Hearing Seeks To Put Focus on Integrating Academics, Voc. Ed.

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Alexandria, Va.

When House members were looking for a place to kick off hearings on federal vocational education programs, they bypassed schools that are training the nation's future welders and air conditioning technicians.

Instead, they came here to a regional magnet high school in the Washington suburbs that graduates National Merit Scholars and sends them to elite universities.

"It allows us to spotlight the integrated approach that blends strong academics with expanded vocational and technical education," said Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., the chairman of the House subcommittee that held a hearing last week at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, Va.

"We think it's the type of model that can serve as an example of what we want to do," Mr. Riggs added.

What Mr. Riggs and other Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee want to do is steer the $1.1 billion program away from its traditional focus on specific craft skills, such as car mechanics and electronics, and toward high-technology abilities that require a grounding in reading, mathematics, and other basic academic skills.

"Vocational education means you must be very academically prepared and at the same time have some skills," said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who chairs the full committee. "If you do, you can go either way."

At Thomas Jefferson, the school's principal told Mr. Riggs' panel, the curriculum includes rigorous academic content, but also teaches communications, teamwork, and management skills. In addition, about 20 percent of seniors work closely with mentors in the business community, Principal Geoffrey Jones told the Early Childhood, Youth, and Families Subcommittee.

But replicating the success of Thomas Jefferson High School could be difficult for schools elsewhere. The school's students are selected through an application process as competitive as that of an Ivy League university. Every year, 400 students are chosen from 2,600 applicants representing several counties in suburban Washington, Mr. Jones said.

The school receives only $13,000 a year for equipment in federal vocational education money, none of it from the main grant program in the 1990 Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act.

Intent Behind The Law

While Thomas Jefferson High may be a model for what vocational education could be, the subcommittee's leading Democrat doesn't want it to become a big winner under any changes to the vocational education law this year.

The current law targets students in impoverished areas, with 70 percent of its money doled out according to the same funding formula as the federal Title I program, which favors areas with high concentrations of disadvantaged students. Other money follows federal special education and student population data.

"The funding stream that exists is really important ... because those kids could never get into a school like this," said Rep. Matthew G. Martinez, D-Calif. "What I'd like to see is this school replicated" in poor communities.

Mr. Riggs later said he is considering funding formula changes to give more weight to a community's school-age population, dropout rates, and poverty rates. But he added that his eventual recommendation is unlikely to reverse the philosophy of targeting money to needy schools.

Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, is writing a job-training bill that also would reauthorize the vocational education law. Mr. Jeffords plans to put the bill to a vote in his committee in June, according to a panel spokesman.

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