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Pittsburgh Burnishes New Vocational Image

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Pittsburgh--To many, this aging steel town, where the thick smoke of industrial progress once filled the sky, is today a symbol of America's economic decline.

But not to those who live here--especially the city's business and education leaders.

While some of the older residents still sweep their stoops and porches each morning, expecting to find the black soot that has long since disappeared, Pittsburgh's leaders have turned to new horizons.

Built on heavy industry, the city is today the third-largest corporate headquarters in the country, after New York City and Chicago, and home base for such business giants as the Mellon Bank and Westinghouse.

It has also become a center for high-technology research, with Carnegie Mellon University and the Buhl Science Center anchoring the region's complex of facilities.

And to train the workforce that keeps these corporate engines humming, the public-school system has become a national innovator. But it has chosen as its new horizon an old--and currently disparaged--field: vocational education.

Half of the city's 14,000 high-school students are enrolled in vocational courses. They range from computerized auto mechanics to robotics, and include the offerings of a high-tech magnet program for vocational-track students.

Each year, the district sends thousands of students into 800 area businesses for cooperative work experiences.

Vocational education has become such an integral part of the system, in fact, that officials here made a bold decision last year to eliminate the general-education track entirely and require students to work toward either a vocational or an academic diploma.

"The ideas many people have of vocational education are as outdated as the images they have of Pittsburgh," says Fred A. Monaco, director of the district's division of occupational, vocational, and technical education.

Of the decision to eliminate the general-studies diploma he says, "Everybody knows this has to happen. One school district had to take the first step."

No 'Carriages and Buggy Whips'

Pittsburgh has taken that first step at a time when vocational education is viewed by many as a concept that has outlived its usefulness.

Major education-reform reports have ignored the field. The U.S. Education Department has tried to zero its funds out of the federal budget. And Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, in his recent report on the ideal high-school curriculum, failed even to mention vocational coursework.

The worn-out perceptions vocational leaders have to deal with, some say, were perfectly illustrated in a comment by U.S. Representative James H. Scheuer of New York, during a Congressional hearing last fall on education and employment. He asked if vocational-education funds might be "better spent somewhere else besides teaching kids how to make carriages and buggy whips."

To Mr. Monaco, such detractors lack an understanding of what can happen in a progressive vocational-education system.

Here, he says, vocational-education programs "are not just a place to dump problem kids and teach them outdated skills."

Pittsburgh's programs are attracting both the honor-roll and the at-risk student. Their emphasis is on learning transferable skills and exploring a range of career opportunities.

The city's 10 comprehensive high schools offer a variety of vocational-track courses, and students may choose to attend the all-vocational South High School.

High Tech and 'Hard Work'

But it is Schenley High School, home of the district's high-tech magnet program, that is the hottest vocational offering in town.

Initiated in 1982, the four-year program graduated its first class last year. The 80 students chosen to enter each year represent a range of academic abilities, from the learning-disabled to the gifted. And each class is racially balanced to conform to the district's voluntary desegregation plan.

Courses begin with basic electricity and progress through advanced digital electronics and robotics.

"This is not a computer-programming course," says Thomas L. Goettmann, the magnet program's director.

It relies on the careful intermixing of academic subjects with vocational instruction, he notes. "If a child is taking a course in electronics, the other classes support what he is learning."

For instance, the program's English curriculum introduces technical writing, using such formats as field reports and descriptive analysis.

Its literature portion includes science fiction and other technology-based writings, from such authors as Issac Asimov and Frank Herbert, whose Dune Trilogy is on the reading list.

Mathematics courses have a supplemental workbook on electronics, and laboratories are equipped with computers, modern electronic gear, robotic arms, and machines for computer-assisted drafting.

In the school's first year of recruiting, the director says, he used a hero robot to advertise the program. It was a ploy that drew attention, but one he has had some second thoughts about. Once the students got to Schenley, Mr. Goettmann says, "they were more interested in where the robot was than in the coursework."

"Now, we promise prospective students nothing but hard work," he says. "The students choose to be here and that makes the program work.''

Closing a 'Dead-End Street'

This success in appealing to a cross-section of students--and in preventing those students from dropping out of school--was a prime factor in the decision to drop the general-education track.

It came after a panel of educators, business representatives, and college researchers had determined that, for most students, a general-education diploma is a "dead-end street."

"Thirty years ago, you could graduate with a high-school diploma and get the highest wage in the world for unskilled labor," said Mr. Monaco, who headed the panel. "But those days are over and it is ludicrous to continue with the general-education track."

Under the plan adopted in July, students entering high school in the 1989-90 school year and thereafter will be asked, before they begin the 10th grade, to choose a course of study that will lead to either an academic diploma or a vocational diploma.

Currently, nearly 50 percent of graduates meet the requirements for a vocational diploma, indicating that they have completed the basic state requirements and an occupational program.

Another 15 percent receive academic diplomas, which signify that they have completed a more rigorous set of academic courses. The remaining 35 percent receive unlabeled, or general, diplomas.

The panel that recommended that the general-diploma program be phased out was appointed by the city's board of education in 1985. It spent two years looking at the system's drop-out rates, follow-up studies on graduates, and other research data to determine which sector of the student population needed the most employment-related assistance.

What they found was a clear pattern of better performance from vocational students than from general-education students.

Dropout statistics for the 1986-87 school year, for example, showed that 2.6 percent of vocational students and less than 1 percent of academic-track students had left school before graduating. But in the general-education track, the dropout rate was 8.9 percent.

The average follow-up figures for district graduates showed that more than 90 percent of vocational graduates went on to a postsecondary institution or a job within a year.

For general-education graduates, the figure was only about 75 perel10lcent, with one-fourth still seeking jobs or training as long as a year after graduation.

Charles Gorman, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Tri-State Area School Study Council, told the panel that, after interviewing nearly 5,000 students over five years, he had concluded that the general-education track was a "dead-end street."

"Usually, students say they chose that route because they didn't want to work too hard," Mr. Gorman said. "Then they wake up their senior year and say, 'Hey, I have to leave here and I'm not prepared."'

Increasing Options

Counseling will play a big role in the new, two-track plan. Once a student reaches middle school, he or she will meet with a counselor to begin discussing academic options. Since there are several introductory occupational courses at the middle-school level, Mr. Monaco notes, many students may use that time to experiment.

"Detractors would say we are cutting out options by forcing this choice," he says. "We say we are doing just the opposite."

Both diplomas can lead to higher education, he adds, and more than 40 percent of the system's vocational graduates pursue postsecondary degrees in two- or four-year institutions.

But if a student does not choose to further his education, the division director stresses, he will have marketable skills for entering the workforce. "We want our students to leave here with some type of option for the future."

Other Offerings

In addition to its high-technology magnet and all-vocational high school, the program includes:

The Business and Finance Academy, a comprehensive curriculum focusing on banking and business concepts.

Located at Westinghouse High School, the academy is a "school within a school," where students learn about financial institutions and the types of skills needed for employment in the field. It is supported in part by local banks and the Pittsburgh Urban League.

The Mellon Bank has even located a branch of its mailing service in the academy, allowing students to be paid for projects they work on after school.

Extensive tutoring, mentoring, and cooperative work experiences for at-risk students. The Select Employment Training Program, using federal vocational-education funds, provides such enrichments to vocational students districtwide.

Special programs and elective courses througout the system. These include an auto-mechanics program operated in conjunction with General Motors, a cluster of medical-science and health-career programs, coursework in entrepreneurship, and commercial-art instruction.

Mr. Monaco emphasizes the financial commitment needed to keep such programs in operation. Last year, he says, the budget for his division was about $36 million, with a little over half of that coming from the district and the rest from state and federal funds.

"It does cost more money to have a robotics class versus an English class, or an electronics class versus a social-studies class," he says. "But it also costs for welfare when people can't find jobs."

Since word of the plan spread through the vocational-education community, Mr. Monaco adds, he has received many phone calls from leaders at both the state and local level who say they support it and are closely monitoring it.

"This has been a radical move, " he says. "We hope other districts will consider it."

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