CTE programs work to remain relevant for central Aroostook students
CARIBOU and PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Amid decreases in state funding and challenges with student recruitment, the career and technology centers at Presque Isle and Caribou high schools are seeking ways to connect more students with valuable early career experiences.
In 2018, the Maine Department of Education changed its career and technical education funding policy to a per-student-based reimbursement model, which will officially take effect next school year. As part of that model, the state will fund CTE programs based on what they believe the programs can spend rather than their actual expenditures.
This means that the Presque Isle Regional Career and Technical Center, located at Presque Isle High School, will receive $1.5 million rather than the more accurate $1.4 million. The Caribou Technology Center at Caribou High School will receive around that same amount, noted Ralph Conroy, who directs both schools’ CTE programs.
“The state projects us as being able to spend $200,000 more than what we can,” Conroy said.
Though the Maine DOE put a “hold harmless clause” in place for districts to seek more funds, Conroy said that the new policy will disproportionately affect rural programs with fewer students and resources.
To maintain all classes within the current model, the programs in Presque Isle and Caribou have begun exploring ways to cut costs while still growing programs. After SAD 1 former CTE director Tim Prescott resigned in 2020, the district hired Conroy and has allowed him to split his time between Presque Isle and Caribou.
Conroy hopes to use his dual position to help both programs recruit more students and show them the benefits of learning about potential trade and technical careers in hands-on ways.
While Caribou’s enrollment has increased from 180 during the 2020-2021 school year to 190 in the current year, Presque Isle’s program saw a larger decrease during the pandemic. The latter program has since gone from having 121 in 2020-2021 to 154 this school year.
The difference in student enrollment is partly due to Caribou serving students in all high school grades while PIRCTC only accepts 11th- and 12th-graders, though Conroy said plans are in the works to expand classes to ninth- and 10th-graders.
Both Presque Isle and Caribou offer classes to students from Easton, Fort Fairfield and Washburn while Presque Isle also welcomes Ashland and Mars Hill students and Caribou welcomes Limestone students. The desire to avoid COVID-19 spread led to changes in sending schools’ transportation and parents’ decisions, Conroy said.
“Other schools weren’t sending as many students and some students were homeschooled,” Conroy said.
Recruiting enough students remains crucial for CTE program funding. The new state funding model requires that all classes maintain a three-year average of at least 13 students in order for the programs to have full funding access. This year all classes at Presque Isle’s and Caribou’s centers are over or at 13 students.
In Caribou, CNA and EMT training, commercial drivers license, auto collision repair and automotive technology remain the most consistently full classes. Other trade programs such as welding, large equipment maintenance and operation and residential construction are gaining popularity, noted student services coordinator Tracy Corbin.
“We’re seeing more students interested in the jobs that are plentiful right now and that pay well,” Corbin said.
The most popular programs at Presque Isle continue to be early childhood education, drafting and engineering technology, agriscience, farm mechanics and building trades. Cosmetology has struggled to recruit students recently, with total enrollment going from six last year to 13 this year.
Student recruitment for CTE programs has traditionally been challenging, Conroy noted, due to some perceptions students and parents might have about college opportunities.
“There’s the age-old idea that if you go to a vocational school, you aren’t going to college,” Conroy said. “But most of our students go on to college. Last year three of our drafting students got full scholarships to UMaine’s engineering program. We had another drafting student go into NMCC’s electrician program.”
For students enrolled in CTE programs, gaining real-world experience has allowed them to better understand their career options and interests.
Dane Driscoll, an Ashland senior at PIRCTC, said that the farm mechanics program has helped him learn to use tools he had not encountered before at his father’s mechanics shop. Driscoll hopes to become a mechanic after graduating high school.
“It gets you more prepared to be in the real world,” Driscoll said, about the farm mechanics program.
Presque Isle High School senior Morgan Seward credits the early childhood education program for leading to her interest in becoming a child psychologist. For the past two years, Seward has assisted teachers in PIRCTC’s preschool classroom, which is operated in collaboration with Aroostook County Action Program.
“I love children, so this has been a good first step to see if I want this as a career,” Seward said. “I learn a lot just by observing and playing with them.”