[caption id="attachment_101120" align="alignleft" width="280"] Piner High School teacher Kurt Kruger shows State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson the SPARQ Center Observatory.[/caption]

SANTA ROSA -- State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson visited Piner High School in Santa Rosa recently to check out the “return on California's investment.”

In July, the state office invested $22.2 million in North Bay schools to fund programs that provide career and technical education (CTE) which are aligned with the needs of regional employers. The largest of those grants, at $15 million, is going toward an effort to link educational “pathways” between K-8 elementary schools, high schools, community colleges, universities and employers throughout Sonoma, Marin, Napa, Solano, Mendocino and Lake counties. The Sonoma County Department of Education is serving as the lead agency for the Northern California Career Pathways Alliance which spans 37 high schools, six county offices of education, five community colleges, five workforce investment boards and many regional employers.

The programs involved are the ones that teach the skills regional employers are actually looking for, in areas such as: tourism; agriculture, including the kind in the farm-to-fork vein; medical technology; healthcare; advanced manufacturing and more. But, unlike the vocational schools of yore, in which kids had to decide at a young age whether they would follow a career track or a college track, the CTE program allows them to acquire job skills but still fulfill their core requirements and be able to go on to college if they choose.

Mr. Torlakson said he chose to visit Piner because “it is a model program. The people of California invested in this, and our investment is paying off."

The tour de force of this model school is its rather new SPARQ Center which houses an observatory and a planetarium. The observatory has a research grade telescope from which you can see distant galaxies. The planetarium has a dome built out of the same stuff as the one at San Francisco's Academy of Sciences.

Kurt Kruger, one of the teachers who spearheaded the creation of SPARQ was on hand to show Mr. Torlakson and other guests around the facility.