Searsport District High School senior Arthur Leighton says he knows what he wants to do after he graduates from high school because of the classes he’s taken at the Waldo County Technical Center.

“Just being in this class pretty much changed my life,” said Leighton, taking a break from his work in the graphic design class Feb. 13. “Now I’m planning to go to college for it.”

Leighton was just finishing up his latest project, a poster promoting a talent show and senior class trip fundraiser, when he stopped to talk with VillageSoup.

Leighton, who also serves as the SDHS senior class president, said the poster promoting the event for his class is an example of the kind of projects routinely turned out by WCTC graphic design students.

Another example of the students’ handiwork is the latest WCTC course brochure, which lists course descriptions and the career paths associated with each and includes a campus map. WCTC serves high school students from RSU 20 and RSU 3, and also offers adult education courses.

Before he started attending graphics design courses at WCTC, Leighton said he didn’t really know what a graphic designer actually did.

“I thought it was just making T-shirts or making posters,” he said. “Now I know everything that is visual was done by a graphic artist.”

Leighton held up the DVD case for the movie “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” — which depicts a strangely distorted image of the star of the film, Johnny Depp — as an example. A graphic designer, said Leighton, chose the unusual font, the color scheme and every other visual aspect of the image.

Leighton said his experience at WCTC has helped him see it’s possible to find a career that will not only offer a livable wage, but will also feed his need to be creative.

“It’s a good, practical way to have a job that incorporates all my interests and abilities,” he said.

A changing role

Leighton is just the kind of student that WCTC has been seeing more of over the last 10 or 15 years.

In the 2010-11 school year, 51 of 92 seniors who attended classes at WCTC declared their intentions to enter some kind of post-secondary program, which WCTC Director Chris Downing said is a big change from what the school may have seen even a decade ago.

That, said Downing, is no accident.

Maine’s technical centers, formerly known as vocational schools, were once known as the go-to for students who were not planning to attend college and instead opted to learn a trade. But the role of WCTC and the 26 other technical schools across Maine that are part of the statewide Career and Technical Education program has changed dramatically in recent years.

The change, said Downing, has had much to do with the way technology has become such a significant part of everyday life. Almost every home has a computer now, and so the need for professionals to repair them has grown with the trend. The new cars that are rolling off the dealership lots, said Downing, require much more training for those who must repair them.

“That’s why they’re called technicians instead of mechanics,” said Downing. “You need that technical knowledge to work on some of these cars.”

Downing said the belief that technical education is only for those who aren’t going to college still exists to some degree, but with the economy in its present state, and all of the opportunities available at WCTC for job training, now is the time to see it in a whole new light.

“We need to get around that … stigma,” said Downing.

Money talks

William Symonds of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who co-authored “Pathways to Prosperity,” expressed his agreement with Downing’s sentiments in his writing.

In the report, which was released last year, Symonds explored ways to improve the future situation for America’s workforce by putting more emphasis on technical education at the high school level, and making that type of job training and career counseling part of the high school experience.

In a recent online discussion on the pathways paper at citizing.com, Symonds said there would be millions of jobs available for people with an associate degree or occupational certificate in the near future, and that many of those jobs would be what he called “middle-skill” occupations like paralegals, electricians and construction managers.

“While these jobs may not be as prestigious as those filled by BA [Bachelor of Arts] holders, they pay a significant premium over many jobs open to those with just a high school degree,” said Symonds. “More surprisingly, some pay more than many of the jobs held by those with a bachelor’s degree. In fact, 27 percent of people with post-secondary licenses or certificates — credentials short of an associates degree — earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient.”

For some WCTC students, the professional certifications can mean a significantly higher earning potential for them should they choose to work in their chosen professions while also continuing their education.

One recent WCTC graduate, said Downing, completed both the Certified Nursing Assistant and the Emergency Medical Technician programs at WCTC. Dowing said that student is now working on an ambulance crew and as a CNA to help pay for college.

That’s a big advantage for a college student, as just last week, USA Today reported total debt from student loans in the U.S. is about $1 trillion, an amount that exceeds the estimated total credit card debt of $798 billion.

And Downing said the relatively low cost of tuition through the Maine Community College System — the cost per credit hour at Eastern Maine Community College, for example, is at $86, while the price jumps to $279 at the University of Maine, Orono — is another factor that makes community college an attractive, functional and affordable option.

“Bottom line, it saves money for the parents and the kids. It’s a pretty good deal,” said Downing.

Building bridges

The increase in the number of students who either decide to continue their education based on their experience at WCTC, or take courses there because they want to earn credentials in their fields of choice, Downing said, can be attributed to several factors.

“One of the biggest things that has happened for us here [is] the articulation agreements,” said Downing, referring to a program that allows a student to earn college credit while taking courses at WCTC. “A kid can take a course, and if they pass with a certain grade, and if the teacher here at the technical center teaches that class according to what would be taught in the college course, that student picks up the credit for that class.”

The welding program at WCTC, for example, offers its students an articulation agreement with Southern Maine Community College. It allows students who complete the two-year program at WCTC to receive credit for the introduction to welding course at SMCC.

Those who successfully complete the WCTC welding program will also have the opportunity to earn their American Welding Society Certification. With that certification, students can begin working in the field immediately.

Another way of building a figurative bridge between the student and the college experience is the existence of dual enrollment agreements, said Downing, where a WCTC student may simultaneously be enrolled in college.

This year, WCTC is in the final year of a four-year Maine Educational Loan Marketing Corp grant, which seeks to increase the number of Maine high school graduates enrolling in post-secondary study.

Downing said the funding has helped make the college experience more accessible and less intimidating for WCTC students. Over the years the school has hosted college fairs, and transported juniors and seniors to college campuses.

“The big thrust of it is to get the kids on campus,” said Downing.

The initiative has worked well, and Downing thinks it’s because students are with their classmates for the college visits and because they’re now starting to get feedback from fellow students who have begun their college experiences.

“It helps when they see their friends promoting it,” said Downing.

Leighton agreed.

“A few months ago I got to visit a bunch of colleges,” he said. “… It was my first time going to see a college, and it made it better to be able to go with my friends. It was really a fun trip.”

Leighton’s experience at WCTC and his visits to colleges, he said, have given him a better idea of how he’ll accomplish his career goal. He plans to attend a four-year program where he can earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts while majoring in graphic design.

“I’d like to go to the Maine College of Art in Portland,” he said.

Leighton’s story of how WCTC courses and programs helped him establish a career plan is one of many.

Sabin Miller, a Belfast Area High School senior who is in the second year of WCTC’s computer networking class, said he’s decided to join the increasing amount of Mainers who opt to continue their education at one of Maine’s community colleges.

“I didn’t have a plan at first,” said Miller, speaking while disassembling a PlayStation 3 with his classmate, BAHS junior Christian Hodgdon.

BAHS junior Mason Hurd was in the midst of repairing a tractor in the diesel technology class with BAHS junior Wyatt Roberts and BAHS sophomore Neil Kirby when he talked about his future plans.

Hurd said he’d always been interested in diesel engines, so when he heard about the course at WCTC, he signed up.

“I just thought I’d like to learn more about it,” said Hurd, who said he’ll be visiting a college in Ohio in April and hopes to continue his mechanical education there.

Roberts said WCTC is also a great resource for youths who want to learn about diesel or small engine repair but lack the tools and materials to learn hands-on at home.

“Everything’s already here,” said Roberts.

A growing trend

The Maine Community College System has seven locations — in Auburn, Bangor, Fairfield, Presque Isle, South Portland, Calais and Wells — and has additional off-campus centers in Augusta, Bath, Brunswick, Damariscotta, Dover-Foxcroft, East Millinocket, Ellsworth, Houlton, Madawaska and South Paris. According to the MCCS website, the system has nearly 300 career and transfer programs to offer its students.

MCCS Publications and Marketing Coordinator Karen Hamilton said in the fall of 2011, MCCS served 18,546 students — a figure that is up from 10,127 students who were enrolled in 2002 and represents an increase of 83 percent over nine years. Thirty-seven percent of those first-year students begin classes right after graduation, and Hamilton said that figure has jumped 62 percent in 10 years (increasing from 1,251 in 2002 to 2,023 in 2011).

Hamilton said she doesn’t know how many of those students came into the system after having been enrolled at a school like WCTC.

“We do not have the information broken down in such a way to inform us whether they are from a career [or] technical center,” Hamilton said.

But as enrollment numbers increased, MCCS put programs in place to make the college experience that much more accessible to all students, with or without the technical education background.

Through programs like Early College for ME, which was launched as a pilot program in 2003, the system offers seniors at 74 Maine high schools a way to transition more easily into the college setting. According to the MCCS website, the program also offers scholarships to seniors so they can take community college courses while still in high school.

A positive byproduct of the increased use of MCCS and Maine’s technical schools, said Downing, is that many graduates who seek work in Maine can often get it.

Ninety-three percent of MCCS graduates land jobs or opt to continue their education, according to the MCCS website, while 92 percent of those who go to work right after college secure jobs in Maine.

Downing hopes that could mean the start of another trend — fewer educated Maine youths leaving the state in search of a more prosperous future.

“We wouldn’t have that brain drain,” said Downing.

The best kept secret

According to VillageSoup archives, WCTC offered eight programs in 1980. Now, Downing said, the school offers 17 courses of study.

In 2001, upon the advice from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, WCTC underwent an assessment and planning process to expand the school’s physical footprint and to add to programs being offered there. The culinary arts space was expanded and now boasts a full-sized kitchen, classroom and an operational cafe. The expansion also created classroom space for the graphic design program. Other programs that once had to share space soon found they had plenty of room to operate, too — the horticulture and welding programs previously had to share space, for example.

Not only have the offerings grown in number, but the scope has widened in terms of the kinds of trades and professional skills students can acquire. Students can still take classes in automotive repair, building construction or welding, but in the last 15 years or so, WCTC has added programs like fire science, graphic design, computer networking, law enforcement and EMT courses.

The 280 students who are enrolled at WCTC this year, said Downing, will benefit from the upgrades that were made to the facility almost 10 years ago, but also have the advantage of working with instructors who are always looking ahead.

“We always want to know, what are the trends going to be five, or 10 years down the road,” said Downing. “We’re doing that right now.”

The addition of a course teaching fiberglass composite fabrication is one direction WCTC might take for the future, said Downing, as the craft is used for making wind turbines and in the boat building industry.

Establishing more partnerships between Maine high schools, technical centers and colleges is necessary in the push to better prepare students for careers, and Downing said that has already happened this year.

In a pilot program involving United Technical Institute in Bangor and Hermon High School, which was launched earlier this month, high school students will get hands-on vocational and technical training while earning community college credits. The program will give the students not only a high school diploma when they graduate, but also an associates degree in their field of study.

That’s the kind of arrangement that Downing said has the support of Gov. Paul LePage and state Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, both of whom have publicly expressed a need for changes in the state’s education system to meet the needs of the future workforce.

Downing said a similar partnership is being discussed for WCTC, Regional School Union 20 and the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast.

With the existing partnerships WCTC has with MCCS, Downing said both students and staff have benefited because WCTC teachers often communicate with college instructors to get ahead of the latest needs of students.

The proof, Downing said, is in the feedback WCTC receives from former students.

“When you have a kid come back from college who says he took a course and knew more than some of the other students because he went to the technical school, that’s quite a pat on the back for the instructor,” said Downing.

The adult education program at WCTC has also seen growth recently. In prior years the CNA and welding courses attracted plenty of students, as the courses were often filled close to capacity. This year, Downing said, there is already a waiting list for the fall classes.

Downing said he hopes the overall growth at WCTC means the misconception that technical education as an alternative to college is fading.

“Career and technical education has been known as the best-kept secret in the state,” said Downing. “It’s time to let that secret out. It’s really a different world now.”