Empowering Futures

How Salem's Comprehensive CTE Programs Are Shaping Students' Lives

Jaime Campos / Salem News

As an immigrant scholar who arrived in the United States in the mid-’90s at 12 years old, I was steered toward career and technical education (CTE) programs due to presumptions about me as a bilingual immigrant. Regrettably, that meant I was not exposed to college options and had limited interaction with my high school counselor. Like many other multiple language students, the message I received was that college was not a viable path for me. The only postsecondary options I was introduced to were direct-to-industry and union apprenticeships. This exposure, along with employability and entrepreneurial skills, was provided by my CTE instructors, who played a critical role in preparing me for life after high school. I ventured into entrepreneurship during my sophomore year with my instructors’ support after completing my first year in the vocational program. They guided me in launching my own construction business in high school and promoting it to all teachers. This endeavor became a cornerstone of my professional experience and led to 12 successful years in construction company management.

Subsequently, I had the opportunity to become a substitute teacher for the very program I had graduated from, and this unexpected experience was a turning point in my career journey. I decided to pursue a degree in occupational education. My initial college experience was marked by challenges, including learning how to navigate college applications, needing remedial courses to bridge academic gaps, and adapting to online learning platforms. Nonetheless, I persisted and ultimately obtained my degree while teaching carpentry to students who also needed the access to postsecondary planning that could have greatly benefited me. My journey strongly influenced my commitment to providing CTE that supports all students in maximizing their postsecondary education and career options.

In today’s modern educational landscape, CTE is a powerful force that can transform students’ paths to success. As my story shows, those paths are no longer confined to a rigidly linear trajectory. Through CTE, students receive a personalized approach that aligns with the ever-evolving needs of our global economy and provides them flexibility and support to achieve their educational and career aspirations. To do this successfully, CTE programs feature standards-based course content, career pathways guided by industry professionals, and evaluations that foster continuous improvement. In this article, I explore the role of these elements in a comprehensive CTE program at Salem High School in Massachusetts.

Jaime Campos / Salem News

Bridging Academics and Practical Skills in Salem

In the past, vocational education often focused on preparing students primarily for direct entry into specific industries, with limited exposure to other career pathways.* However, contemporary CTE programs provide a highly comprehensive education that goes beyond vocational skills. Students enjoy broader opportunities and are actively encouraged to prepare for diverse pathways, including direct entry into industry or union apprenticeships, or to pursue higher education. They are exposed to advanced coursework and receive instruction in safety practices, embedded academics to strengthen core knowledge, entrepreneurship lessons, employability skills development, and computer literacy and applications. The aim is to provide students with a robust foundation of soft and transferable skills, empowering them to excel in various careers and adapt to evolving job markets.

CTE is a dynamic bridge between academic learning and practical skills, addressing the growing need for a workforce equipped with both knowledge and hands-on expertise. A fundamental aspect is its integration with academic standards. These standards in CTE curricula underscore the belief that technical expertise and academic proficiency are mutually reinforcing, working in tandem to give students a broader skill set.

In our school, we have seen how this dynamic bridge provides students with an array of postsecondary options and prepares them for the modern workforce. Salem High School, one of 11 schools in Massachusetts’s Salem Public Schools district, boasts a diverse student body of about 900 students with various racial and ethnic backgrounds and various needs. The student population is 49.7 percent Hispanic, 34.7 percent white, 8.2 percent African American, and 3.1 percent Asian, and over half of all students (64.9 percent) are classified as low income. Just over a third of students (34.7 percent) report that English is not their first language, 15.7 percent identify as English language learners, 24.2 percent receive support for disabilities, and 72.8 percent are categorized as high-needs students.1 Salem High School embraces this diversity. We are committed to providing an inclusive and supportive learning environment to cater to all students’ unique needs and aspirations.

Salem High School’s comprehensive CTE department stands out as a unique vocational program in Massachusetts, offering an educational model distinct from the state’s regional technical school approach. Salem students follow a comprehensive daily schedule that seamlessly integrates academics (including advanced coursework), electives, and CTE classes. They begin with a ninth-grade exploratory program, which offers a comprehensive introduction to our career and technical areas through an engaging project-based curriculum. Students gain insight into various fields through our 10 programs: Automotive Technologies, Building and Property Management, Carpentry, Culinary Arts, Early Education and Care, Electrical, Graphic Design, Marine Services Technology, Medical Assisting, and Programming and Web Design. This early exposure helps them make informed choices about their educational and career paths. Freshmen also engage in postgraduation course planning through the school counseling office.

After this initial introduction, students, or “scholars,” as we call them, choose one area of concentration, plus two alternative concentrations in case their first choice is oversubscribed. While it is possible for scholars to be placed in a second- or third-choice program, placement by nonselective lottery ensures that every scholar has an equal opportunity to secure their first-choice program. Those who do not are placed on a waiting list so that as many students as possible can explore their preferred areas of study.

Once accepted, our scholars begin three years of increasingly in-depth study within their chosen field. They take a carefully structured sequence of technical courses—complemented by detailed syllabi and hands-on work experiences designed by the program teachers in collaboration with advisory boards—that facilitates their progression to advanced proficiency. Their educational activities emphasize higher-order reasoning, continuous improvement, professional development, and problem-based learning. Additionally, we prioritize career planning through workshops and career software tools like MEFA Pathway and Pathful, fostering self-assessment, exploration, and goal setting.

Our CTE programs also feature postsecondary linkages through Massachusetts’s Commonwealth Dual Enrollment Partnership and optional pathways with endorsements (which indicate a student has completed a CTE course sequence). Salem now has several specialized fields of study or pathways, including pharmacy tech in our Medical Assisting program and K–12 education in our Early Education and Care program. These pathways represent alternative or specialized tracks, allowing students to make choices aligned with their interests, goals, or aptitudes. Endorsements within these pathways focus on specific skills, knowledge areas, or industries and provide students a more customized and relevant learning experience.

Throughout their CTE coursework, scholars have opportunities to earn nationally recognized certifications and accreditations in the automotive (ASE), hospitality (ServSafe), medical (CCMA, CPR/AED, first aid, OSHA), and technology (Adobe, CompTIA Security+, Google Data Analytics, ISC2 Certified in Cybersecurity) fields, among others. They also gain essential postsecondary education and career skills, including emotional intelligence and critical thinking. Crucially, every CTE scholar pursues a clear pathway toward industry engagement with options for postsecondary education to achieve an industry certificate, associate degree, or higher. Our well-established articulation agreements with colleges and technical institutes both locally and across the United States ensure a seamless transition for our students pursuing their higher education and career goals.

As subject matter experts-turned-instructors, educators in CTE play a pivotal role in fostering all of these opportunities. Salem High School has utilized networking to draw experienced industry professionals from automotive dealerships, hospitals, and restaurants into our CTE programs. Their dual expertise ensures that students receive a comprehensive education beyond traditional classroom learning. Moreover, the practical nature of CTE programs often resonates with students, resulting in increased engagement in and enthusiasm for their studies. To find highly credentialed industry professionals willing to educate high school scholars, Salem recognizes years in industry as years in education for competitive pay and to acknowledge the value of these individuals’ knowledge and expertise. Additionally, Salem High School assists with continuous professional development so that CTE educators can stay current in teaching methodologies and the dynamic changes within their industries.

Continuous Improvement

In the ever-evolving CTE landscape, continuous improvement is essential to meet the needs of scholars and the demands of the modern workforce. We enhance our program through regular evaluations, active advisory group engagement, integrating technology and academic curriculum standards to adhere to performance targets, and improving program accessibility for our students. This reflects our unwavering dedication to providing all students with a comprehensive and inclusive CTE experience.


A key component of Salem’s continuous improvement is an evaluation process that involves all CTE program stakeholders. This collaborative approach maximizes the effectiveness of our educational programs, aligning them with the needs and expectations of students, families, educators, industries, and higher education institutions. The collective wisdom of these stakeholders is pivotal in shaping CTE programs that are dynamic, relevant, and responsive to both education and industry.

As part of the evaluation process, we survey all CTE scholars at the end of each school year, particularly emphasizing the outgoing senior class. We follow up with our graduates at six months, one year, and three years postgraduation. The evaluation thoroughly examines students’ experiences with our CTE programming, focusing on seven areas:

  1. Teaching and learning. We prioritize providing students with relevant, timely, and holistic learning experiences.
  2. Postgraduation readiness. This core focus ensures our program equips students to choose between entering employment in their program’s industry or pursuing postsecondary education.
  3. Equitable access. Committed to providing every student with equal opportunities to engage in high-quality CTE programs, we prioritize CTE education and college and career planning initiatives starting as early as middle school. Our nonselective lottery system reflects our dedication to fostering a diverse and inclusive educational environment.
  4. Safe, healthy learning environments. Our learning environments are designed to foster optimal conditions for student growth and development.
  5. Postgraduation planning. We proactively engage students in thoughtful decision-making aligned with their future goals.
  6. Data-informed strategies. Our commitment to continuous improvement involves data-informed strategies to enhance the overall CTE experience.
  7. Compliance/regulatory requirements. We diligently observe and adhere to statutory, regulatory, and policy standards.

Through this rigorous and comprehensive evaluation process, we aim to elevate our CTE programs’ quality and effectiveness. In addition, we actively seek feedback from our students’ employers. This ongoing assessment allows us to adapt and improve our programs to meet the evolving needs of both our scholars and the industries they enter.

Advisory Group Engagement

Our evaluation process is facilitated through a comprehensive local needs assessment, which actively involves students, parents, staff, advisory board members, and workforce development boards. By engaging these critical voices, we ensure that our CTE programs remain aligned with industry standards and continue to provide enriching educational experiences for our students and the broader community.

Collaborating with the MassHire North Shore Workforce Board2 and Salem High School’s CTE advisory boards has significantly heightened the impact of our CTE programs. The MassHire North Shore Workforce Board is composed of influential business leaders appointed by Salem’s mayor on behalf of the 19 communities that make up the North Shore region, while Salem High School’s CTE program advisory boards are composed of business leaders along with union and postsecondary representatives aligned with each CTE program. These advisors collaborate with educators and provide valuable input on industry workforce trends, necessary credentials for immediate employment, and articulation agreements with colleges. They are also instrumental in providing work-based learning experiences and postgraduation opportunities for CTE scholars. Close partnership with these groups allows us to customize CTE offerings to precisely match the local job market’s specific requirements.

We continually adapt our programs based on feedback from our advisory boards to align with our region’s workforce needs. One recent example is our carpentry program. Before 2021, this program focused heavily on cabinetmaking and woodworking. Salem High School realigned certifications and curriculum for residential carpentry after establishing a comprehensive advisory board with privately owned businesses and union business representatives/organizers outlining in-demand needs on the North Shore. Now, carpentry students learn to use technology to create and interpret plans and develop skills in hand and power tools as they make custom furniture. This collaboration, an indispensable element of contemporary education, highlights the adaptability and responsiveness of CTE to the dynamic nature of the job market.

Technology and Academic Frameworks Integration

In our pursuit of quality CTE programming and access for all students at Salem High School, we are dedicated to ongoing reviews within our School Improvement Plan. The curriculum used in each program is chosen with feedback from industry and advisory partners and aligned with the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks,3 emphasizing a thorough exploration of industry-specific elements. These frameworks are currently undergoing a multiyear process of enhancement and alignment with industry needs.

Technological advancements are instrumental in shaping workforce needs, and the influence of technology on our CTE curriculum development is twofold. First, the Massachusetts CTE Frameworks focuses primarily on industry-specific technical standards. This technology integration in CTE ensures that scholars have the latest skills and knowledge demanded by contemporary workplaces. Salem High School has invested heavily throughout all programs on cutting-edge tools and technologies for our scholars’ education. Recent investments include restaurant-grade induction cooktops and combination ovens, an automotive alignment rack and tire machine, alternative energy trainers, and two virtual dissection tables.

Second, the frameworks highlight digital literacy as a dedicated avenue for addressing the impact of technology on education to ensure that CTE students are proficient academically and have the digital literacy skills to succeed in a technology-driven world. Integrating technological advancements into our CTE curriculum positions graduates as well-rounded individuals capable of navigating modern workplaces, where digital proficiency is increasingly vital.

Integrated reading and writing strategies also have a paramount role in the embedded academic strand of the Massachusetts CTE Frameworks—and analyzing our state testing data revealed this is an area that needs our attention. To address this need, we prioritize integrating embedded academics into all aspects of learning in the CTE classroom. CTE educators utilize common planning time with academic coaches to align program curricula with reading and writing activities and assessments. They also review data to identify achievements and deficits in scholars’ skill sets and determine if course activities and summative assessments align with Salem High School’s expectations for academic rigor.

Improving Program Accessibility

Another identified opportunity for improvement was in making CTE accessible to all students. Improving accessibility requires collaboration with multiple school departments—specifically with counseling and special education. This could include refining shop-based and related curricula, as in the case of Omar. Omar, a scholar enrolled in a Life Skills sub-separate electrical program, had limited manual dexterity—so Salem purchased a circuit kit that allowed him to participate in a wiring unit alongside his peers. Creating these opportunities involves attention to detail in lesson planning, understanding accommodations, conducting assessments, and actively contributing to developing students’ individualized education programs. This departmental collaboration extends throughout our students’ college and career planning journey and always includes transferable skills aligned with their interests. By addressing this identified area for enhancement, we show our commitment to fostering a supportive learning environment for our scholars.

Jaime Campos / Salem News


There are notable challenges in implementing CTE programs. Success requires a concerted effort to alter perceptions, address resource constraints, adapt to industry changes, reduce student representation gaps, and maintain program quality and consistency. It is pivotal to address these challenges by developing effective solutions to ensure sustainable integration of CTE into educational systems.

Altering Perceptions

One prevalent challenge is the perception and stigma associated with CTE that stem from a historical bias favoring traditional academic pathways over vocational or technical education.4 To combat this, educators and policymakers need to reshape the narrative around CTE, emphasizing its value in providing academic and practical skills crucial for success in various career paths.

In Salem, while this perception is on the decline, some community members still believe CTE programs are for students who are not successful in core academics and cannot succeed in higher education. This bias can result in a lack of interest and participation in CTE programs. We have invested in educating our students about their postsecondary opportunities in Salem. We highlight articulation agreements with colleges that recognize scholars’ CTE credentials as college credits, include higher education–related careers in our public newsletters to families, and expose students to college panels alongside career and union panels.

Addressing Resource Constraints

Another significant challenge is resource constraints—including limited funding, outdated equipment, and inadequate training opportunities for educators—that potentially compromise the quality of CTE programs. Partnerships between educational institutions and industry can be harnessed to secure funding, mentorship programs, access to modern equipment, and other needed resources. As an example, our current partners, such as Salem State University, are increasing opportunities for an educator pathway at Salem High School that includes college credit through early college. Another example is a business partnership that allowed us to double the amount of equipment accessible to students in the electrical program. And we continue to advocate for increased government funding for CTE initiatives, which is vital to ensure equitable student opportunities.

Adapting to Industry Changes

Aligning CTE programs with rapidly evolving industry needs poses an ongoing challenge, given that certain sectors require constant updates to curriculum and resources. Educators and industry professionals can mitigate this challenge by establishing regular communication channels to stay informed about industry trends. Our CTE advisory boards are instrumental in ensuring that our curricula and resources align with industry standards and that students have access to education and certification opportunities for the jobs of tomorrow. We have also implemented flexible and modular program structures that allow for easier curriculum updates.

Reducing Student Representation Gaps

Despite the numerous benefits students gain from participating in CTE programs, certain demographic groups—such as women and individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds—still face visibility challenges in specific CTE fields. This lack of representation may be influenced by stereotypes, limited awareness, and systemic barriers that impede access. Inclusivity in CTE is crucial to addressing socioeconomic disparities and ensuring that all students have equal access to educational and career opportunities. A diverse and inclusive CTE environment prepares individuals for success in different industries, contributes to innovation, and effectively addresses the varied needs of the labor market. Recognizing and addressing representation gaps and implementing targeted inclusivity initiatives are essential to fostering diversity and inclusiveness in CTE.

Salem High School actively seeks opportunities for diverse student representation in all programs. This means dismantling barriers and creating environments that inspire individuals from diverse backgrounds to explore career pathways. First, our CTE department is among the district’s most diverse, including educators who are nontraditional by gender, are multilingual, and represent multiple ethnicities. Additionally, we carefully consider inclusive representation in our educational tools, such as our Medical Assisting manikins and the baby simulators in Early Education and Care. Finally, all our advisory boards are highly inclusive and representative of Salem High School’s student body. By actively breaking stereotypes, addressing biases, and fostering diversity, CTE can contribute to overcoming traditional gender or cultural dominance in specific fields. Initiatives aimed at enhancing diversity in CTE—such as targeted outreach, awareness campaigns, mentorship programs, collaborations with community organizations, and including diverse role models and success stories in curricula—help us create a more inclusive educational setting.

Maintaining Program Quality and Consistency

Ensuring the quality and consistency of CTE programs across different regions is a multifaceted challenge that necessitates standardizing curricula and certification processes. Government bodies are crucial in establishing and enforcing these standards, requiring collaboration between different levels of government, educational institutions, and industry representatives to create a cohesive and nationally recognized framework for CTE. Governments play a pivotal role by offering adequate funding, establishing supportive policies, and emphasizing the significance of CTE. Educators must continually update their skills and collaborate with industry partners to ensure their programs remain relevant. Industry leaders contribute substantially by providing internships, apprenticeships, and insights into the skills required in the workforce. By fostering collaboration among these stakeholders, CTE implementation challenges can be reframed as opportunities to establish a resilient and effective CTE ecosystem.

Another facet of maintaining quality and consistency is professional development so that CTE teachers continually update their instructional practices and subject matter knowledge to maintain relevance in their fields. To address this, Salem High School provides tuition reimbursement to take the necessary academic classes for professional licensure, connection to a mentor to navigate professional development, weekly common planning time with an academic coach to align lesson planning to embedded academics, and regular supervision and observation to provide feedback and reinforce strong teaching practices. The broader spectrum of skills and career pathways now covered by CTE necessitates a diverse teacher skill set, including technical expertise and the ability to foster critical thinking, problem solving, and effective communication in students. Additionally, the blurred boundary between vocational and academic education means that keeping up with technological advancements, integrating digital tools into classrooms, and simulating real-world experiences are integral aspects of educators’ instructional practices.

Salem High School ensures all CTE educators can attend the yearly Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators (MAVA) Connecting for Success conference. Multiple educators have been able to travel to other comprehensive and regional schools to observe their CTE programs and receive job alike professional development with other educators in their fields. Finally, CTE educators are continually connected to the MAVA training that applies to their programs and individual professional learning goals. These opportunities underscore the dynamic nature of modern career-focused education, where educators play a pivotal role in preparing students for the ever-changing landscape of the professional world.


Salem High School’s comprehensive CTE program showcases our commitment to providing a personalized educational experience that seamlessly integrates academic knowledge with practical skills. Through meticulous evaluation and continuous improvement efforts, we aim to deliver a well-rounded, inclusive educational journey for all our scholars. Collaborations with regional workforce development boards and advisory boards exemplify our adaptability and responsiveness to local job markets, solidifying CTE’s standing as an indispensable element of contemporary education.

My journey from immigrant scholar to entrepreneur and educator illuminates both the profound impact of CTE on students’ lives and careers and the pivotal role of CTE educators. My participation in CTE equipped me with practical skills for the workforce, and my instructors were central to my career trajectory and success. Similarly, the success stories emerging from Salem’s CTE programs show the magnitude of their impact on students. Our graduates share narratives of CTE experiences that propelled them into thriving careers and unforeseen opportunities. These stories show CTE’s immediate impact on employability and its long-term impact on career growth and advancement. For instance, one 2023 Medical Assisting graduate is currently a student at Endicott College and works part time at North Shore Physicians Group, utilizing the Medical Assisting certificate she received in high school. In essence, the combination of hands-on skill development, critical-thinking enhancement, and real-world experience associated with this student’s CTE program shaped the trajectory of her life.

While we celebrate the numerous success stories and benefits we have seen through CTE at Salem High School, we know that there are many challenges yet to address to ensure equal access to educational and career opportunities for all students. It is imperative that governments, educators, and industry stakeholders collaborate to cultivate a robust CTE ecosystem. CTE is a dynamic and responsive force that goes beyond a mere academic pursuit. It is a transformative influence that prepares students for success in an ever-evolving professional landscape and ultimately empowers them to thrive amid the challenges and opportunities of our contemporary world.

Mario Sousa is the director of career and technical education at Salem High School in Salem, Massachusetts. Previously, he was a lead carpentry teacher for Somerville Public Schools and operated a successful construction company for 12 years.

*For more on the history of CTE, see “The Shaping of CTE in Massachusetts and Beyond.” (return to article)

To learn about Massachusetts’s regional technical schools, see “From Margins to Mainstream: Bringing Career-Connected Learning to Scale.” (return to article)

In addition to the Massachusetts CTE Frameworks, I have found it helpful to review other states’ standards. For details, see “Resource Alert: State CTE Standards Report.” (return to article)


1. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, “School and District Profiles: Salem High (02580505),” profiles.doe.mass.edu/profiles/student.aspx?orgcode=02580505&orgtypecode=6&leftNavId=300&.

2. MassHire, “North Shore Workforce Board,” masshire-northshorewb.com/.

3. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, “Career Technical Education: Career Technical Education (Chapter 74) Frameworks,” August 1, 2023, doe.mass.edu/ccte/cvte/frameworks.

4. S. Tucker and A. Hughes, “Endorsement of Career and Technical Education: Phenomena Influencing Core-Subject Teacher Perceptions,” Journal of Technology Education 31, no. 2 (2020): 40–55.

American Educator, Spring 2024