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Best of two school worlds for voke students




Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School welding student Christopher J. Tisdell, 17, of Shrewsbury, is seen in the welding lab. (T&G Staff / TOM RETTIG)

For 17-year-old Christopher J. Tisdell it was all about options when he chose to leave his hometown high school to go to a vocational-technical high school.
After the Metal Fabrication student graduates from Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlboro next month, he will have the skills to get a good paying entry-level job as a welder or sheet metal worker in the HVAC industry. Or, as an honors graduate, he has the academic skills to go on to college. But, like his brother Joseph, who graduated from Assabet last year, the Shrewsbury teen, has enlisted in the Navy. He was immediately offered jobs using the skills he learned at the voc-tech school. However, he has opted to continue following in his brother’s footsteps and learn to maintain engines of nuclear ships.
“Whatever happens, I will always be trained as a welder. If I need a job in that field, I can always get one,” the teen said. “I felt coming out of a regular high school, I wouldn’t have any options. It was either college or nothing basically. I just didn’t want to be deadlocked into that.” He said his grades went from average to A’s and B’s at Assabet because he was excited about what he was learning and “felt purpose and drive.”
Since the first vocational school opened in the state 100 years ago, more and more students are attending them as they evolve to provide high-technology skills for emerging industries through 2025. Carpentry, plumbing, electrical wiring and many of the traditional programs remain. But, the schools now offer programs such as renewable energy, robotics and automation, environmental technology and biotechnology. Enrollment has increased by 15 percent in the last decade, according to a white paper recently released by the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank. More than 27,000 students in Massachusetts attend a vocational-technical high school.
David Ferreira, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, said the steady enrollment increase can be attributed to several reasons. In the current economic conditions, parents want employment options for their children. But, even more significant is the success voc-tech schools have shown with MCAS scores, high graduation and low dropout rates, all of which are better than the state averages, he said.
“All of these things that since the early part of this decade have created across the commonwealth a new image for voc-tech education,” he said.
Fewer students drop out of voc-tech schools compared to traditional schools, because they are engaged in what they are doing, Mr. Ferreira said. Students alternate a week of academics with a week of shop or career education. The curriculum uses students’ desire to learn about their occupational training to enhance their academics.
“Just like adults, we learn a lot more if we can see a relevance to it and we enjoy a particular thing we are studying,” Mr. Ferreira explained. “A carpenter student may not want to sit down and learn trigonometry. But, when he’s doing rafters for a house and figuring out angles, he’s using trigonometry and now recognizes the importance of it.”
Because these schools provide a multipronged approach to one’s future, there are far more students applying than there are slots available. Some have hundreds of students on their waiting lists. Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton has accepted 300 and the new Worcester Technical High School has accepted about 400 incoming freshmen for next fall, but there’s another 400 students on each school’s waiting list. Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical in Fitchburg has 277.
Alison L. Fraser, owner of Practical Policy, an education consulting company in Marlboro, authored “Vocational-Technical Education in Massachusetts,” a white paper released by the Pioneer Institute last fall. She will present her findings at the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrator’s annual conference May 14 at Assabet Valley.
“It had become clear anecdotally that voc-techs were becoming more and more popular, but after looking at education quality assurance audits of the schools, it became clear that achievements at voc-tech schools were going up at a much higher rate than in traditional schools,” she said. The achievement gap between voke and comprehensive high schools has closed by 27 percent in six years, she said.
Jamie Gass, director of Pioneer’s Center for School Reform, said the incredible job voc-tech schools have done on the MCAS “is one of the great unsung stories of ed reform.”
“The thing that’s really important is they have twice the state average of special education students. This is an excellent example of schools that are closing the achievement gap with special needs students.” The graduation rate for special education students is 20 percent more in voke schools than in traditional high schools.
According to the Pioneer study, most vocational technical school graduates plan to go directly to a technical program or a two-year college, the workplace or the military. But, in the past 10 years there has been a tremendous increase in voc-tech grads going to four-year colleges “and doing as well as any student from a traditional high school,” Mr. Ferreira said.
Peter C. Crafts, director of Worcester Technical High School, said parents are sending students to voc-techs to find out what they want to pursue in college. The old Worcester Vocational School was the second to open in the state.
“It’s nice to find out what you want to do before you go to college. Rather than going to college and spending $20,000 to $30,000 a year and find out what you chose is not what you want to do with your life,” he said.
Jacob Elliott, 18, of Uxbridge, a straight-A culinary arts senior at Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School, plans to begin studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to become a doctor after he graduates. He said his favorite subjects have always been chemistry, physics, biology, health and physical education.
“Culinary was my fall back. I knew the culinary field would give me job options. But, I realize now that my true heart is in the medical field to help people. But culinary helps me all around because I was the type of person who didn’t know how to make mac and cheese. Now I can make dishes like lobster ravioli,” he said.

ROCKFORD, Ill., April 27, 2009 – Tucson Unified School District in Tucson, Ariz., was named a winner of a 2009 manufacturing camp grant awarded by CNA Insurance and Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs (NBT), The Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, Intl.
Tucson Unified School District, which received a $3,400 award, is one of 16 recipients nationally. The grants are given to not-for-profit organizations and educational institutions that offer overnight or day camp experiences that introduce young people ages 12 to 16 to careers in manufacturing and engineering.
“I can think of no enterprise more worthy than one devoted to inspiring the next generation of engineers, builders and manufacturers,” said actor, director and producer John Ratzenberger, an NBT founder. “There is an ever- increasing demand for highly skilled professionals who can design, program and operate technology. Creating a skilled workforce in the trades is vital to the future of America, and it all starts with getting young people to take pride in tinkering.”
“The purpose of the manufacturing camp grants is to provide a positive, hands-on experience so young people will consider manufacturing as a career option,” said Terrence Egan, NBT director. “We’re making an investment in the workforce of tomorrow.  We need to increase the pool of available, highly skilled workers to achieve a manufacturing renaissance and improve our economy.”
The camps target youth at the critical level of secondary education, exposing them to math, science and engineering principles, and giving them opportunities to see the technology being used in industry and the high level of skills that will be required from the workforce.  
“These camps provide youth with the exposure to vocational and technical trades that no longer exist in all public education systems,” added Egan.  “Inspiring youth to consider these trades will have a positive effect on graduation rates, increase the chance for them to earn a living wage, and create a more qualified workforce and community development in impoverished areas.”
NBT recently launched a text-to-give program that allows people to donate to the organization by simply texting “123” to the number “90999” from their cell phone. Supporters will be prompted to confirm their gift by replying with the word YES.  After replying with YES, they will receive a confirmation and the message generates a five dollar donation charged directly to the caller’s cell phone bill.  
Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs: The Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, Intl., offers grants to not-for-profit organizations and educational institutions introducing young people to metal forming and fabricating careers in manufacturing, provides funding to organizations starting or expanding manufacturing camps for youth, and issues scholarships to students at colleges and trade schools pursuing careers in manufacturing. More information on NBT is available by visiting www.NutsAndBoltsFoundation.org <http://www.NutsAndBoltsFoundation.org>
Based in Rockford, Ill., the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International, is a professional organization with more than 2,300 members working together to improve the metal forming and fabricating industry.


Teaching life skills such as high tech welding could be one antidote to the economic crisis.

by Alexandra R. Moses

Student designs graphic on computer.

Planning Ahead:

Computer software helps Palo Verde Magnet School senior Hector Molina learn the basics in a modern auto-body shop class.

Credit: Courtesy of the Tucson Unified School District

Students in auto-body shop in the Tucson Unified School District, in Tucson, Arizona, don't just learn how to change oil or hammer out a dent. They use computer diagnostic equipment to fix cars, and learn the green technologies of hybrid vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells.

For kids in the district's welding classes, a water-jet cutter not only represents the latest in high tech cutting equipment, using high water pressure to quickly slice through metal, it also teaches the math needed to program the machine.

And in construction classes, students still build -- in between lessons on résumé creation and proper work-site communication.

Welcome to the 21st-century shop class. In pockets around the country, a retooling of classes in career and technical education aims to give students job training, exposure to new technologies, and windows into different careers. The resurgence of shop has been slowly taking place nationwide over the last several years, partly in a response to industry demand. When shop classes began a decline in the 1970s, coinciding with a push toward college-bound classes, so did the number of young people entering skilled trades. Now, industries facing a worker shortage are pushing for the classes' return.

Not Your Father's Shop Class

The new incarnations of shop are a far cry from the old, in large part because technology has evolved so much. Today's classes incorporate a range of those abilities widely promoted as 21st-century skills, involving technology, communication, and collaboration.

Two students sitting in a car look down at a computer.

Collaborating with Cars:

Jonathan Montellano and Chris Corbett use a diagnostic system to check a car's computer systems in Palo Verde's automotive program.

Credit: Courtesy of the Tucson Unified School District

"It's not just getting out and working on the cars," says Aaron Ball, director of program development for the Pima County Joint Technological Education District, which helps fund career programs in several Arizona districts. High technology is a key part of automotive education -- and work -- these days: Today's cars can have as many as 50 microchip-size computer processors in them.

In Tucson's auto-shop classes, teachers create a problem somewhere in a car -- or in special stand-alone training units that represent a car -- and students have to figure out what's wrong. It teaches them today's automotive technology, as well as critical-thinking skills and teamwork, says Kathy Prather, director of career and technical education for the district.

In some of the district's design and drafting and machine shop classes, students use a computer-assisted-design program called SolidWorks, in which they can create three-dimensional drawings. And the welding program's water-jet cutter (besides adding a cool factor for students who've seen one on the television show West Coast Choppers) requires users to plot out the settings on a computer graph.

"Students are loving the new technologies," Prather says. "These classes bring the academics to life. They reinforce and teach the academics to those that learn better though applied methods."

Preparing Students for Tomorrow's Jobs

Of course, they also prepare students for jobs. The need for trained technical workers didn't go away when shop classes dropped out of vogue. In fact, it is rising, according to the latest job-outlook report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It predicts, for example, that there will be more machinist jobs than skilled workers available over the next seven years. And employers say they already have a hard time finding adequately skilled auto technicians and mechanics -- jobs expected to increase by about 110,000 by 2016.

Teacher Hollis Simmons created a building-trades program at Tucson's Catalina Magnet High School at the urging of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association. Simmons tries to give his students a range of skills they'll need on the job. In addition to actual building -- students design and build sheds, as well as learn to do electrical work and hang drywall -- he teaches soft skills, such as appropriate communication on the job and how to create a résumé.

Catalina senior Jerry Soto landed a job last summer with a local construction company, making ductwork and other materials for buildings. "Mr. Simmons taught us how to present ourselves for a job," Soto says. "He taught us how to dress up for a job." Plus, when Soto started working, he was already well versed in the tools used because he'd had practice in class. When he graduates, Soto plans to work for the company full time.

Soto found Simmons's shop classes so useful that he chose to attend an extra course before school. "I put the extra effort in trying to learn more so when I went to any company, I knew more than just your average Joe," he adds.

Not every student is truly college bound, argues Simmons, who says these classes meet an important need for those students. Karen Ward, of SkillsUSA, a national organization that supports construction, automotive, and other career programs in high schools and postsecondary schools, echoes that point. "The economy really ramps up the idea of career programs," she says. "The idea of everyone going to Harvard isn't going to work when the price tag is so enormous."

Perhaps for this reason, students themselves are demanding a resurgence of shop classes in places like Massachusetts, where Ward says automotive classes have "students coming out of their ears." To meet the demand, she adds, several Massachusetts high schools are investing in updated labs for existing classes and adding new shop classes where they can.

Nevertheless, today's shop classes, like the multitude of other career and technical education classes offered around the country, also emphasize postsecondary education. The programs in the Pima County technical-education district push students into apprenticeships or certification programs or offer college credit. Teachers in Tucson also are developing materials that show how students can continue their education, based on what career classes they take, after high school. Worcester Technical High School, an academy school in Worcester, Massachusetts, with programs in construction, offers college credit through two-year and four-year colleges.

But whether students are looking for serious job training or a curriculum-enhancing elective, these hands-on classes offer them something we all need: life skills. As Simmons tells students, "You're going to own a house at some point in time, and the stuff I'm teaching you is something you can use."

Alexandra Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.

This article originally published on 4/14/2009