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Education secretary: ‘We have to figure out how to invest in those young folks’

Dr. Noe Ortega, Pennsylvania Education Secretary, talks with culinary program chef Brian Anstadt as the secretary tours the Lycoming CTC campus in Hughesville March 11, 2022. DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

HUGHESVILLE — His hand extended, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education Noe Ortega greeted students and administration alike with “Hi, I’m Noe,” as he toured the Lycoming County Career and Technical Education facility at Hughesville.

It was a casual visit, not full of the formality often associated with government officials, as Ortega asked students in each area what they were doing and spoke with instructors about what they were teaching in their specialties.

He visited the culinary arts classroom where students were busy preparing a charcuterie board, commenting on a student creating an apple swan. In the health careers area, Ortega learned that the students were studying about different cultures and religions and how they affect death rituals and birth ceremonies.

“We need more nurses, by the way,” Ortega told students before he moved on to one of the automotive areas where his interest was caught by a 1957 Jeep that the students are rebuilding. After peppering Muncy senior Matt McCauley with questions about the pieced-together project, Ortega visited the criminal justice students.

“You are scary,” he joked, after the instructor informed him that the students were certified to use pepper spray and handcuffs and on the lookout for the “bathroom bandit” at the school.

Visits to the construction, computer and second automotive area followed, before Ortega took the time to sit down with Nathan Minium, executive director of LycoCTC, Michael Mamrak, president of Lyco CTC’s joint operating committee and Gerald McLaughlin, Loyalsock Township School District superintendent and the superintendent of record of Lyco CTC’s professional committee, as well as the press.

Ortega has been traveling the state visiting career technical programs.

“For us, it’s a big conversation starter, when we’re talking about education, particularly with members of the General Assembly, when they find themselves in the rural parts like really want to emphasize the importance of continued investment, because it’s expensive. Even when you have folks donating stuff and projects coming from the community, it’s still an investment,” he said

Rather than focusing only on a two-year or four-year college for students, Ortega suggested investigating other pathways.

“We’ve got to think about what other pathways exist. I feel like these are the programs that really yield people straight into a career for some but for others it kind of reignites learning because never saw it that way. That’s pretty exciting,” Ortega said.

“I think it’s amazing to me the skill sets they have right now and that they’re developing. They can go right into a very sustainable career and also go on to further their education,” said Minium who has been director since January.

McLaughlin pointed out that many students in the program have earned between nine and 15 college credits.

“When we think about financing nine or 15 credits, that’s a lot,” Ortege said.

When asked by Ortega if LycoCTC was planning to add programs, Minimum replied that they would like to have some new programs — “see what the industry around us needs and work with them.”

“Right now one of the biggest challenges for colleges is enrollment — huge setbacks. The more that you can get these kinds of pipeline projects, the more eager they will be,” Ortega said.

“It’s one of those things that I wish there was a better understanding and I think the younger generation is open to the idea that school can have a number of paths,” he said, adding that his school experience had been focused on getting on a career path and remaining there throughout your school career.

“Now, I think we talk about it a little bit differently. I hope it’s changing. I hope that message is resonating,” he said.

Ortega asked if there was anything the state could do to help facilitate the local program.

“Any kind of funding we could get to support CT the programs…but incentivize some of the schools or even to expand, anything along that line would be helpful,” McLaughlin said.

“I think right now what is being put forward is an increased investment, roughly $6 million or so on top of what’s already there. I know that doesn’t resolve the problem of growth or expansion, but we need to find ways to just make the program whole and we need to find ways to triple or quadruple that as well. I think there is a lot of energy and interest. I wonder if the incentive could be if you have a center where groups come together. If that could be factored in,” Ortega said.

The issue of retaining instructors was also discussed because of the demand in the private sector for more workers and the ability of trained people to earn a higher salary there.

“We talk about the educator shortage all the time in terms of people not wanting to come in, but this is a slightly different problem because the demand for them is so high they’ll make tons more exiting the school,” Ortega said.

It was noted that it is often difficult to get a seasoned professional to leave the private sector to become a teacher/mentor in the school setting.

Referring to the instructor in the Culinary Arts program at Lyco CTC and his knowledge and interaction with the students, Ortega said that “just the way he’s talking about it, the thoughts and ideas, you’re not going to get that from a second or third year person.”

“To me, coming in here, going through each of these areas you begin to see that there is a real attraction for the faculty but also the students want to go to the program and I think that’s phenomenal. Building the buy-in is a hard thing to do and then finding ways to connect it. I love that many of them are connected to the community. Whether it’s an open auto shop where people can come in for the purpose of learning…there’s that giving back part of a lot of the programs,” Ortega said.

Speaking about issues that higher education is facing such as decline in enrollment and higher costs.

“I think a lot of the challenges the programs have is whether or not kids coming in are going to stay or not because they’re being exposed to the program for the first time. When you recruit kids who have had career tech programs or who have had even exploratory experiences like in an allied health field, those young folks are more aware of what they’re going to go into and won’t leave the program,” he said.

“A lot of schools not losing kids in the first years is a big deal. Community colleges — we don’t talk about this enough — or even four year institutions, they’ll recruit a class and maybe 70 percent of them will stay for the second year, then third it even goes further. Our graduation rates in some places could be almost 50%. You always talk about the kids that go in there, not all of them make it to the end. I think what you see is folks who have some engagement in the career they want to go into before they get into college are more likely to complete. And I feel like that makes these students a lot more attractive to recruit,” he added.

Addressing the topic of community colleges as an option for students, Ortega said that it offers them the opportunity to decide what they want from their post-high school education.

“Not everybody feels like the four years is where they want to end up. I do think we have to be careful not to get kids to feel like they have got to settle. I really want everyone to feel like the four years is a possibility but I chose not to do it,” he said.

On the subject of free tuition to state universities and community colleges, Ortega referred to a program which has been proposed that would offer the opportunity to attend tuition-free for people going into specific careers. The program has allocated $200 million for that purpose.

“I hope we get a buy-in for that program,” he said.

“Everybody is impacted by education. We have to figure out how to invest in those young folks and give them an opportunity as well,” he continued. Hopefully we’ll get those $200 million.”

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