Delaware vo-tech students win $800,000 in scholarships and apprenticeships

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Aiyana Branch, who wants to be a hair stylist and salon owner, won a first place award for her skills demo. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Aiyana Branch, who wants to be a hair stylist and salon owner, won a first place award for her skills demo. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

One in six Delaware public high school students attends a vocational-technical school. The kids get a full slate of academic courses but also learn trades and professions such as plumbing, masonry, cosmetology, culinary arts, video production, and crime-scene investigation.

Dozens of those students were honored recently with a share of about $800,000 in apprenticeships and scholarships. Others won awards for leadership and skills.

One winner was Aiyana Branch, a senior at Hodgson Vocational Technical High who wants to cut hair for a living and someday own a hair salon. She’s already working at a shop but plans to attend Delaware Technical Community College to learn the business skills needed to be an entrepreneur.

Already her skills are turning heads, though. Branch won first place in a demo in the annual contest run by nonprofit Delaware Skills USA, which works in concert with the Department of Education to promote vocational-technical education.

“It was really a challenge because it was something I did myself. And I didn’t do with a group or anything,’’ Branch said. “You have to perform something, so I performed a perm in front of judges and I basically told them all the stuff on how to do it.”

Delaware has six vo-tech high schools. Four are in New Castle County and one each in Kent and Sussex counties.

Vo-tech is so popular that some schools have waiting lists. Other traditional high schools and middle schools are also offering vo-tech pathways. For example, all three of the Colonial School District’s middle schools have vo-tech curriculums. The Red Clay district’s McKean High lets kids focus on non-academic pathways such as culinary arts and automotive tech.

In New Castle County’s vo-tech schools, spokeswoman Kathy Demarest said, students can pick from 39 different career and technical areas. Three-fourths of seniors participate in “co-op” programs that consist of spending half of every school day, or two weeks full time, working in their fields of study.

Demarest said students do their co-ops not only in the traditional construction trades, but also as certified nursing assistants in rehabilitation facilities, and in the financial industry and law offices.

Skilled labor key to a thriving economy

While Delaware leaders push hard to entice big businesses to relocate or build facilities in the state, employees of those businesses will need skilled people to cut their hair, fix their vehicles, prepare their meals and desserts at restaurants, build their homes, and take care of issues with electricity, plumbing and air conditioning.

Going to Hodgson Vocational-Technical High rather than a traditional high school helped Branch focus on her future, she said.

“Kids our age are pushed to figure out what we want at such a young age, and it’s really hard to figure out. And I feel vo-techs are good because you get to try things out and even if you want [to go to] college … you still have the opportunity but you can still go straight to a job. Or just go to college for something different. So it’s giving you a head start on basically whatever you want to do.”

Then there’s budding pastry chef Ky’Sia Jackson. The Howard High School of Technology student won a partial scholarship from the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia for commercial baking.

Ky’Sia Jackson aspires to be a pastry chef. She won a partial college scholarship. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“I had to bake a lot, cakes, pies, cookies, breads,’’ she said. “It feels great. I worked so hard.”

Howard principal Colleen Conaty said her grads are ready to take jobs or higher-level training.

“Students earning industry-recognized credentials, it allows them to enter the workforce at a higher-than-minimum-level job,’’ Conaty said. “It’s their entry into a skilled workforce.”

Jim Hill, who teaches automotive technology at St. George’s Technology High, said the demand for skilled labor is high.

“There are still trades that need skilled technicians. And there’s still jobs available. The jobs are not going away,’’ he said.

“I mean, the automotive industry is huge. Right now, we have huge openings for diesel techs. A lot of things are going with new technology, with hybrid vehicles and alternative fuels. So things are transitioning, but vehicles will be around still.”

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