Turning Childhood Dreams Into Career Development: How to Create a CTE Pipeline From Elementary to High School

Blog post Ashley ShawSREB Communications Specialist

Turning Childhood Dreams Into Career Development: How to Create a CTE Pipeline From Elementary to High School


Prefer to listen? Check out the audio recording of this post instead.


Technology centers often focus on high school students. Some may go down to middle school, but it is rare that you see them touch elementary students. Yet, starting early may help put students on a path to success they would’ve never found had teachers and faculty waited until older grades.

This was the focus of the session, “Building the CTE Pipeline: Elementary Through High School Outreach” at the 2023 Making Schools Work Conference. In it, Kasey Franks, the REACH coordinator at Eastern Oklahoma County Technology Center; Justin Gerry, the EXPLORE Coordinator at EOC Tech; and Melissa Ellefson, the director of community outreach and communication at EOC Tech, talked about how the school made a huge difference in their community by creating career pipelines that reach students from second grade through high school.

Why a New Approach Is Vital

One of the first things we went over in the session is some research that the presenters had on why changing the traditional school format is so important.

Let’s look at some of the things a U.K. study found:

  • Kids set career goals by age 7 that do not change much by the time they turn 18.
  • What they set and what the labor market actually needs are often not the same.
  • When they are creating those goals, they do so without ever having working role models visit their school. 

Basically, what this is getting at is simple: Kids are drawn to careers they see in the examples around them, and they develop these draws at an early age. This is why exposing them to jobs in high demand fields at an early age and giving them explore options throughout their education can put students on paths towards good careers that they actually enjoy.

In the presentation, we took a look at what Strada Education found was a traditional pipeline for students. I will sum it up in one sentence: For every 100 students who start high school, 10 will go on to one day find good jobs.

To improve those numbers, we need to change this pipeline.

A Look at EOC Tech

Before we get into what EOC Tech recommends schools do to help with this issue, let’s first take a look at who they are:

  • The tech center was created over 40 years ago (1982)
  • It is made up of four partner schools ranging from 2A-6A
  • It offers 16 program areas with an 80:20 ratio between high school to adult learners

While the center has been around for a while, they only recently expanded to reach elementary students. They created a pilot program with 30 teachers in 2017, and now they have 10 sites for STEM clubs for over 500 students in the 2nd-5th grade.

They also have many grade-based programs:

  • Future in Focus – 6th grade
  • Career Chamber Challenge – 7th grade
  • Fall Tour/Spring Shadow Program – 8th grade
  • Reality Race – 9th grade
  • Explore Program – 10th grade

The Three S’s of Starting a CTE Program

EOC Tech’s programs were not created overnight, and it took a while to build out what they do now. In their presentation, they offered three different things they recommend when building out a CTE program.

Start Simple

One of the first things that they recommend is to start simply. You may have dreams of creating a state-wide CTE program for all ages that is going to revolutionize the education process and lead to students consistently getting better jobs.

That dream starts with a small step, though, and you are going to need lots of support just to manage that small program.

Here are some tips:

  1. Start with one school or one grade. Make it successful, and you’ll eventually get to grow it.
  2. Network. Build relationships with stakeholders, other teachers and anyone in the STEM world. Go to conferences, attend STEM meetings and seek out models.
  3. Allow things the time they need to grow. For example, maybe you want to start with a one-time activity in an already established class, and then, once you have mastered that, turn it into a full class, and then a full program.

In the presentation, we were encouraged to ask ourselves some questions before beginning, but it basically boils down to this: What is one need that I see, and how can I help improve it?

Start Smart

Along with starting simply, you also need to “start smart.”

Like anything, if you start a program just to start it, you will not likely get good results.

Instead, you want to think about what you are doing and enact programs intentionally.

Here are some things you should consider:

  • What are your goals?
  • How can you build that goal into your strategic plan?
  • What steps should you take to make sure your process is leading towards goal accomplishment? In other words, how are you going to collect and evaluate data about your success?
  • What resources will you need to accomplish your plan? Tools, technology, space, etc.
  • Who can you partner with in the community (local businesses), in the STEM world (other tech centers or teachers using similar initiatives), and in your school (so you have the support you need to get this done)?
  • What will it actually take to get this off the ground? (Think things like budget, leadership support, grants and more. See our post from last week on some ways Jefferson Middle School got the support they needed to create a STEM program in their school.)

Start Seeing Results

The final starting “S” we discussed in the presentation was “Start Seeing Results.”

When you begin a program, you should have ways to check if it is working. These should be short- and long-term views that let you know what to look for as success.

Short-term checkpoints are good because it takes a bit of trial and error to get some things working correctly. While you want to give things time to grow, and you cannot expect results overnight, you do want to monitor to make sure things are headed in a good direction so that you can course correct early if things get a little off track.

However, while you want to have checkpoints along the way, you also should know that it can take 20+ years to truly change a culture, and so you shouldn’t expect to see a complete overhaul right at the start.

Be patient!

Here are some things to look for as you start building your program or expanding it down to elementary grades:

  • Student engagement – are students attending? Is the program growing? Are students proud to be a part of it? Are students returning year after year?
  • Support – are you getting more support as you see success? Are teachers/leaders/community partners increasing?
  • Placement – As students exit the program, are they getting jobs? More importantly, are they getting good, well-paying jobs that they actually enjoy and are prepared for?

Look for these signs, and celebrate when you see them. You and your students deserve the praise and recognition!

Final Thoughts

Throughout their presentation, the EOC Tech team showed images of Walt Disney holding hands with Mickey, and they pointed out that, “It was all started by a mouse…”

EOC Tech is proof that small changes can make a big difference in a community. 

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