Vocational Schools Gain Limelight
Educators hope national interest will curb attitudes keeping kids away from technical programs
FRAMINGHAM, MASS. — DAVE BATES is fairly typical of the 750 students who attend the Keefe Technical Vocational High School in this ethnically diverse suburb of Boston. He's getting something there the town's ``regular'' high school couldn't offer - courses and on-the-job experience directly tied to his future work life.
``I was pretty sure I didn't want to go to college,'' says Mr. Bates, whose close-cropped hair, T-shirt, and jeans would fit in any mix of American teenagers. ``But I wanted a trade.'' He now splits his time between the school's electrical shop, its academic classrooms, and a co-op job at a local electrical-supply store.
Maritza Rivera, another senior at Keefe, had no ambitions for college either. But the school's office-occupations program immersed her in organizational and accounting software, and she plans to take further business courses at Framingham State College after graduation. Meanwhile, she holds a part-time job in a dentist's office.
These kids represent the majority of American teens who enter high school not planning on four years of college. They're the ones President Clinton had in mind recently when he hailed the recently signed School-to-Work Opportunities Act as a key part of the administration's plan to ``invest'' in America. The act aspires to make the kind of in-depth vocational instruction given kids at Keefe and similar institutions more widely available across the United States.
At present, opportunities for this type of education vary widely, from full-time, four-year programs (like the regional vo-tech high schools in Massachusetts), to half- or full-day two-year programs, to occasional classes interspersed with normal academic work in a general high school. That's why it's difficult to assess just how many American kids are in vocational programs, says James Houser, an analyst with the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.
If you count every student who takes one or two vocational courses in high school, the total could be 98 percent, he says. But those taking a well-thought-out pattern of courses aimed at later employment are probably as few as 8 percent.
Enrollment in vocational programs has in fact declined over the past decade, notes a January interim report to Congress by the National Assessment of Vocation Education, which is being conducted by the Department of Education. One reason often cited for this is the national preoccupation with stronger academic standards. ``A lot of what's happening goes to the notion of where schools are able to invest,'' says Ray Ryan, executive director of the Center on Education and Training for Employment at Ohio State University. ``Budgets force them to cut back in the vocational-technical area.''
People in the field are quick to point out, however, that expanding vocational opportunities is not simply a matter of providing more money and resources. Changes of attitude are important, too.
Another Keefe student, Jose Medina, recalls a middle-school counselor telling him he was ``too bright to come here - that I would be wasting my time.'' But the instruction at the vocational school ``will stick,'' he says. He doubts that a strictly ``classroom'' approach at a regular high school would have been as valuable.
``There's an assumption that kids in vocational schools don't get strong academics,'' says Paul Bento, Keefe's superintendent-director. His school's math and science programs are comparable to ``college-prep'' programs elsewhere, he says. ``Applied academics'' is the theme, Mr. Bento says, but that doesn't mean watered-down learning. He points out that 40 percent of his graduates go on to postsecondary work, whether at a community college, a technical college, or a university.
``And that's not 40 percent who always planned to go on,'' he adds. Vocational education gave a relevancy to learning that sparks kids' interest in math, science, and English, according to Bento.
A FURTHER benefit of the vocational-school setting, he adds, is that kids choose to be there and have a strong sense of purpose. Discipline problems, while hardly nonexistent, are much reduced. ``We have very work-oriented, very practical kids,'' Bento says.
``We have valedictorians and the lowest,'' says Rosemary Kolde, commenting on the academic records of the kids who choose to enter the Great Oaks Institute of Technology, a four-campus vocational school in the greater Cincinnati area that has been cited as one of the best in the country. It has a full-time program for 10th and 11th graders. Ms. Kolde, executive vice-president of the Great Oaks system, admits, however, that it's difficult to attract the better students.
``We have some counselors in other schools who'd probably rather die than recommend to a student vocational education,'' she says. But ``we have a great deal to offer the college-bound as well as the work-bound.''
Great Oaks has been able to attract kids with strong academic records to a half-day ``lab'' program linked to a particular technical interest. Students interested in aeronautical engineering, for instance, can get useful background for later college work from the aviation program at Great Oaks.
Many vocational institutions have ``articulation'' agreements with neighboring colleges, which award college credit for some of the work done at the secondary level. ``Tech-Prep'' programs, which formally link high-school and college vocational offerings, are well established in many parts of the country.
A key to recruiting students is to reach them early, says Carole Wenz, guidance counselor at the Hartford Area Vocational Center in Hartford, Vt. She frequently meets with junior-high and younger high school students throughout the district covered by the school, which includes communities in both Vermont and New Hampshire.
``We try to give them enough information so they can make an informed decision,'' Ms. Wenz says.
The Hartford program offers half-day vocational instruction for juniors and seniors, who continue academic work in their home schools. Hartford, too, has an impressive number of students continuing on to some form of postsecondary education - 54 percent, Wenz says. ``Some of our regular high schools in the area don't reach that.''
And many of Hartford's programs have had tremendous success in placing students in jobs in their chosen fields. Kevin Christie, who directs the school's automotive program, estimates that 99 percent of the program's graduates are successfully placed in jobs.
HERB WHEELER has been teaching office skills at Hartford for 34 years. ``I called myself a facilitator before that term became popular,'' Mr. Wheeler says. ``I help them toward their most successful area of endeavor, and I don't look for any failures in this class.'' He says that businesses in the area are usually on the phone to him asking about potential employees.
Like Keefe, Hartford has an active co-op employment program that can pay off in career opportunities. Chris Conrad, a senior from Windsor, Vt., was recommended for co-op employment at the nearby Dartmouth Medical Center, which is expanding its facilities and needed someone with architectural design skills. The center now wants to hire Mr. Conrad full-time as soon as he graduates and may pay for some postsecondary training as well.
Vocational schools that receive some federal funding are required to have advisory committees made up of people in business, manufacturing, and the trades. Instructors consult with the committees to talk over changes in a particular field - everything from plumbing to computer-assisted design - at least twice a year.
``We actually meet five or six times a year,'' says Bob Geneseo, an instructor in the electronics shop at Keefe Tech. That helps keep him current on everything from new materials to government codes for electrical work. It also gives him the backup needed to request funding for new pieces of equipment for his shop.
Close ties to the business community are a requirement under federal legislation designed to aid vocational education. So are enhanced academic offerings. Well-established vocational-technical schools feel they've been meeting these requirements for years. But the people who run them welcome any new public emphasis on their field and hope it will help break down the attitudinal barriers that keep some kids away from an education that could benefit them.
Karen Ward, an educational specialist with the Massachusetts Department of Education, calls the new federal emphasis on vocational education ``very exciting. For the first time it isn't being looked at as a second-class education,'' she says.