Over the past decade, the Guilford County school district in North Carolina has been investing in its career and technical education programs, borrowing from research-backed best practices and using the lessons other districts have learned.
But, now, it’s working to take the lead.
In early 2025, the 66,000-student district expects to open what is believed to be the nation’s first elementary magnet school for gaming and robotics—an effort to loop its youngest students into career and technical education (CTE) programs that have traditionally begun in later grades.
“We have a really great opportunity ahead of us to tailor our programs to the needs of our students and community, and to start that with our youngest learners,” said the school’s principal, Kendrick Alston.
The rebuilt and revamped Foust Elementary School is scheduled to open in the spring of 2025, with space for 700 students in prekindergarten through 5th grade. Students will start the 2024-25 school year off-site.
The idea is to start with the district’s youngest learners and “provide them with opportunities to explore and look toward the future,” said Antira Wells, Guilford County’s deputy superintendent of instructional leadership, wellness, and safety.
“We talk about, in middle school, allowing students to explore and have hands-on activities and then in high school preparing our kids to be ready for those careers,” Wells said. “With Foust, we are bringing awareness about careers to the elementary school kids and showing they have access to pathways that will help them to shape our world.”
Career prep programs have become a higher priority in education in recent years, both for policymakers and the general public. More than 40 states have signed onto the Common Career Technical Core, a state-led commitment to expand CTE programs and make them more rigorous run.
And more Americans now think it’s more important for schools to prepare students for careers than for college.
Americans ranked preparing students for careers as the 6th highest priority for schools in 2022, according to the Purpose of Education Index, a survey of American views on education from the Massachusetts think tank Populace. That was up from 27th in the same survey just three years earlier, in 2019.
Meanwhile, preparing students for college fell from the 10th highest priority in 2019 to the 47th out of 57 in the 2022 survey.
Exposing young students to real-world skills is a best practice that should be included in every elementary school’s curriculum to some extent, said Walter Ecton, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Florida State University who studies career and technical education. It will be particularly exciting to see what kind of impact incorporating career skills into an elementary school’s curriculum will have on students as they progress through their educational career, he said.
“In principle, the idea of exposure for elementary school students to understand what their options are and to understand how what they’re learning in school is connected to what they might do after school are just good practices,” Ecton said. “And so it’s exciting that elementary schools are starting to think about this.”
An opportunity for improvement
The Foust Elementary project began in 2019, when the district conducted a systemwide analysis of its school infrastructure and found the school was in “dire” need of repair, Alston said. The district quickly decided to tear the school down and rebuild it, but district leaders also thought it was the perfect opportunity to explore other opportunities for the school.
At a series of community meetings, parents told district leaders that they “want to see their children acquire skills that are going to help them compete in a new global economy,” Alston said.
With that in mind, and after reviewing what industries are on the up-and-up around the world (largely those related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and artificial intelligence, according to the World Economic Forum), the district decided on the gaming and robotics magnet.
“We’re really thinking about our students and what they’re going to be walking into when they walk out of our doors,” Alston said. “Like for those students entering kindergarten next year, what kind of world are we preparing them for when they graduate in 2037?”
The $31 million project to tear down and rebuild the school is one product of a nearly $2 billion bond the community passed in 2020.
The work will culminate in a brand new facility, constructed to fit the programming needs of a CTE magnet program—flexible spaces with retractable walls, and large labs that can accommodate robotics, e-sports, and more, Alston said.
The population will be a mix of students who live in the neighborhood and are in the school’s enrollment zone, and students from throughout the district who apply and are chosen at random through a lottery system.
Developing a holistic curriculum is key
How do you take such large concepts like “gaming” and “robotics” and break them down into more digestible concepts for elementary-age students?
The district is in the process of determining exactly what Foust’s curriculum will look like, but has accepted that “we have a lot to learn” and that executing the program well will take flexibility, Alston said.
School leaders plan to use a blended model that embeds lessons about gaming and robotics into instruction in core subjects. But gaming and robotics themes will also be present in other subjects like art, music, physical education, after-school and summer programs.
Alston said he hopes the instruction will revolve around items and experiences that students are familiar with—like how pushing a button on a television remote uses a code to send a signal to the TV to change the channel, or how garbage trucks use robotic arms to pick up trash cans, or the role storytelling plays in video game plots.
Ecton, the Florida State professor, said it will be important that students involved in the program still have the chance to explore a wide array of subjects, rather than be placed on a particular career path early in their academic careers.
Young students, especially, are still learning what they like, and it’s likely their interests will change over time, Ecton said. So, it’s important that the school be nimble and encourage students to learn several skills, instead of specializing too early.
“A high-quality education program needs to be opening doors to new paths for students, but we have to be very careful that it’s not closing doors for students as well,” Ecton said.
Leaning on partnerships
The trickiest part will be finding the right staff, Alston said. Teachers traditionally don’t have much, if any, training on complex STEM topics, and professionals in those fields generally can make much more money in the private sector, a deterrent from them taking a job at an elementary school.
The priority will be to build a staff that’s a mix of industry professionals who are passionate about education and educators who are willing to learn about robotics and gaming, Alston said. He plans to invest in professional development for both ends of the spectrum, and has considered having more co-teaching opportunities that allow traditionally trained teachers to team up with those with training in STEM fields.
“It’s making me think about my role more as a principal, and I’m having to find ways to shift how we’ve traditionally done things,” Alston said.
Foust may set up an advisory board of industry professionals and school and district leaders who can help design the curriculum and academic experiences, Alston said.
Foust school leaders also expect to create partnerships with local universities and tech companies to provide supplemental education and hands-on experiences, Alston said.
“This is a heavy lift, and we can’t do this work alone,” he said.