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By Collin Breaux

Capistrano Unified School District Superintendent Kirsten Vital Brulte asked district staff to provide a more cohesive career technical education program about six years ago, with multiple options for students.

At a CUSD Board of Trustees meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 19, Pati Romo, executive director of college and career readiness for the district, presented an update on how that initiative is going.

Enrollment numbers in the program have increased in the years since the initiative was emphasized in the district. Since 2016, enrollment grew from 5,197 to 15,161. A majority of high school graduates who took two or three career technical education courses in high school91%—enrolled in college, according to an informational slide shown at the meeting.

“Of that number, 80% meet their post-secondary goals,” Romo said. “That data shows us that CTE is for every student, and once you find your passion, it can change your trajectory.”

Numerous courses are offered in CUSD for various sectors and career pathways, including agriculture and natural resources, business and finance, and engineering and architecture. More than 150 courses are available.

“Forty-two percent of those courses are articulated, meaning students are earning college credit,” Romo said.

The percentage of high school students in the program earning college credit is said to be the highest in Orange County, at 34%.

“The average in the state is 3%,” Romo said. “We score a 42 out of 44 as being (a) California Department of Education highly qualified CTE program. We really think that increased career guidance is going to help us earn that perfect score. In those efforts, we have hired a new college and career guidance coordinator.”

CUSD also has more than 500 business and industry partners who provide internships and field trips, serve as guest speakers, and help advise with the curriculum. CUSD is partnering with the University of California, Irvine to offer a six-week class on e-sports this spring, and again next summer, utilizing the school’s e-sports lab.

“We also plan to build our own e-sports lounge, and we’re looking at a couple of high school sites right now,” Romo said. “In South Orange County, that would serve as a hub for all the high schools that have a more difficult time getting in the college-level labs.”

More than 5,900 students earned industry certification last year, and the district expects to double that number this year, Romo said.

More than $16 million has been received in grant funds for CTE use from 2016 to 2020. That money has been invested into classes and educational labs, including for culinary arts, dental assistant programs, and theater production at all high schools.

“By the way, we are the only district in California that offers surgical tech for our high school students,” Romo said.

Free educational courses are also offered for adults in careers that include cybersecurity, hotel and hospitality, and pharmacy technician.

“It’s amazing. I love it,” Trustee Lisa Davis said after Romo’s presentation. “I love all the options. I love the direction we’re going and where we’ve moved in the last six years.”

In other news from the meeting, a resolution urging more local school district control with COVID-19 protocols was tabled by Trustee Judy Bullockus, who originally placed the item on the agenda.

“There is a major misconception about the resolution I had planned to bring forward to the board this evening, and in looking to accomplish what I had wanted to do, I think that the time tonight would be better spent on other agenda items,” Bullockus said.

School districts currently have to follow state health guidelines, which have required students and adults to wear masks while indoors on school campuses throughout the pandemic. A vaccine requirement for students is also expected to be implemented later this year.

Both measures have received backlash from some students and CUSD trustees. The proposed resolution from Bullockus requests that full local decision-making authority be returned back to local school boards and directs Brulte to relay the request to state and county officials.

“This resolution further directs the Superintendent to reach out to like-minded Superintendents who may or may not have completed similar resolutions and co-author a joint letter to advocate for local decision-making authority regarding COVID-19 Health and Safety Protocols consistent with the education code and the protection of civil liberties,” the agenda report said.

The CUSD Board of Trustees has previously approved resolutions requesting changes in the state’s school mask and vaccine policies.

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com.                         

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