy Dailey’s graphics design class, students were already working on personal logos, first drawing them by hand before transferring the process over to state-of-the-art Apple computers loaded with Adobe’s graphics design programs, including Photoshop and Illustrator.

In the spring, Dailey said her students adapted to online learning, but it wasn’t the same as being in their high-end lab. For example, most students did not have the Adobe suite on their home computers, which generally are not capable of running the industry-standard software. So, students instead downloaded free, open-source graphics design software to use at home.

“It’s not as sophisticated and as robust as the Adobe suite, but it allowed them to get through the spring,” Dailey said, who added that she is glad to be back in the graphic design lab.

“I love being back,” she said. “This is where we want to be.”

Teresa Diaz, who has been teaching commercial art for the last two decades, said being in the classroom allows her to mentor students in real time.

“I need to see what they’re working on to be able to critique them and help them improve,” Diaz said. “Otherwise, they’re just working in a void and then turning it in at the end, and they don’t get any feedback from me until the project is complete.”

Melissa Bostjancic, a senior in Diaz’s class, said she got used to remote learning in the spring, but is glad to be back to work in her career and technical education classroom.

“This is so hands-on,” Bostjancic said. “Having a teacher who’s a professional in the field definitely helps, and being here and having that critique is more helpful than trying to figure it out from home.”

Rick Hubert, who teaches students how to operate heavy machinery, said students watched videos, read manuals and even practiced on a simulator during the extended school closure this spring. But, he said, there’s no substitute for real bulldozers and backhoes.

“Some things you really can’t get good at by reading how to do it in a book,” Hubert said.

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