Mars Area faces drop in vo-tech enrollment

Falling participation concerns officials

February 12, 2020 Cranberry Local News

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ADAMS TWP — Mars Area School District expects its vo-tech enrollment to drop next year, and members of the school board are concerned.

Superintendent Wesley Shipley told the board at the Feb. 4 meeting that Butler County Area Vocational-Technical School Director Kurt Speicher will be at the March 10 board meeting to discuss the vo-tech budget.

“It’s based on our participation,” Shipley said, “which, unfortunately, is going down.”

The vo-tech estimates each district’s enrollment by taking a three-year average of students, according to Mars Area business manager Jill Swaney.

Mars had 56 vo-tech students in 2017-18 and 44 in 2018-19. The district anticipates ending the 2019-20 year with a vo-tech enrollment of 38. Vo-tech enrollment isn’t official until the end of the academic year because students can leave or join during the year.

A decrease in enrollment means the district’s portion of the budget also goes down.

For the 2019-20 school year, the district’s portion of the vo-tech budget was $260,556. Current projections place its 2020-21 contribution somewhere around $246,000. That amount will be discussed in March.

“(I) believe it’s like $16,000 less next year,” Shipley said. “But I would much rather have the 20 extra kids involved than the $16,000.”

Board members concerned

Several board members indicated the drop in enrollment concerns them.

“It’s disappointing to hear that the vo-tech participation from Mars is going down,” said Christine Valenta.

Valenta said the district must provide different types of learning opportunities because not all students are the same. Vo-tech schools can offer students key insight when planning for their futures.

“We know that not all students are bound for college,” Valenta said. “They’re not all college students.”

Valenta said she wants the district to begin engaging and educating parents — not just students — on vocational opportunities.

“Starting in middle school,” Valenta said, “there are so many students at the high school sitting in study hall two, three times a day.”

That time could be better used preparing for life after high school, according to Valenta.

Shipley said students who graduate from vo-tech are well-suited for jobs.

“The steamfitters union in particular hires directly out of our vo-tech,” Shipley said.

Shipley clarified that students who are enrolled in vo-tech aren’t necessarily not going to college; many students go to vo-tech before applying to colleges or universities.

Implying that students are either on a vocational or academic track is old-school, according to Shipley.

“I think that that’s a former view of vo-tech that has to be destroyed,” Shipley said.

Board member Megan Lenz said steps have been taken in the past to fight the job-or-education stereotype. Much of this effort was carried out through name changing at the state level.

“It was still ‘vo-tech’ when I went,” Lenz said. “Now, it has a fancy professional name — ‘career technical.’ ”

Mars students can enroll in vo-tech in grades 10 through 12. Board treasurer Gordon Marburger told the board that other districts provide a field trip opportunity for all students to visit vo-tech. At Mars Area, only students who are considering vo-tech participate in the field trip.

“All the other schools are an opt-out,” Marburger said. “We’re an opt-in.”

District parent Amber Rush said she remembered a vo-tech representative presenting at a board meeting last year.

“He was very well-spoken,” Rush said. “Very excited about what they had to offer.”

Rush told the board she specifically recalled the representative saying that Mars Area School District doesn’t follow the vo-tech’s recommendation when it comes to recruiting.

In light of dropping enrollment, Rush wanted to know if the board has considered revising its vo-tech recruitment process.

“Are we doing what they’re suggesting?” Rush asked.

The district hasn’t made any formal plans to change its current approach to the vo-tech enrollment process.

More information on the matter should be available when the school board meets in March.

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