Mix of Academics, Technical Skills Heralds a 'New Day' for Voc. Ed.

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Sussex Technical High School here offers a prime example of why some vocational and technical educators are cautiously declaring victory in their long struggle for more respect.

Once a traditional vocational school where students would be bused in to take a few trade classes, Sussex Tech was floundering in 1986. Its enrollment had plunged to about 700, down from 1,300 in 1979, a drop that threatened to close the school."The morale was terrible, and the situation wasn't good for kids," said Carol Schreffler, the assistant superintendent of the Sussex Technical School District.

So district officials began searching for a new model. They worked with national researchers, visited schools around the country, and came up with a restructuring plan that emphasized weaving a strong academic curriculum into technical programs.

Today, this 1,150-student school, where about 20 percent of the students come from poor families, sends most of its students to some form of postsecondary education. Attendance rates hover at 95 percent. One of the original 10 schools named in 1996 as an innovative New American High School by the U.S. Department of Education's office of vocational and adult education, Sussex Tech receives visitors from around the country searching for ways to turn around their own schools.

"The first couple of years were hard," Principal Sandra Walls-Culotta said. "But if given the opportunities, students live up to expectations. If we are not doing a good job, students don't want to come here."

'A New Day'

Vocational education has done much in recent years to overcome the stigma that for so long branded it as inferior to traditional academic curricula. In fact, many vocational programs have evolved to blend strong academics with cutting-edge technical and career skills.

Educators and researchers are offering a more expansive vision of the field: career academies, work-based learning, and strong partnerships linking high schools, postsecondary institutions, and businesses.

"It is a new day," said Gene Bottoms, the founding director of the High Schools That Work initiative, an Atlanta-based program that helps vocational schools strengthen their curricula and instructional standards.

Since 1987, the model has been adopted by 883 schools in 23 states. Schools work with program staff members to write plans for continuous improvement. The participants receive technical assistance and agree to thorough assessments.

In 1998, schools in the program—including Sussex Tech— exceeded the national averages of vocational students in reading, mathematics, and science development on a test based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Some of the reasons for such success can be seen at Sussex Tech.

After a year of exploration, 10th graders here select one of several "career clusters": health and human services, business, automotive, or industrial and engineering technologies. Students follow three-year programs structured to incorporate the academic and technical coursework in their areas of focus. Since 1994, English teachers have been trained to work with technical instructors to encourage better student writing.

Seniors must complete a final-year project that shows advanced technical skills and includes a related research paper and an oral presentation. Students graduate with both a diploma and a certificate stating they have met the school's technical standards. They can also earn state-based or national technical certificates.

Every year, the school hosts a gathering in which some 500 business people share their thoughts with the staff about evolving industry standards. Those employers are also active in advisory roles throughout the school year.

"We want to constantly improve," said George L. Frunzi, the superintendent of the Sussex Technical district, which oversees the high school and adult education program.

Greg Fuller, 15, an aspiring architect who hopes to attend Georgia Institute of Technology, knows all about the perceptions that still dog vocational education. But don't try to tell him that the work he is doing at Sussex can't live up to a traditional curriculum.

"A lot of schools have trades, but you get it more in depth here," he said while working on a computer-assisted drafting program that incorporated math skills and an ability to work with different depth dimensions. Along with the technical skills he is learning, Mr. Fuller is taking physics and Algebra 2.

"You have to work," he said. "It is more than just technical stuff. That is why a lot of people don't want to come here. It's harder."

Caution Amid Progress

But for all of the progress vocational education has made, Mr. Bottoms—who has seen its evolution over his almost 40 years in the field—admits to being humbled in his ambitious efforts to change its culture. "We have made progress, but it is slower than I would have liked to see," he said.

One of the goals of High Schools That Work, Mr. Bottoms said, is to provide a consistent framework for improvement. Putting theories about the ways vocational education must change into practice remains a challenge, particularly when a recent HSTW evaluation found that about half the vocational teachers at their sites said they were not prepared to integrate academic content into vocational assignments.

"One would think we would be further down the road," Mr. Bottoms said, "but I have learned big improvements don't come in two to three years—they come in decades."

Dan Hull, the director and founder of the Center for Occupational Research and Development, a nonprofit organization based in Waco, Texas, that helps schools make connections between education and the work world, said schools must do a better job of making learning come alive.

"A lot of kids drop out because they don't see the relevance or importance of what they are learning," Mr. Hull said. "We have put information into boxes, and we teach disciplines in isolation. There is really a window of opportunity for a new system out there, but it is going to take a common vision."

Career academies, a model in which large schools are broken into smaller units focused on a career field like electronics, bioscience, media, or business, have seen positive results, he noted. A long-term study of career academies by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a nonprofit research organization in New York City, found that they improve dropout rates and increase the likelihood that students will graduate on time. ("Fewer Dropouts from Career Academies, Study Says," Feb. 9, 2000.)

More College Prep

A growing number of vocational students, meanwhile, are taking more college-preparatory classes, according to Marsha Silverberg, the deputy director of the Education Department's National Assessment of Vocational Education.

In 1990, only 19 percent of vocational students were taking a college-preparatory curriculum, which was defined as at least four years of English and three years each of mathematics and science. By 1998, 45 percent of such students were taking those classes.

"The gap between voc-ed students and traditional students is narrowing," Ms. Silverberg said.

States also are raising the bar for vocational students. In New York, where by 2004 all students must pass the state regents' exams in core subjects, Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills released a proposal in June that would require English, math, and science material to be a consistent part of technical courses. The state board of regents is expected to vote on the plan this fall.

Patricia W. McNeil, the Education Department's assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, has worked to change the perception and reality of vocational education.

"The old voc-ed designed for the industrial age is not going to work anymore," she argued. "We need to help people understand the needs of the workplace have changed."

Stressing accountability in vocational programs, she said, must be a priority if policymakers are to have faith in the programs. The Education Department has helped states develop their "career cluster" partnerships in areas such as health and information technology, along with providing $45 million in grants to help large schools reorganize.

But critics of programs like the 1994 School to Work Act, which passed Congress with bipartisan support and promotes partnerships between students and employers through job shadowing and internships, contend that such programs pigeonhole students at early ages.

"Vocational education is voluntary, but school-to-work attempts to manage all students and slot them in so-called job tracks as early as middle school," said Phyllis Schlafly, the president of the Alton, Ill.-based Eagle Forum, an advocacy organization on social issues that was a vocal critic of the school-to-work legislation.

To Susan Vanvelzor, who teaches English in the industrial-engineering cluster at Sussex Technical High, any program that makes abstract learning more real for students is a good idea.

A lesson on the building of the atomic bomb, for example, offered students the opportunity to explore across academic and technical lines. All students read John Hersey's Hiroshima and examined the environmental impact of the bomb, how it was built, and even why traditional Japanese architecture contributed to flash fires after the bombing.

Ms. Vanvelzor said she rarely hears complaints from students at Sussex Tech. "These students tangibly see what they are doing," she said. "This is such a different environment."

Vol. 20, Issue 4, Pages 1, 16

Published in Print: September 27, 2000, as Mix of Academics, Technical Skills Heralds a 'New Day' for Voc. Ed.
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