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It’s Not “Vocational Education” Anymore

By Maureen Magee  FEB. 16, 2015

Darrin Monzon never saw the point of most classes at Clairemont High School until he discovered auto shop.

Good grades and a keen interest in cars and machinery — coupled with the professional facilities classes are offered in — lead to an internship at a car dealership.

He landed a full-time job at Midway Jeep Chrysler Dodge Ram after graduation — with health benefits, a 401k and paid vacation.

“Honestly, at one point I thought getting the job would be it. I never really saw myself going to college,” said Monzon, 21. “Now I’m going to Miramar full-time to get a degree in heavy equipment technology and working full-time. I love it, I love it — except for having to take English and math courses.”

Monzon is the face of career technical education, the sophisticated-yet-practical offspring of vocational education and college-prep classes.

These programs often go beyond the vocational education classes of the past by combining academics — including advanced placement and community college classes — with relevant, real-life applications. The goal is to better prepare students for work and college while making school more relevant.

A report released earlier this month shows that 46 states have authorized some 150 new policies and laws to support college-career programs in high school and college.

Of the 36 states that invested new funding in Career Technical Education, California is the leader with $250 million set aside in the state budget by Gov. Jerry Brown for Career Pathways Trust Grants. New legislation would increase that to $650 million.

“This is a movement to make school more relevant for kids, it helps give them focus,” said Steve Pinning, director of college career readiness for the San Diego County Office of Education. “The key is to make sure that parents and the public see these courses are highly rigorous. Employers need to them to be relevant.”

The San Diego Unified School District has invested $64 million from local and state bond proceeds into its career-technical programs since 2008 after writing a series of grant state applications. To apply for state matching funds, districts had to demonstrate that existing programs had business partners from the industry, and were in need of new facilities.

The grants prompted a building spree that transformed dated auto shops into pristine and professional centers on par with private trade schools. Aging kitchens from old home economics programs were scrapped in favor of professional kitchens that prepare students for “Iron Chef”-style competitions. Engineering labs and design centers offer courses in sustainable and green building, and broadcast studios operating in high schools look and function like the real deal.

Local car dealers, hospitals, restaurants, businesses, public agencies and utilities have donated equipment, mentors and other services to the career technical programs in San Diego Unified and other districts in the county.

“These jobs require higher skills, and we want to help schools prepare students so we can hire them,” said Dale Snow, fixed operations director at Mossy Toyota, which has donated cars and equipment to schools and offers internships. “They come in here and they know what to do. They handle themselves well.”

Some 14,000 students — almost half of San Diego Unified’s high school population — took at least one career technical class last year.

Alexa Carbajal is among them. She studies architecture and engineering at Kearny High School, where she regularly meets with architects in a mentoring club.

“It’s just nice to hear from real architects about what that job is like, because I want to be an architect some day,” Carbajal said. “It takes a lot more math than I thought. It’s good that I know that now so I can work on my math skills in high school before I get to college.”

Some students earn industry certificates that make them eligible for jobs during and after high school, while others enter into pacts that guarantee admission into four-year and community college programs. Still others dabble in fields (food service, hospitality and broadcast journalism among them) that are considered either low-paying or unattainable.

But even if students never pursue an education or job in a field they study in high school, the experience they get is worth the investment of taxpayer dollars, said Al Love, who oversees San Diego Unified’s programs.

After all, he said, it’s not like the old days when vocation education and college-prep programs took students in opposite directions. Students who enroll in career-technical education programs are still required to take the courses necessary to apply to a UC or CSU campus after high school.

The San Diego school board last month added 60 career-technical education courses to the list of classes that satisfy the A-G course sequence needed to apply to a California public university. Starting with the class of 2016, all students must complete A-G courses to graduate high school in San Diego Unified.

San Diego Unified administrators are working to make more of the courses available to students by reviewing their A-G eligibility.

Last year, 15 states changed high school graduation requirements to incorporate more career technical education classes, according to the report released by the Association for Career and Technical Education and the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium.