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U.S. Secretary of Education visits Groton to highlight career technical education

Groton — Ella T. Grasso Technical High School junior Tyler White, wearing a helmet and protective gear in his welding shop, told U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on Friday that the past three years of his life have been absolutely phenomenal and he's learned so much.

"I'm just so thankful every day," White said.

When Cardona asked White if he was developing needed skills, White said he feels more than qualified to go out and get a job. He then did a demonstration of the welding skills he is learning at Grasso Tech.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, invited Cardona to Groton on Friday to put the spotlight on a nationally recognized Blue Ribbon school, Thames River Magnet School, and then to talk at Grasso Tech about an issue critical to the region and the country: how to give kids the skills they need for the 21st century.

"It's really inspiring to hear from students directly how much they love school, how much they love their programming, and, for so many of these students, they know they have jobs lined up when they leave," Cardona told reporters near the end of his visit at Grasso.

He said this is an example of what the federal government wants to see across the country: beautiful facilities with not only opportunities for K-12 students, but also programs at technical schools for adults who are looking to reskill and get jobs. 

In addition to housing programs for its high school students, the Grasso Tech building is home to the Three Rivers Community College Manufacturing Apprenticeship Center, which has classes for adult students. High school students participating in the Youth Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative also take an evaluation at the center, according to the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board website.

"Career technical education is a priority for this administration. It's a priority for me," Cardona said.

"We need to provide our students in Connecticut and across the country options for success, and I believe Connecticut has a pathway to do that," he added.

He said he really feels Connecticut can lead the nation in some of this work. He said it's important to have the career technical education curriculum in comprehensive high schools, as well as technical high schools, so kids have choices when they graduate.  

During a panel discussion at Grasso Tech — in the expanded school building that opened in 2019 — students told Cardona and Courtney about all they are learning and their plans for the future.

Senior Juliana Walker, who is in the Bio-science and Environmental Technology Trade and wants to be a doctor, said she loves how she is learning so many different things, from regenerative farming to wastewater treatment, and realizing how many possibilities there are.

She said she feels very prepared, and her teachers are trying to impress upon students to be the best that they can be and then they will have all these options in front of them.

"That's the key thing, options, right?" Cardona said. "I went to a technical high school but I ended up going to college for teaching — but I had options."

Courtney told the students that their interests connect with where the country is going. For example, the infrastructure bill that just passed relates to automotive technology with investments in electrical vehicles, building technology and climate change, among other fields.

Thames River Magnet School

Earlier in the day, Cardona and Courtney visited Thames River Magnet School, a new elementary school that opened at the beginning of the school year along with Mystic River Magnet School. The Groton school district has five themed magnet elementary schools.

Groton Superintendent Susan Austin welcomed Cardona to the Blue Ribbon School.

"Beautiful school," Cardona said. "Congratulations."

He and Courtney met with Groton school officials, including Austin, Assistant Superintendent Philip Piazza, Board of Education Chairwoman Kim Shepardson Watson, Principal Jamie Giordano and Assistant Principal Ada Allen, and toured the school.

In a first grade classroom in the environmental and marine sciences magnet school, Cardona asked the students sitting in a circle on a brightly colored rug what made their class so special.

The students volunteered answers: they're good at math, do hard work, fix their mistakes, never give up, and they're good at reading.

"Keep up the great work!" Cardona told the class near the end of the visit.

He then visited a second grade classroom during the morning social check-in time and asked teacher Collin Powers how important it is to have that time.

Powers said it gives him a chance to gauge how the students are doing, and it gives the students a chance to build on relationships and share about topics, such as their favorite food.

Expanding opportunities

The school district is working to increase career and technical opportunities.

Among the initiatives, the school district recently was awarded a Department of Defense Education Activity grant that “will provide students with opportunities to pursue more career pathways in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and Health Sciences,” according to information provided by the district.

Ella T. Grasso Technical High School Principal Patricia Feeney said Grasso Tech and Fitch High School will partner for a “Career Academy,” in which Fitch juniors and seniors will have the chance, starting this fall, to go to Grasso Tech after school to learn a trade and receive credit.  

Austin also is seeking more collaboration between Fitch and Grasso Tech. Already, the Fitch Falcon's Robotic team includes students from Fitch, Grasso Tech, and the Marine Science Magnet School.

k.drelich@theday.com

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