BATH — The Bath Regional Career and Technical Center will offer its programs to ninth and 10th graders in the 2020/2021 academic year as part of an exploratory program. 

The Regional School Unit 1 board of directors voted unanimously Monday to approve the expansion, which was proposed by Julie Kenny, director of the technical center, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this academic year. 

The exploratory program will allow 30 ninth- and 10th-grade students to explore engineering, graphic design, and carpentry programs, which were previously only offered to 11th and 12th graders. By expanding the program to ninth and 10th graders, “students will have the opportunity to design, build, and create while beginning to think about future career opportunities,” said Kenny. 

“Some students have already figured out what they want to do, so these programs allow them to pursue interests a little earlier,” said Jason Judd, executive director of Educate Maine, a nonprofit that partners with all career and technical education centers in Maine.

When students are able to access vocational training earlier in their high school education, it creates the opportunity for students to graduate with at least one if not multiple certifications, according to Judd. 

Dwight Littlefield, director of the career and technical center division of the Maine Department of Education, called vocational schools, “a pipeline into the workforce,” which directly benefit Maine’s labor shortage. 

“We have a fair amount of students who choose to continue their education, but one of our goals is to prepare them to be a contributor in the workforce directly after graduation,” said Littlefield. 

While Maine as a whole is in need of employees, construction, healthcare, and engineering fields are feeling the brunt of the shortage, according to Judd. 

Bath’s technical program expansion comes as vocational schools across the state are seeing an increase in enrollment. This year, Bath’s technical center has an enrollment of 210, up 54 students from last year. As of six months ago, there were 8,000 students enrolled in vocational programs across Maine’s 27 technical centers according to Judd. 

With enrollment climbing, Kenny said she has noticed an increase in female students, with interest in engineering and automotive fields in particular, and this expansion will allow them to explore those fields at an earlier age. 

Littlefield said while the rising number of students interested in vocational programs will benefit Maine, the challenge is finding space is to accommodate the new students. Bath’s technical center will be housed in the new Morse High School building, which is still under construction. Judd said having the technical center in the Morse High School building will benefit students because it closes the gap between traditional high school and the technical center.

According to RSU 1’s 2019 budget report, the technical center received $14,000 from a MELMAC Boosting Career and College Readiness Grant to “promote post-secondary success.” The center received an additional $19,000 through the System Innovations Grant, to begin the center’s Summer Bridge Program, which offered two weeks of career and technical programming to ninth and 10th-graders during the summer.  

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