For most high school students, the idea of being held back a grade is pretty discouraging.
But when now 20-year-old Spencer Wolf was told he’d have to repeat the tenth grade, he says he was grateful.
As a student at Fairmont High School in Kettering near Dayton, Wolf says he felt the classwork in his core math and English classes was too easy. By tenth grade he says he was so bored he stopped doing homework and mentally checked out. His GPA dropped below 1.0. He spent most of his free time playing or designing video games, a big hobby of his since he was a kid.
Although Wolf says he never considered really leaving school, academically he was at risk of dropping out.
“I knew I was going to have to graduate high school, but how I was going to do it was beginning to become a question.”
Wolf says the only thing that he looked forward to was applying to Fairmont’s digital design career tech program at the end of sophomore year.
“Graphic design is my absolute passion. I realized I would have a much better chance at succeeding in my career if I went into this class than if I didn’t.”
But there was one problem—his GPA was too low to get in.
So when a counselor told him he was a quarter of a credit short of moving on to junior year, Wolf opted to repeat the tenth grade.
“I felt it was a second chance,” Wolf says. “I knew it meant not graduating with my friends. I knew it meant that people might look at me funny for staying back a year. But in the end, it’s the rest of my life I was dealing with.”
Wolf repeated tenth grade, but when he applied for the digital design program a second time, he was again rejected.
“He kept coming back again and again,” says Liz Jensen, the career tech coordinator at Fairmont. “Almost making a pest of himself trying to get in.”
Rigorous Content Keeps Students Excited About Learning
Jensen says the digital design program is competitive—there are only 25 available spots—and Wolf’s GPA was still far below the 3.0 needed. But Jensen says the graphic design teacher eventually caved once she saw Wolf’s tenacity.
And as soon as he got in, Wolf says his world began to change.
“After I got into the program and everything, it was a whole difference. I was doing my homework assignments, I was paying more attention in class.”
Like most career tech programs in Ohio schools, Fairmont’s digital design program teaches students some of the ins and outs of the industry. It offers students the chance to earn college level credit in design courses. Students can also earn industry level certification, and get on the job experience by interning at a local company.
Jensen says the rigorous content of career tech programs often helps students reengage in school.
“When students find a career that they’re passionate about, they all of a sudden see the importance of all the other classes,” she says.
Return on Investment
Ohio Governor John Kasich wants more students like Wolf to participate in career tech programs. He’s asked schools to offer the programs to students at the middle school level in hopes that it will help more kids find their career passion and eventually earn their diploma.
Research shows career tech education does pay off in helping students graduate.
Data from the national Association for Career and Technical Education show that in 2012 in Ohio, 99 percent of participating students graduated high school. And the Ohio Department of Education says self-reported survey data show 50 percent of students who finish a CTE program continue on to get further industry training or other postsecondary education.
Sean Lynch, a spokesperson for ACTE, says career tech pays off when it comes to jobs too.
“High school students who complete career tech education coursework have employment rates that are 6.7 percent higher than their peers,” he says, citing data from the federal Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board. “Their salaries tend to be $840 more per year than their peers that did not complete a CTE program.”
CTE Opens Doors
Wolf says the career tech program helped him academically. But more importantly, it offered him opportunities beyond the classroom.
“This honestly really made the difference for me,” he says.
”I made connections in there to where I now have a job because of it, one as a graphic designer and another as an art director. And then I actually got to go to a regional, then state, and then national competition and possibly even an international world competition in 2015 for advertising design. And I’ve gotten all of these life changing experiences just because of this class, because I took it and I fought for it.”
Wolf graduated in 2013 and now attends Sinclair Community College where he’s studying graphic design. He started his own website, wolfgraphicdesign.com, and works part time at Schuerholz Printing, the same company where he interned as part of the CTE program.
Wolf’s boss, Charley Schuerzholz, describes him as an incredible designer who’s a whiz at Photoshop.
“He came to us with up to date knowledge, more than some of the guys who have been with us a long time,” Schuerholz says.
Ultimately, Wolf says he plans to finish a bachelor’s degree and wants to get a job in advertising for a major company like Procter and Gamble.
For now, he’s waiting to hear back about whether he qualifies to go to a world competition for advertising design in Sao Paulo, Brazil.