Vocational Education Isn't Just Shop Courses

A new program in a Cambridge, Mass., technical school combines academic subjects with hands-on skills, and uses the city to prepare students for today's workplace

EDWIN ELLCOCK, a freshman at the Rindge School of Technical Arts in Cambridge, Mass., says he wants to go to college and then become a professional football player and also maybe a math teacher.

Mark Davis, another freshmen at the Rindge School, hopes to study physics in college and become a fireman.

And Jawana Benjamin, also a Rindge freshmen, would like to pursue a culinary-arts career but is also thinking about becoming a doctor or lawyer.

Like many high school freshmen, these students are still undecided about their careers. But unlike most vocational high school freshmen, they are in no hurry to make serious career decisions.

That's because these young people are taking part in the Rindge School's "CityWorks" program, an innovative vocational-education program. The idea is to expose freshmen to a variety of different skills, both academic and technical, that will better prepare them for the workplace when they graduate.

Central to this approach is the Cambridge community, which students use as an important educational resource. Students familiarize themselves with Cambridge through maps, three-dimensional models, photographs, portfolios, oral histories, and writing projects.

Viewed by some education experts as a promising new approach to vocational learning, the program won a $100,000 grant as one of 10 winners in the Ford Foundation's 1992 Innovations in State and Local Government Awards contest.

"A lot of what we're trying to do with CityWorks is create a relationship between academics and hands-on work," says David Stephen, Rindge School drafting instructor. "We wanted to create a foundation of broad-based transferrable skills."

Traditionally, in the first year of a vocational high school, students explore different technical fields in the school's shops. By the end of their freshman year, many are expected to concentrate in one area, covering a range of specific job possibilities.

But to succeed in today's global economy requires more than hands-on training in one field, many education experts say. Studies show that only about one in four vocational students in the United States end up pursuing the fields they studied in school, says Paul Weckstein, co-director of the Center for Law and Education in Washington, D.C.

As a result, students need more time to explore career options, he says. And CityWorks's two-pronged approach better prepares young people for their careers, according to Mr. Weckstein.

"This is a different form of learning in which students are exploring the entire community and its needs and the potential new careers," Weckstein says. "And yet at the same time the students start to develop some technical skills through the way they build models."

But the idea of integrating academics and skills training is not new to vocational education. And Cityworks's approach is not embraced by everyone. Some experts argue that the program is too generalized for vocational students who count on finding decent-paying jobs right after they graduate.

"Some students, frankly, are going to continue to go on to the workplace immediately after high school. So what's the best thing we can do for them?," asks John McDonagh, who handles vocational issues for the Massachusetts Education Department.

Nevertheless, the program has proved popular for students. Although it is too soon to measure its success, Cityworks organizers say attendance rates are up, students are more engaged in class work, and parents are supportive.

APPROXIMATELY 70 students are enrolled this year. The low teacher-student ratio - one instructor for every six to eight students - makes instructors more accessible. The program is open to college-bound students as well as those who plan just to finish high school.

Kids get involved in a variety of community-related projects. One project, called "Walk Around the Block," requires teams of students to study a city block. The kids interview people in the block, conduct inventories, take photographs, and draw up blueprints. They later put together display boards and do oral presentations in front of the class.

"We're learning about Cambridge," Rindge freshman Alfreda Cromwell says. "It's kind of good to be learning about the city you live in."

Students also create their own make-believe businesses. Last year, the kids designed a restaurant called "Broadway Blues Cafe." Culinary-arts students created real dishes for the restaurant, carpentry students built a full-scale corner of the restaurant, and graphics-arts students designed the restaurant's menu and logo.

Students also designed and created models for an auto-body shop called "Smooth Bodies," a teen center, and an industrial-arts museum.

"It's a hypothetical but very real project where they see how the different trades are integrated and how the skills that they are using can be applied to really starting new enterprises," Mr. Stephen says.

CityWorks began at Rindge in 1991. Each June, the school holds an open house for the community (this year's open house was held last week).

Larry Rosenstock, executive director of Rindge, spearheaded the new program after he helped craft the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act of 1990. The act mandates more state and federal funding for vocational education and requires that vocational schools broaden training to cover all aspects of an industry - such as management, marketing, and finance - and include more academic subjects.

Mr. Rosenstock, who once taught carpentry at Rindge, would like to see most students go on to college after they finish at Rindge or at least to be employed in high-wage, high-skilled jobs.

"Merely to prepare students for an entry level job is arguably not in their best interest," he says.

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