Nicollette Spooner has known since she was a little girl that she wanted to be a beautician, but her long-term plan has met some near-term challenges.

Space is much more limited today in Minnesota's career and technical education classes because the state has slashed more than half of its course offerings in recent years. Demand, meantime, remains strong.

Although it's what she wants to do when she graduates, Spooner was able to squeeze in only two hours a week of cosmetology at Northeast Metro Intermediate School District last semester. 

"It's what really interests me, so I'll do what I can," Spooner said recently while putting relaxer into a classroom mannequin's hair.

With the climbing price of college, high school students are enrolling in career and technical classes at an unprecedented rate, administrators say.

That demand puts the state's Department of Education in an unusual dilemma: Despite the growing demand, the number of career and technical classes has fallen from about 2,750 to 1,200 between 2008 and 2011. The cuts are because of flat state and federal funding as well as changing priorities that have school districts focusing on core classes in an effort to meet No Child Left Behind standards.

"It gets rugged while running an auto-mechanic class with 60 kids," said Daniel Smith, who oversees Minnesota's high school career and technical education as the supervisor of Minnesota's Center for Postsecondary Success. "It borders on safety issues, but we've watched that very carefully."

Career and technical education advocates, meanwhile, say their classes are more important than ever.They say the training plays a key role in closing the skills gap by getting unmotivated teenagers on a career track by the time they are 18.

"We're offering practical-application learning here," said Dan Fleming, Northeast Metro Intermediate School District's education coordinator. "To these kids, they're learning because they'll eventually be doing."

Minnesota's career and technical education program hit its peak in the 1970s when there were more than 70 career and technical centers for high school students. They were stocked with the latest equipment and dozens of nationally certified programs, Smith said.

In the 1980s, high schools began to be seen as a place to prepare students for a liberal arts four-year degree, emphasizing reading, writing and arithmetic rather than skills for a job.

About a decade ago state legislators, in an effort to save money, ended their career and technical education aid and placed the burden on taxpayers through an optional levy. Other sources of funding have remained flat.

Since then, Minneapolis' magnet high schools absorbed its career and technical programs. St. Paul collaborated with St. Paul Community and Technical College to offer most of its programs. Most recently, in a cost-cutting measure, Duluth closed Secondary Technical Center last spring.

Today, there are just five career and technical high schools left statewide.

Classes aren't cheap

As technology advances, the cost of equipment for an automotive technology or nursing class, for example, can climb into the tens of thousands.

It's not unusual for Smith to receive a request for a $30,000 automotive diagnostic kit.

"It's very different than the old days of a class using a set of socket wrenches," Smith said.

Career and technical courses are usually the first to go when a superintendent is looking to save money.

"We're still expected to do as much as we are with the same amount of funding," said Connie Hayes, the superintendent of Northeast Metro Intermediate District. "It's a real juggling act."

But that's only half the challenge.

As administrators attempt to meet strict No Child Left Behind standards and close the achievement gap between white and non-white students, schools are steadily increasing math and reading courses while cutting career and technical offerings.

"We're in a battle for electives," Hayes said.

But changes are brewing.

Since 2009, 26 community colleges and surrounding school districts have created consortiums to better distribute a shrinking pot of money and collaborate career and technical education classes. It's a model that's unique to Minnesota and one that federal lawmakers are looking to replicate.

And enthusiasm for the classes surely hasn't waned among the state's high school students. "It's a good jump-start for college," Spooner said.

Daarel Burnette II • 651-925-5032 Twitter: @DaarelStrib