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Education: This isn’t your parents’ vocational education

Special report, Part 4: Changing workplace leads schools to innovative student-training programs

Posted: November 20, 2010 9:09 p.m.
Updated: November 21, 2010 4:55 a.m.

The class, which includes students from throughout the Hart school district, works to create and execute a business plan for its company.

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Editor's note: This is Part 4 of a series on the state of education in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Acoustic Cakes and Apparel CEO Sonia Sanchez, 18, stared into a Mac computer screen in a Golden Valley High School classroom, troubleshooting how to get the written description of a musician-monikered cupcake to show under the cupcake photo on the company’s website.

The faux business sells cupcakes with kooky names like Santana Banana, after the rock musician, and Mrazberry, after pop musician Jason Mraz, as a hands-on learning exercise in the Hart high school district’s Virtual Enterprise course.

Behind Sanchez, junior Tyler Young steadily plugged numbers from an invoice into an Excel spreadsheet.

Two more rows of students from across the Hart school district were busily creating a catalog and brochure. A deadline looms: December’s trade show in Bakersfield. More than a few students didn’t really know what they were doing, or how they would do it.

It was a warm September day, still early in the semester, and all 15 students in the Regional Occupation Program class were getting a crash course in some aspect of running an online business: marketing, public relations, finance, graphic design, sales or management.

There was a lot to get done, but the students were nonplussed, gamely navigating their way through creating a compelling catalog, designing pages and engineering an Excel spreadsheet.

Teacher Summer O’Brien said the virtual enterprise course is real-life work in a virtual setting. As soon as students enter the classroom, they’re practically punched into a time clock and set to work for three hours, once a week.

The course is part of the William S. Hart Union High School District’s Regional Occupational Program.

This is what vocational education looks like today.

The re-branding
To many, the phrase “vocational education” conjures images of scenes from the musical “Grease”: a group of less-than-academic youths tinkering with cars or learning to tint hair in beauty school.

But today’s isn’t the vocational education of the ’50s, ’60s or even ’70s. This isn’t even the vocational education of the ’90s.

The status-quo idea that there will be a plethora of well-paying, skilled jobs for young people once the “Grease”-era baby boomers retire is untrue, said Dave LeBarron, who oversees the Hart district Regional Occupational Program, or ROP.

Postgraduation expectations have changed. New workplace skills replace old ones. Commercial photography, for instance, including its dark-room lab, has been phased out in favor of digital photography.

As the basic model behind vocational education has changed, so has its name. Educators now prefer “career technical education.”

Advocates like LeBarron hope the way parents and students think about vocational education changes with the model and name changes.

The Hart district opts into the statewide Regional Occupational Program, which offers on-the-job training and career guidance to juniors and seniors. About a thousand Hart district students are enrolled in ROP.

Industry in classrooms
In the ROP classes, many of the instructors work in the fields they’re teaching, said Steve DeWitt, senior director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education.

The program allows business and industry to connect with schools, he said.

“It really brings it from industry to our classroom,” O’Brien agreed. “(Students are) coming to work. This is our place to work.”

“There’s been a blurring of career technical education, of what is career technical education and what is college,” said Steve DeWitt,

O’Brien said she seeks to match students’ abilities with jobs. Different personalities and skill sets tend to round out a business.

“I can’t have them all be stars academically,” she said. “You could have a B student with a fabulous personality, someone who’s always getting in trouble for talking too much.

“Those are my sales people. That’s someone who paints the idea with their personality and sells it.”

“Not all kids will end up going to college,” said Bob Jensen, a Hart district board member. “Whether you go to college or not, you’re going to enter the work force.”

Jensen said once the recession lifts, construction will pick up in the Santa Clarita Valley, bringing jobs with it. ROP students will be well-suited to fill them, he said.

“Students graduating from high school who aren’t necessarily going to go to college will have some skills and some contacts with employers,” Jensen said. “They can do well and support a family without having gone to college.”

Finding a vocation
Still, most students who take the courses don’t know what they want to do when they get out of high school, even after taking an ROP course.

LeBarron said career tech works the way it always has: It helps students narrow down what they want to do after high school, whatever it is.

Some career tech champions said finding a career isn’t the point. There’s another side to career tech, too, DeWitt said.

Senior Chris Smith, who is taking a silk-screening class that teaches students how to create designs and place them on T-shirts, said he’s not good at computers.

But seeing his computer work on a tangible cotton T-shirt helped keep his interest in his other computer-oriented classes, Smith said.

“Core academics teachers are seeing a lot of results” due to skills taught in ROP classes, DeWitt said. “(Students) can relate to how it fits into work life.”

Some job skills will never change
John Whalen teaches Hart ROP’s popular silk-screening class. Over the years, students went from designing the images and transferring them on metal slabs to sitting in front of a computer, working on a graphic-design program.

Whalen said that no matter how career technical education changes, good work habits stay the same.

“The No. 1 tip is to hustle,” Whalen said. “You have to want to succeed. You can’t just have an education. (You have to) be on time, and get along with other people.”

Whalen said having good work habits, like meeting deadlines and following through, is often a much bigger asset than a diploma.

Smith often goes from Whalen’s silk-screening class to his part-time job on a horse ranch. Smith said what he’s learned from Whalen reinforces what he’s learned on the ranch.

“Taking directions, learning that there’s a certain way to do it,” Smith said. “You can’t half-groom a horse, and you can’t half-make a shirt.”

The future
LeBarron acknowledged that most students in occupation-based classes probably won’t end up pursuing a career in a field they studied in high school. But that’s not really the point.

“We want to help them make good choices,” he said. “If a student says, ‘This was a great experience, it helped me find my path,’ great.

“If they say, ‘It helped me, helped me narrow my path,’ great. Both are answers we want to hear.”

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