It’s Not Just Shop Class Anymore

November 01, 1990 14 min read

The subject matter in the two courses couldn’t be more different. Puskaric’s electronics aces probably would be baffled by the investment and interest-rate talk among Anderson’s business students. And Anderson’s Wall Street whiz kids probably wouldn’t know the difference between a computer chip and a poker chip. But the teachers and students in the two programs--Westinghouse’s Business and Finance Academy and Schenley’s High-Technology Magnet Program--are all part of a vocational-education system in Pittsburgh that is attracting national attention and praise and challenging some of the common criticisms of vocational education.

Many policymakers and educators consider vocational programs outdated and irrelevant in a post-industrial society and question the wisdom of teaching students specific job skills in a rapidly changing labor market. The current wave of education reform, with its emphasis on increased academic requirements, has left little time for vocational courses, which have never quite fit into the regular 50-minute-period school day. These pressures have strained vocational-education programs in many districts.

But this isn’t the case in Pittsburgh, where vocational education is thriving. The dropout rate among the city’s 6,000 vocational students is low, and many of them go on to college or other formal postsecondary training. The diverse programs also enjoy support from the city’s business community.

Fred Monaco, who directs the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ career and vocational programs, offers a pragmatic argument in support of vocational education: “If you’ve ever had your car or furnace or anything else fixed,’' he says in his straightforward manner, “it was probably done by someone who learned a trade in vocational classes.’'

Monaco has an equally simple explanation for the success of Pittsburgh’s programs: They produce students with marketable skills. “A lot of people say, ‘Just give me a good kid who comes to work every day, follows directions, can read and write, and I’ll hire him,’' Monaco says. “Vocational students need to be able to read, write, communicate, add, and so on, but that’s not all they need. If someone’s hired by a company to fix cars, he has to be able to fix cars.’'

Vocational education in Pittsburgh has never been burdened with the second-class status it carries in many districts. Technical programs, Monaco says, have always been welcome in Pittsburgh, a “working city’’ built on industry. But that alone doesn’t explain the success of the city’s program. As a former teacher, Monaco knows the importance of teacher involvement: He listens to vocational teachers and seeks their input in decisionmaking. “If teachers don’t believe in what we’re doing,’' he says, “every idea we have is absolutely worthless. Teachers have to be part of setting the program up because when they close the door, they’re in charge of the classroom.’' Teacher support and a long tradition of good relations among administrators, teachers, and the business community have enabled Pittsburgh to create innovative and effective vocational programs.

Monaco himself enjoys a degree of status and authority many vocational administrators only dream about. He’s a formidable and enthusiastic booster of his programs, but his clout extends beyond vocational education. His tough lobbying persuaded district officials to radically change the system’s high school curriculum. Starting this year, high school students must opt for either an academic program, which includes algebra, physics, a foreign language, and similar collegeprep courses, or a vocational program, which includes two years of training in a specific trade, in addition to core academic courses. Students will no longer be able to follow a general-education track, as more than 25 percent now do.

It was hard for Monaco to sell the superintendent and the school board on the sweeping change, but it was harder for them to ignore the findings he used to make his case: The dropout rate among seniors was less than 1 percent in the academic track and 2.6 percent in the vocational track, but it exceeded 13 percent in the general track. “There’s no course called general education,’' Monaco says, “but it’s a configuration of courses students take that frankly don’t lead to anything.’' He contends that general education merely “warehouses’’ students, a criticism that is often targeted at vocationaleducation programs.

What will the elimination of the general track mean for Pittsburgh’s vocational programs? Not much at first, Monaco predicts, because most of the generaltrack students will probably try their luck in the academic program. He notes, however, that the school system’s 350 vocational teachers will be around to “pick up the pieces’’ for students who get derailed. “But that’s nothing new,’' he says. “We’ve been doing that for years.’'

Monaco believes that about 70 percent of the district’s students will be earning vocational certificates in the not-toodistant future. That sort of ratio between vocational and college-prep students would put Pittsburgh more in line with countries like Germany and Taiwan, where vocational training is more widespread than in the United States. “We have an idea in this country that everybody is supposed to go to college,’' Monaco says. “In reality, the government says that 75 percent of the jobs by the year 2000 will not require a college degree but will require further training. If students want to go to college, they should. But they shouldn’t assume that’s the only way to go.’'

The Pittsburgh Public Schools faced a tough situation in the early 1980s when the decline of the steel industry plunged the city into economic distress. For years, the area suffered from high unemployment; it was almost impossible for graduating seniors to find a job. Despite the depressed local economy, however, the school system held on to its reputation as one of the best urban systems in the country.

Today, Pittsburgh’s economy is on the rebound, but service industries, medicalresearch companies, high-technology firms, and small businesses have replaced steel as the source of prosperity. High school students can no longer drop out of school and make a decent blue-collar wage in the mills. There are more diverse opportunities, but most require at least a high school diploma, and many require the sort of skills taught in the schools’ vocational programs.

Electronics teacher Puskaric and the 8-year-old HighTechnology Magnet Program at Schenley High School exemplify Pittsburgh’s changing economy and changing school system. Puskaric’s first career was as an electronics and robotics technician in a steel mill. He had wanted to be an art teacher, but the lure of the mill’s high salaries proved irresistible. When the mill closed, Puskaric switched careers and turned to teaching. Rather than teaching art, however, he transferred his knowledge of electronics to vocational classrooms. As part of the high-tech program at Schenley, he now helps prepare his students for jobs in the city’s new economy.

The program’s curriculum is more intense than most vocational programs. It’s a four-year course of study rather than the typical two years. The 80 freshmen who enter the program each fall start by studying basic electricity and progress through advanced digital electronics by the end of their senior year.

Another distinctive aspect of the program’s curriculum is the high-tech theme, which is carried through all subject areas. For example, the students take regular English, but rather than writing papers only on traditional themes, they write about technology and electronics, as well. Puskaric’s students get three grades on every electronics assignment--one from Puskaric for their mastery of the electronics concepts, one from an English teacher for the quality of the writing, and one from a business teacher for their command of computer and word-processing skills.

English teacher John Cuylba, a former technical writer hired to teach primarily in the high-tech program, often supplements the standard reading list in his class with science-fiction classics such as The Martian Chronicles and Dune. “The students probably wouldn’t get things like that anyplace else,’' he says. “They enjoy it.’' Cuylba also passes on some of his firsthand knowledge of technical writing.

One unmistakable sign of the program’s success is the enthusiasm of students like Billy Majeski and Joe Seiler, seniors in the magnet program last year. “I’ve had a good time and learned a lot in this program,’' Billy says. “It’s fun with all the equipment.’' The two eagerly demonstrate a sound board they built for a recording studio, fiddling with the dials as they explain how it works. Despite the demanding nature of the program, the students don’t spend all their time focusing on electronics; last year, the student-body president and vice president at Schenley were enrolled in the high-tech program.

To the surprise of teachers and administrators, the program has turned into something of a collegeprep course for students interested in careers in electrical engineering and computer-assisted drafting. “Our placement rate in college is phenomenal,’' says Puskaric, who keeps a chart in his room listing the college plans of his seniors. More than three out of four go on to college or technical school.

Schenley’s high-tech course is a magnet program, drawing students from throughout Pittsburgh. As Puskaric puts it, “They’re here because they want to be here, so it’s like a little college.’' Westinghouse High School’s Business and Finance Academy enjoys no such advantage. The academy is only open to Westinghouse students, and it targets those who are at risk of dropping out, making its success truly noteworthy.

Each year, more than half the academy’s nearly 50 graduates go on to college, business school, or the military; many others find jobs in local banks. The driving force behind the program is lead teacher Eunice Anderson. “I have very high expectations for my students, and they strive to meet those expectations,’' says Anderson, who came to Westinghouse in 1984 to help start the academy. “Basically, I think kids want to be successful in school.’'

The design of Anderson’s classroom makes it difficult for her students to think of anything but business and finance. In addition to the time clock by the door, there are adding machines and bank-teller stations; a rack of business magazines, including Forbes, Black Enterprise, and Inc.; and bulletin-board displays with titles such as “Jobs in Business’’ and “English on the Job.’' Academy students are exposed to the business world in other classes, as well.

Take Richard DeSano’s social studies class. One day, his students are out in the hallways compiling an economic analysis of the school facility; the next, they’re studying the tax system and filling out income-tax returns. The key, DeSano says, is to make the content practical, especially with students who might be intimidated by their first exposure to economics. “Everything in education has to be relevant,’' he says. “If you can’t apply it, it’s boring.’'

In addition to business course work, students work on skills that will help them find jobs. They research different careers, compile rsums, dress up and go through videotaped mock interviews, and talk with representatives of local banks and businesses. Many also work in banks after school and during the summer through partnerships the program has developed with local financial institutions.

Gena Napper, for instance, works four hours a day after school filing insurance claims. “My experience with computers and typing helped me get the job,’' says the senior. “I can stay there and move up in the company. They’ll probably hire me full time.’'

Mellon Bank has a formal arrangement with the academy, employing students in its mail room. The work can sometimes be tedious, but students learn that the mail room is an important part of the whole organization, says Sue Bogdan, the mail room officer who supervises the students. Over time, students have the opportunity to work in different departments, under a number of managers, so they get to see what’s involved in other aspects of banking, Bogdan says. “These kids grow through the variety of things we have them do,’' she notes. “And we have very, very few complaints about the work the students do. They’re just terrific kids.’'

In addition to providing jobs, Mellon and other local banks, along with the Pittsburgh Urban League, helped design the academy’s curriculum, and a coalition of bankers still serve as advisers. To encourage students to focus on academics, the banks award special Business and Finance Academy jackets to students who earn a grade-point average of 2.5 or better. And many bank employees and local business professionals serve as mentors for the students.

With all the focus on business, is there any concern that the students’ perspectives become too narrow? “Not really,’' Anderson replies. “They learn skills they would need whether or not they decide to major in business. I really think that individuals in our society don’t know enough about business, finance, and the banking industry. These are things that students can also use as consumers.’'

The Business and Finance Academy and the High-Technology Magnet Program are both showpieces of vocational education in Pittsburgh. Two people who work closely with the city’s schools and business community give favorable reviews not only to the two programs, but also to the system’s vocational program as a whole.

Nancy Bunt, director of the Allegheny Conference Education Fund, says the city’s vocational programs work because they’re student centered. “School administrators really are looking at what the students’ needs are, and they’re designing programs to meet those needs,’' Bunt notes. “In Pittsburgh, you can’t get a vocational education without gaining the basic academic competencies. That’s built into the program.’'

Says Jeanne Berdik, director of Partnerships in Education: “Teachers do a good job preparing the students within some fairly broad fields and also training them in specific skills. They give students the kind of generic career skills that are necessary for any entry-level employee.’'

In Pittsburgh, career planning starts early. During middle school, both boys and girls take short units on a variety of vocational subjects, ranging from cooking to electricity. In addition, every 4th through 12th grade class includes some “career education’’ intended to show students how the course is relevant to life outside of school. Students in an introductory science course, for instance, might be told about scientific jobs ranging from low-level technician to nuclear physicist. Someone studying cosmetology--one of the district’s more popular courses--might learn about entry-level jobs, those that require further training and education, and salary ranges for various positions.

By graduation, students have been prepared for the world of work. In the vocational courses, everything is “competency based,’' Monaco says. “The kids are taught something, then they put it into practice.’' Once the students master a skill, they receive a competency rating sheet, which they can show to prospective employers.

Every program--from plumbing and carpentry to biomedical technology and public safety--includes an advisory committee of professionals who review the curriculum to make sure it’s up to date. “We must change each curriculum at least every five years, but in certain areas we are doing it much more often,’' says Monaco. “In vocational education, we have to respond to the market quickly.’' It’s pointless to train students in fields with no jobs available, he notes. The district has killed programs that have little value in the marketplace. Most students have plenty of opportunities during their school years to hone their skills; each year, about 5,000 of them gain work experience and earn a total of $10 million at hundreds of area businesses.

Despite the seeming good health of vocational education in his city, Monaco is aware of the challenges he and other vocational educators throughout the country face. For one thing, it’s costly to run an effective, up-to-date program. His division operates on an annual budget of about $19 million, more than 60 percent of which comes from the district. The equipment used in the high-technology program at Schenley High School alone is worth $200,000. “Let’s face it, satellite dishes cost more than pencils and paper,’' Monaco says. “But we can’t afford not to have vocational education at its highest technical level. If that’s where the jobs are, what other choice do we have?’'

And there is the continual battle against the age-old stereotype that vocational classrooms are places schools dump poor students and teach them outdated skills. That description may fit some programs, Monaco admits, but each district should be judged on its own merits. “People in vocational education tend to be a little defensive,’' he says, “We’re a little tired of that. I say just give us an even shot.’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as It’s Not Just Shop Class Anymore