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Tech Skills Need Means More Vocational Classes at High School Level

Vocational education classes may be poised for comeback in U.S. high schools.

(San Diego, Calif.) Oscar Sandoval wanted to learn how to fix cars, but his high school's auto shop became a student health clinic long ago.

He couldn't transfer to a school with an auto shop so he resigned himself to tinkering at home.

"Just because I don't live in that area doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to take it," complained Sandoval, a senior at Hoover High School.

Vocational education classes, once commonplace, began to languish as standardized tests started to determine success and failure and college became a singular goal. Now called career technical education courses, they are beginning to enjoy a renaissance.

Legislators in North Carolina and Florida are reviving programs gutted years ago. The movement is also gaining momentum in California, thanks in part to a 2006 state budget that includes $100 million for program expansion.

Congress also has voted to reauthorize $1.3 billion for career-based courses in high schools and community colleges, which President Bush had pushed to eliminate so more funds could be steered toward reading and math courses.

At Hoover High, Principal Doug Williams is committed to bringing back auto shop classes.

"When our students are connected to a person or a program, they seem to do better than those kids that are not connected, are struggling academically and are potential dropouts," he said.

Around the country, high schools are being transformed into career academies or adding smaller vocational schools within their buildings. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley recently announced an initiative that will let high school students become qualified to work in particular industries. Students would then use their certificates to find high-skill, high-paying jobs.

In some places where course offerings are slim, community colleges or regional occupational training centers offer career education to high school juniors and seniors.

It will still take a lot of work to resuscitate even a semblance of the programs that existed 30 years ago, vocational education advocates say.

"There is widespread belief that academic achievement is key to student success in the future," said Patrick Ainsworth, director of secondary education for the California Department of Education.

Three-quarters of high school technology education programs have disappeared since the early 1980s, according to the California Industrial and Technology Education Association. As a result, the number of high school courses offered has dropped from about 40,000 in the late 1980s to 24,000 in 2005-06, according to state data.

The association cites an aging faculty, few reinforcements and competition for financial and space resources as well as pressure for college-prep courses as reasons why.

The resultant curriculum resembles a Jeopardy-style game show in which memorizing for standardized tests is the prize, says Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Agricultural Teacher's Association.

"We have a generation of students that can answer questions on tests, know factoids, but they can't do anything," said Aschwanden, an appointee to the state Board of Education.

The question of how to create a skilled labor force that meets future needs is something that has occupied Rick Stephens for years.

The senior vice president for human resources at Boeing Co. said everyone needs a range of training to succeed these days.

"An auto mechanic today needs to know computer science, electronics, how to use sophisticated electronic tools ... none of which require a degree," Stephens said.

In 2000, there were 258 career tech high school courses that met University of California standards. Six years later, the number is up to 4,705, according to state statistics. That is significant, say career tech advocates, because it illustrates how the academic world is beginning to realize the importance of the trades and include them in college courses.

The woodshop class at Hoover is one of the few electives available at the comprehensive high school.

Teacher Arturo Gonzales spent 10 years working in the cabinetmaking industry before he took a pay cut to teach. His classes are crowded and he would benefit from having an assistant, but money is tight, he said.

"A lot of kids are in here to create, to get away from the math class, the English class," Gonzales said. "They want to work with their hands."

He tells his students that this is a math class, too, but a fun one.

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