Without the automotive technology program offered at Mountain View High School, James O’Neill said he is positive he would have dropped out of school during his freshman year in 2009.

Wrapping up his junior year last week, O’Neill is now looking at starting his senior year in the fall, and continuing his work in automotive technology. This has been made possible through the state’s Joint Technology Education District (JTED) program.

O’Neill was just one of more than 20,000 Pima County students to participate in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs funded by JTED.

JTED was approved by Pima County voters in 2006, with voters putting $4 million toward the program aimed at training students in selected professions at the high school level. The state has been contributing the additional funds.

JTED aims to provide CTE classes to students in such specialized areas as automotive technology, sports medicine, culinary arts, teaching, and building and construction.

However, JTED administrators and educators statewide are concerned that students like O’Neill will be lost in future years now that the Arizona Legislature has cut $29 million to fund freshmen entering the program in the 2011-2012 school year. The decision to use JTED as a means to balance the state’s $1.4 billion deficit meant Pima County JTED lost $10 million, or 52 percent, of its total budget. Now, districts and JTED are working to prepare for the coming year.

“We were just stunned when the state made this decision,” said Greg D’Anna, a spokesman for Pima County JTED. “We were bracing for cuts, but this was just completely unexpected. The result of this action will be a loss of students.”

The highest class with the highest rate of dropouts is ninth grade. JTED was created to connect with ninth-graders by incorporating their interests into their schooling, which then enables them to understand the value of such core curriculum as math and science.

O’Neill said since entering the automotive program as a freshman, he has been able to see why math applies to fixing a car and why technology is important to the automotive industry.

Leah Oliver, an athletic trainer in sports medicine at Mountain View High School, said the program is essential to keep students engaged in school.

The result of state cuts means the Marana Unified School District will lose $580,000 in the 2011-2012 school year. And, while administrators will spend the next month figuring out a budget that cuts another $3.3 million, one goal is to keep JTED intact for freshmen.

“We are doing our best to include as many freshmen in next year’s program as possible,” Oliver said. “The state made these cuts, but at the same time added more math and science requirements. That means fewer electives, and if we can’t reach these students as freshmen, we may not ever get them engaged.”

D’Anna said the Marana School District has made this commitment, adding other districts do not have the funds to do so. Besides JTED funding, the state legislature also cut an additional $183 million from public education.

David Damiani, instructor of automotive technology at Mountain View, said the bottom line is O’Neill is not alone; the JTED program is needed to keep students in school. Many JTED students end up staying in school because they want to succeed in the programs, he said.

“In all schools, the reality is there is a huge freshmen failure rate,” Damiani said. “If we lose them as freshmen with these cuts, then we won’t get the chance to get them in our programs at all as sophomores.”

In tracking results of JTED, D’Anna said students participating in the program for four years have a 99-percent graduation rate. The graduation rate in Pima County for students not in JTED is 75 percent.

D’Anna said one alternative under consideration at some school districts, especially for programs that require four-year participation, is to double up on core class requirements at the ninth-grade level, which would allow students to double up on electives their sophomore year.

However, the drawback is it means harder classes for freshmen, which doesn’t help the dropout problem.

Besides recruiting students struggling in the regular-school setting, JTED is also aimed at helping high achievers get more college credits, scholarships and opportunities before they receive their high school diploma.

Senior Aaron Karrer and junior Haley Jones have been participating in the sports medicine program, and unlike many high schoolers, have no doubt they have taken steps toward a clear career path.

“A lot of JTED programs are hands on, and really geared toward your future,” Jones said. “A lot of the required high school classes don’t have the hands-on aspect.”

Karrer said he feels more prepared to attend college next year. With a love of sports, and the desire for a career in medicine, the high-achieving senior said sports medicine offered him a “great opportunity.”

By getting recognized through JTED, Karrer has already been participating in job shadowing programs, and will be attending Northern Arizona University.

Besides the improved education and test scores, O’Neill is also facing plenty of opportunities once he graduates in 2012.

Thanks to the four-year program, Damiani said businesses like Jim Click Ford are not only offering students jobs right out of high school, but they also are helping them pay for college.

O’Neill said he is excited to know that companies like Jim Click will give him a job, and provide tools, benefits and scholarships.

As one of the students benefiting from the programs, Jones said she doesn’t understand the thought process lawmakers had by cutting funding for freshmen. She noted that most CTE programs require the four years of high school training to enter a certain program in college, or enter the workforce after graduation.

“This has really prepared me for life, for problem solving and to be prepared for the future,” she said. “I know I can take what I’ve learned and apply it in college and in my career.”

D’Anna agreed, noting state lawmakers neglected to contact his office and ask what the damage would be before making their cuts.

One possible consequence will be lower sophomore scores on the state-administered AIMS test. After entering the program in their freshmen year, JTED students are scoring at least 30 points higher on AIMS in their sophomore year, D’Anna said.

Unfortunately, as JTED administrators and school officials statewide plan for the new school year, what happens to the youngest students entering the program is still unknown for many districts.

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