Career classes make a comeback
High-tech centers, expanded programs fuel enrollment boom
06:06 PM CDT on Monday, March 12, 2007
By JAY PARSONS / The Dallas Morning News
After almost two decades flirting with a one-size-fits-all dose of liberal arts instruction, school districts are bringing back – and vamping up – vocational classes.
Classes such as wood shop and auto mechanics began disappearing from traditional high schools in the 1980s, but they're reappearing at district-run trade schools alongside new classes such as advertising design, computer repair, engineering and health sciences.
Three area districts – Denton, Irving and Mansfield – opened stand-alone career and technology schools in recent years. Birdville, Frisco and Grand Prairie have plans to build them.
And Lewisville ISD, with long waiting lists at its career center, hopes to build a second. Others, including Dallas, have added career magnets to traditional high schools.
"There's been a real resurgence in opening career centers," said Alan Strong, principal of Lewisville's Dale Jackson Career Center. "They're finally realizing that not all kids go to college, but all kids go to work."
Statewide, vocational enrollment jumped 170 percent from 1996 to 2006 – three times the rate of enrollment in bilingual courses and nine times the overall enrollment growth, according to a state report.
"That's pretty significant," said Karen Batchelor, the Texas Education Agency's director of career and technology education. "School districts are offering more engaging CTE programs, ones where students can see the benefit of education."
School officials said the concentrated setup helps kids find their niche and understand practical uses from core classes – a combination they say lowers dropout rates.
But the concept is still not widely accepted, as proponents of vocational education fight to make over an image of stitch-and-stew blow-off classes.
"Even when I was in high school in the '80s, those vocational programs were thought to be just for the dumb kids who weren't going to college," said Lisa Karr, Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD's director of career and technology education.
"It's not like that anymore," she continued. "They're great, industry-focused programs in state-of-the-art buildings. You're not just going to bang a hammer anymore."
Some of the changes spurring growth are cosmetic. Educators have pushed away from the vocational label, re-branding as career and technology education. Wood shop is now referred to as construction systems, and auto mechanics as auto technology.
But the changes go deeper. Modern vehicles require mastering numerous small computers – often more than 20 – and that means learning advanced math in auto technology.
And no longer is vocational education only for those not headed to college. Districts have added classes such as media tech, health sciences, law, finance, engineering, electronics and computer maintenance.
How do those information-age careers fit alongside traditional vocational classes that don't require college degrees? They're all jobs in demand.
For kids not heading to a four-year college, schools offer credits toward an associate's degree and professional trade certifications that lead to better-paying jobs.
In cosmetology, students earn certifications through two classes – an education that private trade schools charge thousands of dollars for.
"I'm not going to college," said Laura Fuentes, a Lewisville senior and cosmetology student. "This is what all my family does, and this is what I want to do."
The classes help students get jobs with high-end salons that pay $45,000 a year and more, according to industry data.
Irving goes so far as to tailor its core curriculum to students' career focus. For example, a health sciences student takes science and math classes customized for the practical demands of nurses and doctors. Students attend The Academy of Irving ISD full time. In most districts, students are bused to and from career centers for classes.
But even in districts without customized core classes, educators said, students perform better once engaged in a career track with clear expectations of what it takes to get a job.
"We have fewer students who drop out if they see a purpose to why they're in school," said Marty Thompson, dean of Denton's $22 million Advanced Technology Complex, which opened last fall. "TAKS performance is better because it makes sense. They know how to apply it."
Mansfield ISD officials said students taking at least two classes at its Ben Barber Career Tech Academy, which opened in 2005, outperformed their peers at traditional high schools in math and language arts.
The career schools hire teachers with work experience in the fields they teach. That makes it tough to find good teachers willing to give up higher salaries, but districts make do by finding professionals tired of long hours or just eager to teach.
The centers also give students real-world experience. Many offer haircuts and manicures and vehicle tune-ups. Mansfield culinary students will soon open a restaurant.
And in Lewisville, media tech students film and produce programming for the city's cable station.
Michael Garza, a Lewisville senior, plans to go to a one-year trade college next year in Houston to pursue a career as an auto technician, where salaries average $58,000 – significantly more than the salary for a starting teacher with a bachelor's degree.
"I didn't know what an engine was, and you really do learn everything here," he said. "I saw I could make money doing it, and now my future is set on it."