By Jody Steinberg

This year, at least 30 percent of Hispanic students in Georgia did not graduate high school with their classmates. Cross Keys High School is hoping that an expanded Career Technology program is going to help them beat the odds and increase graduation rates.

The Title I school draws students from the many apartments along Buford Highway from the Latin American Association headquarters near Cheshire Bridge Road to the heavily Asian communities outside of I-285. Many are the first generation to have access to formal education, lack a native’s command of the English language and don’t plan to attend college. Staying in high school to earn a diploma has little appeal if a family needs food on the table now.

So when High School Technology North closed last spring, it seemed a good idea to transfer some of its career-track certification programs and experienced teachers to Cross Keys High School, where the more practical, work-based learning experience can be the key to keeping students in school. This semester, CKHS students are working towards industry certifications in Engineering, Construction, Early Childhood, Nursing, Dental, Navy ROTC and Business & Computer Science. The hands-on programs prepare students for entry-level jobs, apprenticeships and trade-based secondary education and industry certification.

Each program encompasses a variety of trades within the field – for example Construction students study electrical, plumbing, carpentry and masonry. Each program also requires a sequence of classes, ranging from Business Skills and Family and Consumer Sciences to Microbiology and Healthcare Communications. Because students enroll in the individual classes to work towards their certifications, Cross Keys can’t say how many students are enrolled in CT; using a method that could count the same student two or three times, they count 718 student enrollments in CT courses this semester vs. 609 last year.

The increasing popularity and success of the Career Tech is evidenced in the amount of money being plowed into new facilities. SPLOST funds are being used to add or improve CT facilities, averaging 12,000 square feet, at most DeKalb high schools.

When renovation and expansion of the fourth wing is finished, CT space will nearly double at CKHS to 15,400 feet, with enough room for two of the most popular CT programs, Cosmetology and Auto Service Technology. DeKalb has 19 CT certification programs, so some students take core courses at their home school and transfer to another school in the region for three hours daily for a specific CT program. Many students are frustrated that the auto program is on hiatus in North DeKalb due to lack of space, and hope it will be available at Cross Keys soon. However, construction delays could push the move back until next fall.

Even without the auto tech program, officials and faculty have their eyes set on a stronger, more engaging CT program. With real industry-standard equipment and instruction, certifications that will jump-start graduates into better-paying jobs, the opportunity to excel in school without mastery of English, and the chance to be a first-generation high school graduate, Cross Keys and DeKalb County are banking on the Career Tech program to increase student retention and raise graduation rates.