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‘College is not for everyone’

Hands on training
Daniel Sherwood, a Gilbert High School graduate, steers a forklift as part of a training exercise. He learned of the carpenter union’s apprenticeship program through friends, not a school counselor.

Hands-on careers like carpentry call for a hands-on education. But high schools in Arizona have been busy preparing students for college — downplaying traditional vocational education classes, say voc-ed advocates.
Meanwhile, the need for skilled labor remains high.
In Phoenix, officials at the Carpenters Union say they would like to see young apprentices come into their training program better prepared. They cite the erosion of high-school vocational education.
But voc-ed is making a comeback. In one rural county, contractors put together financing for a charter school that specializes in the building trades. Since 1990, special education districts have offered advanced voc-ed classes throughout the state.
What’s more, voc-ed classes have become so varied and — in many cases — complex, that many educators have dropped the term “voc-ed.” They prefer the more descriptive “career and technical education.”
Whatever it’s called, vocational education faces its share of obstacles. For one, many parents and students attach a stigma to it — and unfairly so, says Greg Donovan, 2005-06 president of the Association for Career and Technical Education of Arizona.
“It’s a societal thing,” Mr. Donovan says. “No kid wants to stand up and say, ‘I’m going to be a carpenter.’” Every parent wants their kids to say, “I’m going to college.’”
But career-and-tech classes are not incompatible with post-secondary education, including college, he says. For example, building and construction courses could give an edge to those interested in engineering and architecture, Mr. Donovan says.
The problem is, it doesn’t happen that way, he adds. For some educators, the classes aren’t seen as a stepping-stone, but as a last resort. He believes that’s wrong.
“A lot of students are counseled out of these programs,” he says. “Students who are the brink of dropping out, they’re told: ‘Why don’t you take a construction class≠’”
Then again, reality and expectations don’t always match up when it comes to a college diploma, he says. He cites a study that says 70 percent of those who enter college won’t graduate. The Education Trust, a nonprofit organization, says about half the students who enroll in Arizona’s three state universities won’t graduate.
Even without a four-year degree, Mr. Donovan says, most high school graduates expect to pursue some type of continuing education.
To be prepared, these students need to know more than how to swing a hammer. In the voc-ed curriculum of today, they learn that — and a lot more, Mr. Donovan says. He uses the example of automotive repair. The auto-shop class of today does more than teach students how to tune-up a car with a wrench and a screwdriver.
“That’s old thinking,” says Mr. Donovan.
Today’s car repair calls for training in computer technology and understanding manuals written above a high school level.
H2700 requires high-stakes test
To prepare for the building trades, he adds, students need a working knowledge of engineering and how to read blueprints. These are not classes students could skate through. For many Arizona students, voc-ed courses could become even more rigorous, thanks to a new law — H2700, enacted by the Legislature this past session.
Under H2700, students enrolled in programs offered by special career-and-technical districts now have to pass the voc-ed equivalent of a high-stakes test. H2700 also lays down new rules by which these districts must operate.
Known as joint technological education districts, they go by the acronym JTED. They’re cooperatives created by neighboring school districts. There are 10 JTEDs throughout the state. Like regular school districts, they can levy property taxes, but most funding comes directly from the state — some $43 million a year, according to a Senate fact sheet on H2700. More than 14,000 students attend JTEDs, the fact sheet says.
The oldest and largest is the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT) in Mesa. The institute operates the only stand-alone JTED campus and offers courses ranging from aesthetics to welding, including construction, cosmetology and flight training. It’s a cooperative of 10 East Valley high school districts, including Mesa, Tempe and Scottsdale.
Most students attend EVIT a half day for career and technical classes, before or after attending academic classes at their district schools, says Lynn Strang, the institute’s public relations manager.
The other JTEDs operate out of existing campuses, offering “satellite” classes.
Mr. Donovan, the career-tech association president, is superintendent of the Western Maricopa Education Center, also known as West-MEC. It works with 12 school districts, including Deer Valley, Glendale Union and Paradise Valley.
The assessment tests required by H2700 reflect the Legislature’s efforts to tighten JTED standards. The law, as well as legislation passed in 2005, came about in response to a December 2004 auditor-general report, which said some JTEDs failed to live to up to expectations. As set up, they are supposed to offer courses that go beyond the standard shop classes. In the case of one rural JTED, the report said: “…the member satellite classes were generally no more extensive than the typical high school vocational classes.”
Rep. Mark Anderson, R-18, sponsored H2700.
Of the JTED setup, he says: “Over the years it sort of evolved without any clear direction.”
Now, under H2700, it’s no longer enough to call woodshop a JTED class and ask for additional money, he says. Then there’s the new testing requirement. Now JTED students must pass an assessment test in the career path for which they studied, says Marv Lamer, superintendent of the Valley Academy for Career and Technology Education, a JTED headquartered in Cottonwood.
The tests are not abstract, ivory-tower creations, he adds.
“They will have to pass a skill-assessment test developed in conjunction with industry,” Mr. Lamer says.
“We’re going to have our own AIMS-type test and I think that’s good,” Mr. Donovan of West-MEC adds. “Our programs need to be held accountable, just as any other program.”
AIMS gets in the way for some students
Passing a skills test, however, doesn’t guarantee a high school diploma. For that, JTED students also must pass AIMS, the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards.
AIMS can be a two-edged sword when it comes to voc-ed students.
On one hand, it can be a drain on voc-ed programs, Mr. Lamer says. As students spend more time in classes designed to help them pass AIMS, they give short shrift to “career and technology” classes, Mr. Lamer says.
“That minimizes the chance that many kids get into vocational-education classes,” he says.
As for the upside, students in voc-ed classes do well on the AIMS, Mr. Lamer adds.
“AIMS skills requirements are already being taught in voc-ed classes,” he says.
For instance, the type of skill required to write a descriptive paragraph for a training manual — taught in voc-ed classes — could be applied toward the writing portion of AIMS. Building and construction courses hone math and engineering skills.
Eloy high school starts construction skills class
In addition, educators say, the voc-ed classes can provide the spark students need to study those subjects directly related to AIMS — reading, writing and math. Voc-ed involves the practical application of academic subjects, says Gene Bichekas, superintendent of the Santa Cruz Valley Union High School District in Eloy.
In today’s voc-ed classes, Mr. Bichekas, says: “There are math skills involved. There are reading skills involved.”
In addition, Mr. Bichekas, sees voc-ed as the gateway for students who have lost interest in high school, and the emphasis on college preparation.
“College isn’t for everybody,” he says.
At Santa Cruz Valley, educators are hoping to reach some students through a new class on construction skills — mainly carpentry and cabinet making. In setting up the shop, the school is getting help from the Carpenter’s Union apprentice training program in Phoenix. Mr. Bichekas recently visited the union’s West McDowell Road training facility, which has classrooms and an indoor training center the size of an airplane hanger.
Here, union apprentices train in a variety of trades, from framing to driving machinery like forklifts.
Mr. Bichekas met with Tom Quine, coordinator for the union’s apprentice-training program.
“He was trying to get some idea if there could be some kind of alignment between his high school and this training program, so that when kids come out of high school, they’d be better prepared for our program,” Mr. Quine says.
Daniel Sherwood, 25, did not see that alignment himself. A union apprentice, he recently spent a morning training to operate a forklift at the McDowell facility. He and other apprentices maneuvered a forklift around tightly placed cones. As a backdrop stood a two-story frame for a house, built by apprentices.
Waiting his turn, Mr. Sherwood says he learned about the training center through friends, not high school counselors.
“I don’t recall ever being told anything about an apprenticeship program,” Mr. Sherwood says.
At Santa Cruz Valley, a now-empty schoolroom awaits equipment like skill saws and band saws, Mr. Bichekas says. Mr. Quine and others from the Carpenters Union will assist with the layout. A Santa Cruz Valley math teacher with a construction background will teach the course.
So far the reaction from parents and students has been mixed.
“Some are skeptical. Some are enthusiastic,” Mr. Bichekas says.
Some may have the impression that Mr. Donovan would like to dispel — that voc-ed is only for students who plan to go no further than high school. High school students with career and technical training have a shot a decent paying job out of high school, and the chance to save for college.
“I’ll give you an example — my son,” says Mr. Anderson, the Mesa legislator.
Nedd Anderson went to the East Valley Institute and took courses in wild-land firefighting. Summer jobs on a hotshot crew helped him save up for college.
A year out of high school, Mr. Anderson says, “He went to the University of Arizona.”

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