Center for Applied Technology & Career Exploration
Rocky Mount, VA
Looking more like corporate headquarters than a school, the Center for Applied Technology and Career Exploration (CATCE) is nestled in Franklin County, just south of the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwestern Virginia. The school building's corporate look and feel are part of an intentional design to expose students to a type of work environment with which they are not already familiar. The main industries in the area include timber production and wood and textile manufacturing. The school system consists of approximately 6,900 students enrolled in 11 elementary schools, one middle school, one high school--and CATCE, which is home to 350 students.
What CATCE offers Franklin County's increasing student population is experience with new information-based technologies that are not currently represented in the area's industry base. What makes CATCE unique is the way district leaders assessed changes in work skills necessary in the emerging workforce and brought together several components at once: curriculum development, state-of-the-art hardware and software, parent and industry involvement, and a new building designed to support the infusion of technology into learning.
Leonard Gereau, superintendent of schools, helped articulate the vision of stakeholders interested in seeing the experiment succeed. The early success began with the passing of a bond issue by taxpayers as well as procuring federal grant money to build a modern facility. CATCE was conceived and developed around three primary goals:
CATCE has targeted eighth and ninth grade students because the decisions and actions students make during these years have the greatest impact on postsecondary schooling options and career choices. All eighth grade students attend CATCE for a semester, with an option to return during their ninth grade year. For one semester, students (who are called "interns" during their time at CATCE) investigate three of eight career tracks projected to have the greatest need and growth when they enter the workforce. Each career area is taught by both a master teacher with expertise in designing learning activities and a content expert who has worked professionally in one of the eight fields:
While many instructional technology programs are designed to accomplish a few main goals, CATCE embraces broad objectives that affect all students across many disciplines. Students are immersed in problem-based activities that require them to seek answers to real-world problems. One project, for example, included an impact study on a proposed interstate highway extension that was supposed to come through the county. Another activity required students to assess the health of the local Pigg River; students tested the water for chemicals, gathered samples of invertebrate species, prepared reports, and presented their findings as if they were reporting at a scientific symposium. Curriculum units cross traditional subject lines and emphasize the application of knowledge within the scope of problem solving. While students focus upon a career area, the core areas of math, social studies, language arts, and science are woven throughout the disciplines and resulting activities.
Technology is central to all units. Students may be found using digital video editing tools; MIDI keyboards and notation software; broadcast-quality videocameras and audio recorders; and a plethora of computers, printers, and scanners. Someone visiting the school might see students participating in computer simulations, video production, Web site design, or experiments with robotics. Teachers receive a stipend for training in a variety of teaching methods, and all training occurs outside regular teaching hours.
The unique facility also serves as a community resource. Parts of the building are available for community meetings, teleconferencing, and distance learning. CATCE truly increases the opportunity for continued learning for people throughout the community and across all age groups. The building also creates a physical presence for the programs it houses, lending them a permanent and tangible reality.
Unique to the situation is the pairing of professionals/engineers, news anchors, artists, and so forth, with master teachers. This nontraditional approach requires that school leaders be open to investigating a nontraditional approach to instruction that changes the role of the teacher as well as the role of the learner.
Constructing a facility designed to immerse students in a technology-supported learning environment also requires substantial funding. The student-to-teacher ratio is often as low as 15:1. One computer is available for every two students, and each of the eight modules requires its own special equipment. CATCE found support both locally and through major federal grants. In Franklin County, taxpayers either (1) already understood the need to prepare students to compete for rewarding future careers or (2) benefited from a well-communicated vision from school leaders. As a result, they approved a $14.6 million bond issue by a 20% margin. School leaders also won additional external support, exceeding $1.6 million in the form of grants:
CATCE has demonstrated a positive impact on student achievement. The program, and the building in which it is housed, provides every student in the school system with access to a unique learning environment that offers exciting opportunities to develop talents, skills, and interests that might go undiscovered in more traditional classrooms. For more about CATCE, visit the Franklin County schools Web site http://www.frco.k12.va.us