College & Workforce Readiness

Career-Prep High Schools Let Students Get Their Feet Wet

By John Gehring — June 21, 2000 8 min read

Aboard a 65-foot crew boat under a cloudless blue sky, 17-year-old Melissa Connelly checks a machine that measures the salinity of the bay waters beneath her and records the data in a notebook. It’s the kind of hands-on work she and about a dozen other seniors perform one day a week when they leave the Marine Academy of Science and Technology campus here to embark on their floating classroom, the Blue Sea.

“I have always had a passion for the ocean,” Ms. Connelly says, the skyline of New York City visible in the distance behind her. “The best thing about being here is getting out and doing things and not just learning about them in a book.”

About 50 miles away, students at Saunders Trades and Technical High School in Yonkers, N.Y., are performing similar “real world” tasks in food services, industrial design, environmental technology, and other career fields. The magnet school’s dropout rate is near zero, even though more than half its 1,200 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a common indicator of poverty.

MAST and Saunders are two examples of New American High Schools, a select group of comprehensive high schools, restructured vocational-technical schools, magnet schools, and small pilot schools that the U.S. Department of Education’s office of vocational and adult education has recognized for innovative programs and practices.

Resisting the stereotype that vocational and technical schools are for students who can’t make it academically, such schools also challenge assumptions about the divide between technical schools and more traditional comprehensive schools. By melding the best of technical and academic training, supporters say, they offer a new way of preparing students for a world where business leaders are desperate for smart workers with strong technical skills.

“We have every kind of high school imaginable,” said Patricia W. McNeil, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education. “Our goal was to think about a new version of high school where all students are successful.”

Rigor for All

The New American High School initiative began in 1996 with 10 schools that shared 12 whole-school reform strategies identified by the effort as essential to improving a school’s climate. Those approaches include breaking down the walls of tracking and creating a school where all students are expected to master rigorous academic material; using portfolios and other alternative ways of assessing student performance; creating small learning environments; and integrating the latest technology into the curriculum.

In the past five years, the NAHS initiative has expanded to include 32 schools, ranging from the 4,000-student Brooklyn Technical High School in New York City, a science and technology magnet, to Angola High School, a comprehensive school in rural Indiana with 800 students.

The Education Department also awards contracts to groups with an interest in fostering high school reform, such as the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta and the Boston-based Jobs for the Future, with the goal of infusing NAHS strategies into local school systems.

“By showcasing some schools that have changed,” Ms. McNeil said, “we hope we will start a movement that will significantly change the way high school looks like in the future.”

Fishing for Information

Known affectionately by some staff members as Gilligan’s Island, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, or MAST, is on the grounds of Gateway National Park in Sandy Hook, at the northern tip of the New Jersey shore. Students attend classes in 13 newly renovated buildings that once served as a U.S. Army base.

The only school in the 9,400-student Monmouth County Vocational School District to accept students from around the state, MAST began as a part-time vocational program in 1981 before evolving into a full-time science and technology magnet. Students are selected based on middle school grades, standardized-test scores, MAST-developed assessments in writing and mathematics, and an application portfolio.

The school has partnerships with the U.S. Navy, the Coast Guard, the National Park Service, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which has a state-of the-art lab on the campus where seniors work on research projects with scientists. All students are required to participate in an on-site work experience, and many do internships with NOAA and the New Jersey Department of Fisheries.

Blue Sea, a boat that the school bought in 1990 from a retired doctor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., “is where we pull it all together,” Barbara Boyd, an oceanography instructor and the coordinator of senior projects at the academy, told an informal group of legislative aides, teachers, and federal education officials who visited MAST and Saunders High last month. The nonprofit American Youth Policy Forum, based in Washington, organized the trip.

Freshmen use the boat to learn about water chemistry. Students studying physics take the boat out around the island of Manhattan to evaluate bridge structures. Today, seniors are examining fish. After trolling for a few miles, students pull up crabs, sea stars, moon snails, and two flounders that will be measured and identified in a log book.

MAST was initially designed to offer students either a marine-science or a marine- trades program, but instructors found that the distinction was creating a divide between “tech kids” and “trade kids,” according to Paul J. Christopher, the school’s principal. All students are now enrolled in a marine environmental- technology program, which integrates biology, computer applications, and systems technology.

Seniors must work on an in-depth final project; recent topics have included beach erosion and the effects of dredging on the Massachusetts Bay. Hands-on work is always emphasized, said Pete Murdoch, a systems-engineering teacher at the school.

“When you take them out of that traditional classroom environment and let them go, it is amazing what they will do,” Mr. Murdoch said as he watched members of the Coast Guard test small boats his students have made for an upcoming regatta, a process that has integrated mathematics, computer design, and world-history lessons.

According to Brian D. McAndrew, the superintendent of the Monmouth County Vocational district, other schools can learn from a school like MAST that holds high expectations and encourages innovation.

“This can be replicated,” Mr. McAndrew said, “if people are willing to do things differently.”

Higher Standards

Before 1990, Saunders Trades and Technical High in Yonkers had a solid vocational program, but its reputation for academic achievement was lagging.

Realizing that they had to raise their expectations, school administrators decided to extend the school day and the course offerings in math and science. They also started agreements that allow their students to earn college credit at such institutions as the State University of New York, the University of Connecticut, and St. John’s University. The school now has Advanced Placement classes in calculus, English, chemistry, American history, physics, and environmental science.

Saunders also decided to require all of its seniors to take the state regents’ exams, three years before New York began phasing in a similar requirement for all the state’s high schools. While some staff members initially bucked the changes, according to Principal Bernard P. Pierorazio, they have seen the results and are now supporters. “It really is a paradigm shift,” Mr. Pierorazio said. “We encourage our students to achieve at the very highest level. We do not take mediocrity lightly.”

The changes have produced results, administrators say, that show in the school’s nearly 100- point increase in average SAT verbal scores and a 70-point jump in SAT math scores over four years.

First-year students at Saunders, whose enrollment is 40 percent Hispanic and 17 percent African-American, are introduced to areas of potential interest through a 9th grade exploratory program. Students select a three-year trades or technical major from a choice of food services and restaurant management, design and production, and pre-engineering technical programs that include classes in electronic and computer circuitry, industrial design, and environmental technology.

Seventeen-year-old Sherian Graham-Tutt recently used CAD 2000, a computer-assisted design program, for a project in which she had to plan a new interior design for an existing building. For Ms. Graham-Tutt, who wants to pursue a career in construction, the opportunity to acquire such skills is what brought her to Saunders. Next year, she will attend Whittier College in California.

“At this school, you are able to incorporate hands-on work, and the teachers are able to help kids who learn in different ways,” she said.

Changing Workplace

Wayne Koppe, the manufacturing director for the Reliable Automatic Sprinkler Co. Inc., has five seniors from the school’s heating and air conditioning class working at his Mount Vernon, N.Y., business. Under a cooperative program the school began in January, the students work 20 hours a week and are paid $10 an hour.

“The expertise and training they learn in school provides them with the ability to do this work at a very high quality,” said Mr. Koppe, whose wife, Carolyn Koppe, is the New American High Schools coordinator at Saunders.

The type of education students receive at Saunders High will become more common, Mr. Koppe believes, because of the demands of the changing workplace. “Schools like this are a boon,” he said. “It is hard to find quality people. The gap between technical and trades and purely academic education is closing.

“I think in the next 20 years all schools are going to look like this.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2000 edition of Education Week as Career-Prep High Schools Let Students Get Their Feet Wet


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