PORTLAND — Alex Beaver studied carpentry at Portland Arts & Technology High School, better known as PATHS, and now runs his own contracting business.

Tyler Bernier studied woodworking at PATHS and quickly landed a job at Rockler Woodworking. He’s now the assistant manager.

Shae Friou, 17, a Casco Bay High School senior, plans to use her welding skills from PATHS to help pay for college in California next year.

With a struggling economy, Michael Johnson, the new PATHS principal, is pitching his school as the best avenue in southern Maine to well-paying jobs and higher education.

“This country need this kind of experience,” said Johnson, who previously spent 10 years as principal of Portland High School.

He described PATHS students as “highly employable” and “highly skilled” and said, “After six short months here, I’m 100 percent on board.”

PATHS is the city’s only career and technical educational school. The students come from 23 other high schools — an area stretching from Kittery to Yarmouth — and attend classes at PATHS instead of electives at their regular school.

PATHS offers programs in 21 different areas, from automotive collision technology to fashion, cooking, robotics and masonry. Students spend their days building HVAC systems, learning instruments and music production or learning how to run a greenhouse, depending on their choice of classes.

The school has changed significantly in the last decade, school officials said.

Several years ago, fewer than half of PATHS students went on to further education, including four-year universities, two-year programs and additional certification and licensing programs.

Last year, that number increased to 62 percent. Traditional students from Portland public schools move on to further education 65 percent of the time.

Superintendent Jim Morse said career and technical education schools like PATHS have switched their focus from strictly career-oriented education to more college training. PATHS also takes its students on college visits.

“Like everyone else, vocational schools realized high school can’t be the end of the road,” Morse said. PATHS now offers programs like nursing and new media, he said, which can lead to university studies in medicine and communications.

“It’s far different now than the program I went through,” Morse said of career and technical education schools.

Despite PATHS students’ successes — both academically and in the working world — it hasn’t translated into more students. PATHS has about 485 students this year; it has room for almost 100 more, Johnson said.

Johnson said career and technical schools’ reputations as places where few go to college — or where less-intelligent students get sent — contributes to that low enrollment. He has launched a campaign to dispel those myths and attract more students.

Morse said the reputations of CTE schools partly explains the less-than-capacity enrollment. But he also cited the inherent shortcomings of the system.

PATHS takes students from as far as 60 miles away. Those students must take time out of their regular schedule — and leave their usual classmates — to attend PATHS. “It takes real effort,” Morse said. “That’s not an easy choice to make.”

For those who do make it, many say it’s worth the effort. Fowziyo Jama, 17, a senior at Casco Bay High School who takes nursing classes at PATHS, wants to parlay her studies into a medical degree.

Jama hopes her nurse’s aide certification from PATHS, plus the clinical hours she’s logged at Maine Medical Center through the program, will help her get into medical school.

Shannon McVane, a fellow Casco Bay High senior and nursing student at PATHS, said she hopes to land a job as a nurse’s aide right out of high school.

Jade Minnerly, 16, a junior at Casco Bay High School, said she will use her welding skills to land a spot at the Advanced Welding Institute in Vermont.

“Every kid in this school is goal-oriented,” Johnson said. “I dare say, that’s not true of all kids in the Portland public school system.”

Bernier, 26, who is now in charge of hiring at Rockler Woodworking, said his experience with finishings and building Shaker-style furniture led to Rockler’s hiring him. And if a PATHS student ever applied for a job with him, he’d give them strong consideration.

“When you’re looking for someone for your company, you want them to have experience,” he said. “PATHS gives you that.”

Online Editor Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or: jsinger@pressherald.com