State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson stopped in at Piner High School on Friday, part of a statewide tour to recognize schools that emphasize career and technical training.

Torlakson’s visit came a few months after the Sonoma County Office of Education received a $15 million state grant to lead a six-county effort around preparing students for college and employment through partnerships with community colleges and businesses. It also comes as he’s campaigning for re-election in a tight race against challenger Marshall Tuck.

“I hear great things about the programs here,” Torlakson told a morning gathering of students, local business leaders and officials from Piner, Santa Rosa City Schools and the Sonoma County Office of Education. “You’ve been pioneers.”

Torlakson highlighted, among other things, the school’s new science center and a recent partnership between Piner and Sonoma State University, where students can pursue an intensive science education program and earn early consideration for admission to the college’s science and engineering department.

Torlakson said he came to Piner because of its emphasis on career technical education, which integrates the technical training of a traditional, career-track class with basic math, science, social studies and reading skills. It reflects a switch from the old vocational education approach, where students had to choose between a college and career track.

Through the $15 million Career Pathways Grant, Sonoma County and five neighboring counties are expanding career technical education and creating job training opportunities with local businesses. Piner is one of 12 Sonoma County schools in the program. Schools in Lake, Napa, Marin, Mendocino and Solano counties also are participating.

“The goal is to connect career technical education with the needs of the region,” said Stephen Jackson, director of career technical education for the county office of education. That includes preparing students for high-skill jobs in growing local industries such as biotechnology, engineering, manufacturing, healthcare and agrotourism, he said. “We want to make sure we have programs that help students explore those types of careers and that can take students all the way from a community college to a four-year degree,” he said.

After speaking about the school’s efforts to connect students with internships and job training and its focus on the sciences, Torlakson stopped to talk with students about their work. One group of students, from the school’s geospatial technology class, showed maps they’d created that analyze where hospitals and emergency services are in the county in relation to fault lines.

Another group, from the school’s Project Make class, showed off a large trebuchet they’d built, along with a go-kart.

“This is one of the model programs,” he said as he toured Piner’s new science center and observatory. “Sonoma County has a long tradition of leadership with career technical education.”

Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Socorro Shiels said she thought recent efforts at Piner and in the district reflected what students need to be successful in a changing job market.

“It’s the future,” she said.

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.