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Strengthening CTE through collaboration

Date: Monday, November 29, 2021

North Scott High School applied sciences teacher David Linnenbrink is on to something. He knows that teachers in career and technical education need support and shared practices, professional development and industry-standard equipment in order to teach and develop Iowa’s future skilled workforce. So what’s his plan of attack to accomplish these things? It’s collaborating with his local regional planning partnership.

Regional planning partnerships, known as RPPs, were established through state legislation in 2017 to provide a regional focus on the quality and access to career and technical education (CTE) programs. RPPs consist of representation from school districts, community colleges, intermediaries, business leaders, economic development groups, Iowa Area Education Agencies, teachers and other faculty members. RPPs throughout the state are similarly tasked with supporting and promoting CTE programs for their region’s students, but goals and priorities are individualized for local education and workforce needs.

“RPPs bring the right players and representatives together,” said Jane Bradley, administrative consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “These 15 collaborative groups truly make a difference at a regional level that impacts students in their career and technical education and work-based learning activities.”

In Iowa, RPP boards are split into regions coordinating with Iowa’s 15 community colleges. They meet at least twice a year and focus on five main areas: promoting access to career and academic planning, supporting districts in providing high-quality CTE programs, aligning CTE programming with the region’s workforce needs, supporting innovation among CTE teachers and promoting equity in the access of CTE programs to disparate populations. Additionally, smaller groups of CTE teachers will meet regularly to collaborate and share best practices.

Through these initiatives, RPPs, such as regions 9, 13 and 14, are able to strengthen their CTE programming and capacity for student learning and success through funding support and group recommendations. CTE programs are evaluated through RPPs on a five-year cycle where feedback on strengths and improvement needs are provided to school districts.

“Each CTE program is evaluated every five years,” said Marta Brooks, coordinator for RPP 9 in eastern Iowa. “This self-study evaluates the program and helps to see where programming updates are needed in order to meet the needs of students as well as the local labor market.”

For Linnenbrink, who serves as the welding chairperson for RPP 9’s advisory council, he has seen how impactful support and funding from an RPP can be.

“We have had several professional development opportunities and equipment upgrades funded through the RPP,” Linnenbrink said. “For instance, we have learned how to make the workplace safer and more efficient through trainings, purchased welding curriculum videos and learned cutting-edge welding techniques.”

A large part of an RPPs role is providing collaboration opportunities and shared resources with its region’s school districts. Linnenbrink reports he and six other welding instructors from different high schools in his region were able to attend an American Welding Society (AWS) certification training, and they were able to also offer the training for another 17 teachers across the state at no additional cost. This RPP 9-funded project helped to ensure that more welding instructors in Iowa have this industry-standard credential and are well-equipped to provide quality training to CTE students.

Similarly in RPP 14 in southwest Iowa, 10 teachers were able to participate in week-long externships through Southwest Community College’s intermediary. Each teacher was paired with a business in their field to see the latest in industry practices, build skills and partnerships and understand workforce needs. Through the RPP, each CTE teacher was also provided a $1,000 stipend to participate in the externships.

“The externships were very valuable,” said Murray Fenn, coordinator for RPPs 13 and 14. “These teachers were able to experience business applications first hand while earning a stipend. They can pass along what they’ve learned to their students.”

Fenn also notes that RPPs 13 and 14 provided funding for a five-day project-based learning (PBL) course that was facilitated by the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education. During the course, CTE teachers were innovatively paired with academic teachers to better integrate the two areas.

“It’s difficult to know where to start with project-based learning,” said Tricia Roberts, business teacher at Boyer Valley High School. “This class provided the necessary skills to get a great start at implementing it into my various classes.”

For RPPs 9, 13 and 14, funding support for professional development, resources, new equipment and other needs are provided through mini-grant proposals and are split between the six areas of CTE: agriculture, applied sciences, arts and information systems, business, health sciences and human services. Last year, RPP 9 funded 19 projects. RPP 13 provided support for 13 projects while RPP 14 assisted eight.

RPPs are vital in determining what things are needed for CTE programs and are influenced by changing student interests and labor market demands. Since many players from school districts to community colleges to economic development and industry are included, RPPs can start important discussions on how to increase access to programming through additional concurrent courses, work-based learning opportunities, shared sites between districts or even new regional centers.

“The new regional center for Eastern Iowa Community Colleges (EICC) in DeWitt began as a discussion in RPP 9,” Brooks said. “RPP 9 was able to apply for the Career Academy Incentive Fund and received the $1 million award. This helped fund EICC’s $40 million project to build a new center and expand others in eastern Iowa.”

The Career Academy Incentive Fund expands and increases equitable access to high-quality CTE programs through partnerships between school districts and community colleges. Along with Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, Indian Hills Community College and Waterloo Community School District each received a $1 million grant through the fund last year to help build new or expand existing regional centers.

Brooks says that RPPs help level the playing field, making CTE programs more equitable between small and large school districts.

“We look to see if smaller schools that have less resources need more funding support,” she said. “It helps to provide the same knowledge, equipment and training that a larger school may already have and ensures students are able to get the same CTE education experience no matter where they attend school in region 9.”

Both Brooks and Fenn note that the key to RPP success is collaboration and having strong membership. Things such as professional development, training and equipment upgrades may sound small, but they can add up to make a large impact on today’s CTE students and tomorrow’s future skilled workforce.

“We’re not just going through the motions,” Fenn said. “I think these funds -- funds that purchase new equipment, that provide training to teachers -- allow students to have a better quality, hands-on experience and provide exposure to industries and careers.”