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Article of Interest - Education

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Bridges4Kids LogoSecondary Experience: More Schools Providing Job Training
by La Monica Everett-Haynes, Houston Chronicle, June 9, 2004
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Even though Kevin Hitchel had never worked in a construction zone, he wanted to be a civil engineer the day he walked into his high school's construction class.

"I didn't know what I would be doing, but I knew it would help me," said Hitchel, who graduated last month from Clear Lake High School.

By then, the 18-year-old knew how to draw a blueprint, fix a baseball-size hole in a wall, outfit a room with electrical wires and recite the names and functions of more than 100 hand tools and household fixtures.

As business owners request more experience from their entry-level employees, the nation's high schools are beginning to train -- not just educate -- students such as Hitchel.

Between 1982 and 1998, students took fewer vocational education classes such as keyboarding, leatherwork and culinary arts, as educators played up mathematics, English and science.

In recent years, vocational classes are making a comeback with an emphasis in computer technology, health sciences and business, said Karen Batchelor, director of health science technology education at the Texas Education Agency.

"The industries, due to technology, are changing so rapidly that the skills employers are expecting students to have changed with the technology advancements," said Batchelor, who is also the agency's interim director for technology education in Austin.

Today, federal statistics show that more than 75 percent of all high schools in the nation are educating students in the basics of some of the fastest growing jobs, including social and human service assistants and physical therapist aides.

Half of those schools offer some sort of tech-prep program, helping students get ready for jobs that don't always require a degree for entry-level work, only on-the-job training.

Even though schools do not yet have to report the number of students taking vocational classes, a survey between 1990 and 2000 showed their popularity.

"As of 2000, the number of vocational courses that high school students took was roughly equal to the number of English courses they took," said Karen Levesque, senior associate at Berkeley-based MPR Associates.

Students with vocational experience can expect solid job prospects, even without a college education.

For example, construction workers earn an hourly average of $19.06 or an annual salary of nearly $37,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For machinery production workers, the hourly wage is $15.41 and for health care support workers, the amount is $10.53.

"If districts are doing a good job of listening to what local communities are asking for in terms of opportunities, it helps the students to get to where they need to be," Batchelor said.

That's what's happening in the Clear Creek Independent School District.

Nearly 6,500 high school students took career and technology courses in the 2003-2004 school year, compared with fewer than 5,900 students who enrolled in 1999.

At the same time, administrators began meeting with local business leaders and representatives from government agencies. Together, the groups encouraged the district to offer more certification programs.

Now, certification programs are offered in each of the seven career and technology divisions, and the district plans to add four more vocational education teachers in the coming years, said Gail Rodgers, Clear Creek district's career and technology education director.

"Students need a coherent sequence of courses that would help them achieve certification or college credit while still in high school -- one that leads to jobs in high pay and high demand," said Rodgers.

As a result, the vocational curriculum has gotten more demanding, she said.

Hitchel's construction systems class is a good example. Had he been in Larry Downhour's class 20 years ago, he would have learned what a Boy Scout learns while trying to earn his woodworking merit badge.

"We started out as a woodshop making birdhouses and end tables," said Downhour, who teaches the high school construction course. "Now, it's like a mini construction site."

Hitchel, who will spend the summer working at a wood production company, said that was experience enough to get him ready for his summer job.

"What I've learned will better prepare me for the work force," Hitchel said.

Besides being able to outfit a house with insulation and install a light switch, Hitchel has learned other skills.

"The most important thing was learning to work with people to get the job done," he said. "We learned how to do that (and) to do everything on our own."


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