Career and technical education is important to raise graduation rates and close opportunity gaps, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told North Medford High School staff and students Thursday morning.

Her appearance was the final stop in her tour of three high schools, where she previewed her State of the State address scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Feb. 5.

Brown trumpeted gains in graduation rates, but she reminded the crowd that equity is still a goal and not an achievement.

"Oregon's economic rising tide should be lifting all boats," she said. "Unfortunately, many hardworking families are still underwater."

Brown said career and technical education can provide a more diverse group of students opportunities to graduate and prepare for higher-wage careers while in high school.

"It's so important that every child graduate from high school now," she said. "Twenty or 30 years ago it didn't matter. Now it does."

Students who earn at least one CTE credit graduate at higher rates than students in general. The most recent data showed a 91.7 percent graduation rate for students with CTE experience, compared to 76.7 percent across Oregon.

Brown was a vocal supporter of Measure 98, passed by voters with a two-thirds majority in November 2016. The measure was supposed to provide several hundred million dollars to fund three efforts: dropout prevention, college readiness and CTE. But after a business tax increase was voted down in 2016, the Oregon Legislature found itself dealing with a $1.3 billion budget shortfall, and schools instead received a two-year allocation of $170 million — about half the amount proposed in the measure voters passed.

Medford School District received $1.7 million from the Legislature last year from Measure 98. Since then, the district has expanded CTE opportunities at North and South Medford high schools through Pathway programs. At its last meeting, the Medford School Board heard a presentation from administrators proposing two new CTE facilities, one at North and one at South, where plumbing and electricity programs, among others, would be offered.

The board will hold a town hall meeting from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7, in the boardroom at Central Medford High School, 815 S. Oakdale Ave., to get public input on the project. A May ballot measure is possible to fund the project, which is so far estimated to cost between $15 million and $20 million.

After her speech, Brown signed a proclamation declaring February Career and Technical Education month, then took a walk-through of several of North Medford's CTE facilities. After some face time with toddlers and babies at the Child Development Center, she and a group of School Board members and administrators visited the Technical Arts building.

A class there was playing a skills-based game with robots they had built from kits and digitally programmed. Students stood in a ring around the arena on the floor watching the robots, being directed by two of their classmates, struggle to move multicolored cones into certain areas.

Malcolm Tracy, a senior, said the robotics class is his sixth semester of CTE classes. He was accepted to attend Oregon Institute of Technology and hopes to work in robotics or aerospace engineering.

"It's fun and it's also engaging," he said. "The longer you're in it, the more in-depth you go with designs and the more things you get to try out."

Marta Tarantsey, regional development officer for Business Oregon, attended the event and toured the facilities. She said CTE is significant to not only supply existing businesses with workers, but also to attract new employment opportunities to the Rogue Valley.

"It's important," she said. "There are companies that look at various parts of the country, and one of the top concerns companies ... always have is about workforce."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or ktornay@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.