Mercer County Technical School offers career-oriented path for students

Every school morning, several PHS students board buses to take them to school—but instead of heading to PHS, they are dropped off at Mercer County Technical School in Pennington.

At MCTS, juniors and seniors from all of the county’s high schools receive training in career fields such as business, culinary arts, management, cosmetology, and engineering. PHS students who have chosen to attend MCTS spend half the day there preparing for a career and the other half at the high school, taking English, math, science, and physical education—the courses required for graduation.

According to guidance counselor Tom Filippone, students enrolled must have a particular interest for the subject they are applying for. “[The program is] very specific because [the students] have an interest, passion, or desire to learn more in particular classes in that career field,” he said. “[Admissions officers] look at passion, determination, motivation, and interests in those specific career fields.”

photo: Annie Gao

Students get on the bus to Mercer County Technical School after 4th period, where they spend the rest of their day. photo: Annie Gao

Denise Spivey ’16 spends two and a half hours in the morning in a cosmetology class where she learns to cut and style hair, after which she is bussed back to PHS just in time for fifth period.

Although students in the shared time program attend only four periods at PHS instead of eight, they find ways to make up for the lost time and requirements. “I can take another class [in addition to cosmetology at MCTS] if necessary. For example, I can take a math class if I can’t schedule it in my classes at PHS,” Spivey said.

In addition, students who go to MCTS receive high school credits for doing so. “Going there gives me 20 credits, so I’m not really missing anything. My freshman [and sophomore] year I did a lot of the [required] electives, so I already did everything [needed],” Spivey said.

Leah Adams ’15 also attends MCTS and goes to the school twice a week to participate in its culinary program. “On Wednesday I have a class called Food and Culture, and on Thursdays I take Baking I,” she said. “[In Baking I] we learn about safety and sanitation, as well as baking skills … Food and Culture is a cooking class, but it explores different cultures around the world and their history. Each week, we study a different culture, get different recipes, and learn a cultural lesson.”

Graphic: Helen Schrayer

Spivey found out about the shared time program from some of her older friends who were enrolled, and decided to apply. “A lot of my friends that were juniors were going there for cosmetology, and I just wanted to have a backup plan in case going to college doesn’t work out,” she said.

Some students at MCTS like Lauren Evanovich ’16 decided to attend because they would like to go into that career directly after graduation. Evanovich is enrolled in the school’s culinary arts class, and wants to become a chef. “I hope to be a chef and have my own restaurant, or to do something with food,” she said.

Many of the courses offered to high schoolers at MCTS prepare students to go right in to their chosen field of work after graduation. “Cosmetology … has 1200 hours built into the curriculum, [and at the end I] get a license. When I get to 600 hours, I can get my permit. That means I can work at hair salons and start making money,” Spivey said.

Adams applied to go to MCTS simply to get away from the traditional schooling PHS offers. “[I applied because] I didn’t really like traditional high school,” she said. “I think cooking is a good skill, but it’s not something I would do professionally.”

Attending classes at MCTS can also help with recommendations and college credits. “You get college credits and references from the teachers because they get to see you working,” Adams said.

After finding classes at PHS dull and non-practical, Etienne Gerdes ’17 got a chance in his freshman year to apply to MCTS. “I was really bored in high school and I wasn’t doing anything that would go toward my future career aspirations. Chemistry and algebra weren’t going to help me, so my guidance counselor told me that I could go to technical school and do more with what I care about. I’m wasting less time now,” he said.

Gerdes takes a business class called Business Office Applications and Technology at MCTS. “We mostly do desktop publishing, lots of projects using PowerPoint and Excel, participate in competitions … We also type up things for teachers, make copies for them, and do anything they need us to do,” he said. “The goal of the course is to teach us to be good secretaries and to learn general information on business, like … the financial aspects as well as customer service.”

MCTS even has direct connections with employers in New Jersey. “They have a lot of things that are built into certain programs for co-ops and internships … They have connections with community agencies that contact them every year to say that they are trying to hire a student,” Filippone said.

Even at school, students get many opportunities for real-world experience in their line of work. In Evanovich’s culinary arts class, one of the goals is to serve lunch in a restaurant to other students attending technical school at the center. “We have a restaurant there that serves all of the kids who go to the Sypek center, and we get to learn the fundamentals of cooking and the main techniques and skills,” she said.

Spivey believes that the low number of students enrolled is mostly due to misconceptions many students have. “A lot of people think it’s less than going to PHS for the whole day, when really, it’s like going to college and high school at the same time,” she said.

Many students who consider the program decide not to enroll. Rebecca Zhou ’16 decided not to apply in her sophomore year because she wanted to try the wide variety of classes that PHS has to offer. “[My worry was that] I wouldn’t be able to take all of the classes that I wanted at PHS. I wanted to learn things like science and math, so I didn’t want to go into technical school. I’m not sure what I want to do yet, and I want to try more things before I decide [upon a career],” she said.

Drake Marsaly ’17 also decided not to apply because of the financial aspects of technical jobs, and his interests in classes offered at PHS. “The jobs [you get out of technical school] don’t earn as much as some of the other jobs you could get with degrees from traditional education,” he said. “I’m not considering [applying] because that field of jobs doesn’t really interest me. I don’t really enjoy hands-on, technical stuff. I’m looking more in law or politics.”

Gerdes thinks the inconveniences of attending MCTS for half the day are worth the experience. “I have double the homework and less time, but it is definitely worth it. I am learning so much more stuff in this class at MCTS than I learn in a week at PHS,” he said.

The shared time program at MCTS provides specialized education to those that may feel on the wrong path at their current school. “[These students] are really passionate about that career field,” Filippone said. “They get to spend half of their day for two school years doing something that they truly love and find a connection with.”

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