Time Magazine just published an article dealing with vocational education on a Navajo reservation in Kayenta, Ariz. A $2.4 million agricultural and technical-sciences building may be the best thing that ever happened for students seeking jobs that pay good wages. Vocational programs also create spectacular academic results. “Nearly every one of these kids passed the state comprehensive test we give to 17-year-olds in Arizona,” a superintendant told Joe Klein. “Less than about 40% of my non-vocational-education students passed.”
Vocational education was once viewed as a waste of time and money because students were not trained for specific jobs. Even though many mechanical jobs are much more technical and now require a good amount of math and science, many educators cling to the politically correct notion that going to college is best and that technical training cheats some kids out of opportunities to achieve their full potential.
The fear of keeping minorities from obtaining college educations creates a knee-jerk response for many of us that have been raised amid the hope and the controversies surrounding civil rights for African Americans and Hispanics stuck in the achievement gap. Meanwhile, minority ( and non-minority)high school students in Federal Way and across the nation are as likely to drop out of high school as they are to graduate and much more likely to drop out of college if they ever start. The chances of getting a job with or without a college degree are much better for workers that are skilled in a craft.
We have minimal vocational programs in Federal Way. Do the programs lead to jobs? The jury may also still be out on whether we have real partnerships with local businesses. The Federal Way School District says that we do. But some educational leaders in Federal Way also claim that real partnership with a company like Boeing would be too great a risk because Boeing could go out of business someday! We can plan in such a way, however, that it is not too expensive to revamp the facilities when the demand for workers shifts and a reconfiguration of training programs becomes necessary.
We can just hope that standards-based education will deliver as promised and that the achievement gap will cease to exist. As Federal Way area residents prepare to vote on another high school construction levy in November, we should urge our leaders to give serious thought to the construction plans for Federal Way High School. We need innovative programs and facilities for technical and vocational training along with new classrooms for academic studies.
If we plan now for career and technical education (CTE) and decide later that we need more traditional classrooms, it is not expensive to convert a vocational shop into an academic classroom. The Federal Way Public Academy is an example of an industrial building that has been converted into a wonderful architectural space.
But it is expensive and impractical to convert a classroom into a shop facility. Shop classes need high ceilings and structures that support equipment for lifting heavy objects. For example, a diesel repair classroom requires equipment to hoist an engine out of a semi-truck and also takes a garage door that is high and wide to get certain projects through the doors.
In the article entitled “LEARNING THAT WORKS”, Klein tells about how Phoenix auto dealers, in dire need of mechanics, provided 40 cars and modern diagnostic equipment. Students can make over $100,000 a year as an auto mechanic. That may be why even academic achievers are opting for technical training!
One educator in Tucson explained that hands on training may actually help students engage with the educational process. Many students do not respond well to the abstract thinking required by traditional academic study.
If your son or daughter graduates from high school as a welder, for example, she is not only likely to find a job but may very well do better in college if she ever decides on a college course of study. Technical training costs more than traditional course work which only requires books and desks. Thus, bias based on budgetary constraints causes some school officials to react very negatively to proposals for expanded CTE programs.
Partnering with industry provides a way for all of us to benefit. No child should ever be denied opportunities to prepare for a liberal arts education. Nor does anyone in Federal Way want corporations like Boeing to be invited into our schools to dictate the educational process. But educators should be open to working closely with employers to ensure that all parties- including minority students– are getting value out of the bargain.
The City of Federal Way has invested in incubators for developing new technology and other business opportunities. Imagine a fully stocked medical laboratory with a few million from the medical equipment industry to run a program for technicians and instructors paid by the medical equipment industry to teach the classes. Can we get the School Board to invest in the students that should be filling the jobs we are incubating?
Klein points out that people with skilled jobs tend to be better citizens than those without them. If training to manufacture medical equipment is not practical, we can explore training for firefighters, EMTs or law enforcement. The list of employers with whom FWPS can partner is almost endless.