By Greg Mellen
At Niguel Hills Middle School, Principal Jeff Jones is always looking for “all the things we can do to enhance the student experience.”
Earlier this year, the school became the first in the Capistrano Unified School District to open a wellness room for students.
On Aug. 29, Niguel Hills became the second middle school in the district to unveil a new Career Technical Education (CTE) center, called a Career Guidance Center, which will share space with the school’s newly refurbished library, reading, and tutoring area.
CTE, which explores and helps train students in rapidly growing industry sectors that don’t necessarily require four-year college degrees, is a growing trend in high schools nationwide. Capistrano Unified School District, which already has robust high school programs, has taken the concept to middle schools. Just a week before Niguel Hills unveiled its space, Marco Forster became the first CUSD middle school to offer a CTE center.
Under the guidance of College and Career Advantage (CCA), which works with the Capistrano and Laguna Beach school districts, middle school students are now able to learn about and get a jump start on future classes and pathways that inspire them.
With the help of funding from CCA, as well as input from the PTSA and district, Niguel Hills was able upgrade the library, removing pillars, changing the layout of book shelves, and replacing the beige color scheme with a more appealing blue and white. According to school officials, the changes have been transformational, with students and parents excited to put the space to use.
“The refreshing of the space has been amazing,” said Jones, who is a fan of CTE and CCA. “We’re excited to get the ball rolling.”
“We killed this,” said Melissa Caldwell, Niguel Hills PTSA President, of the refurbishment. “This is so good. It doesn’t smell like an old dorm room anymore.”
Dr. Paul Weir, Executive Director of College and Career Advantage, said by partnering with local schools, “we get the luxury of career technical education in new spaces like this across the district.”
“It’s really an opportunity to open their eyes to possibilities,” Jones said, “not to put pressure on, but to help them see there are so many opportunities.”
CUSD Superintendent Dr. Christopher Brown, CUSD Board members, Laguna Niguel City Council members Stephanie Oddo and Stephanie Winstead, and other school officials were on hand for a ceremonial ribbon cutting for the Career Guidance Center.
Brown said in academia a lot of time is spent talking about intellectual rigor in the abstract. CTE makes it real with concrete pathways to where study and training can lead.
“Without relevance, rigor is hard to reach,” Brown said. “This helps answer the why of rigor, so they can understand it.”
The broadening of technical and specialized-skill careers and the removal of four-year requirements are seen as a way to increase diversity in a number of job fields.
The California Department of Education states, “CTE provides students with real world 21st century skills that make them career and college ready.” The state has identified 15 industry sectors containing multiple careers. Some of these, such as agriculture, construction, culinary, and hospitality are familiar yet ever changing, as technology causes radical transformations.
Many sectors require training and education in areas such as engineering and architecture, information systems, business and finance, and medical equipment operation and design. Abilities in coding, robotics, computer systems and other constantly evolving skill sets are often required. Technical and specialized training and education open many fields to diverse populations.
“These are viable options, so they’re making informed decisions,” Brown said of the offerings. “They can go out with eyes a little more open to the adult world.”
Jones said when middle school does its job correctly, students enter high school better prepared to take advantage of all the programs, educational tracks, and opportunities.
“They’ve had time to talk about and learn about it,” he said. “They can take it easy and learn.”
Weir said staff members from CCA will be available at parent nights, during enrollment and at special events, “so we can start painting those pictures.”
Winstead, who has a son in fifth grade in CUSD, said she thought it was great to have something like the Career Guidance Center to “plant the seeds in kids’ minds.”