She has penned an opinion piece for the Hechinger Report, a renowned education journal. In May, the Christian Science Monitor profiled her program in a story titled, “Reinventing high school.”

However, for Karen Hannigan Machado, Principal at Manchester School of Technology (MST-HS)), helming one of New Hampshire’s most ambitious CTE programs—and one of its newest high schools—is less about media accolades and more about tangible accomplishments.

“I hope we can serve as a model, both nationally and here in New Hampshire,” Machado said. “Transformation isn’t easy, but we’ve been fortunate to have received support from our superintendent, the school board, the Mayor, and the community as a whole.”

For Machado, transformation means forging relationships with stakeholders and consultants—including area businesses—to develop a competency-based model rooted in 21st century tactics and technologies. More importantly for Machado, though, it means a deeper focus on the needs of individual students guided all by a simple mantra: As fast as you want, as slow as you need.

The Importance of Flexibility
Launched in 2012, MST-HS uses a competency-based evaluation system based on a scale of 1 to 4 in lieu of traditional letter grades. All students begin at level 1 (not yet proficient) before progressing through the course until proficiency is achieved. For students at MST, some of whom might have struggled in more traditional school settings, that kind of flexibility allows them to become more engaged in the curriculum.

To help illustrate her school’s unique approach, Machado tells the story of a Health Science student (and would-be senior) who had completed all of her credits except for one math and one elective.

“She came to us with her mother during the summer to propose being allowed to travel across the country with her mother, who trained employees for a month or so at a time in hospitals on high level imaging equipment,” she said. “This girl took a Virtual Learning Academy class online for math—for free—and used this training experience as an ELO [extended learning opportunity]. Who could top that for an experience in a health field?”

At MST-HS, practical experience is not merely a result of learning the material; rather, it is the learning itself.

“We have the unique opportunity to be able to attract students because of our CTE programs,” she said. “I think that puts us in a pretty unique position, given the demands of the economy–and I think our growth and success will reflect that.”

A Practical Matter
Unlike some districts where vocational programs are considered secondary to academic curricula, Manchester High School requires that all students have a goal to complete a CTE program. Through internships and dual enrollment at local colleges, students are given a leg up in their pursuit of a long-term career path—from nursing to policing and beyond.

In other words, the students are provided with the opportunity to explore the kinds of careers economists and other experts expect to be in high demand well into the future. They also develop practical skills alongside technical ones.

“I often use the example of the Pythagorean Theorem and how students often say, ‘When will I ever have to use that?’” explained Machado. “When a student comes to MST and uses it to calculate stairs or a roof for the house they’re building, it makes sense.”

Five years after first opening its doors, MST-HS celebrated its second graduation day this past June. While such scenes might be vindication for Machado and her colleagues, it does not change their focus.

“We want students to learn what makes sense to them and lead them further along in their career pursuit,” she said. “If a student is able to apply an experience that leads them to credits in something that they love, then why not?”