Vocational program looks to rebuild

Advocates say school should focus more on career education

Posted: Monday, December 11, 2006

When you ask how much value Juneau-Douglas High School and the district places on vocational education, Craig Mapes, a veteran shop teacher at JDHS will say $17 - that's how much the high school spends per student in his woodworking class.

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When it comes to buying different types of wood, replacement parts for tools, drill bits, sandpaper and the myriad other items he needs to teach his class, $17 is not enough, Mapes said.

Mapes is one of a growing number of critics who say that dramatic reform is needed in the school's approach to vocational education, now known in the district as "career tech."

Mapes, several state officials, union representatives and some parents say the high school's curriculum is aimed almost exclusively at the college bound, a small percentage of the student body.

The consequences, they say, are clear: an abysmal graduation rate and a large body of 18- and 19-year-olds who unprepared to enter the job market.

"Only 15 percent of our students that enter college are going to finish. So much of our resources are being directed to college-prep classes," Mapes said.

"I think we need to increase industrial arts hands-on elective classes which provide applied academics. Applied academics tends to make their education relevant, useful and meaningful. We need to provide the entire spectrum."

Dale Staley, assistant principal for JDHS and technical education coordinator for the district, said that he agrees with most of what Mapes says about vocational education in the district, but added that change is coming.

Ed Flanagan, project coordinator with the Alaska Works Partnership, agrees that the emphasis at the local high school is on college preparation, often at the expense of other students.

"I get a lot of verification of that from educators," Flanagan said. "It's a disservice to the kids."

Mary Rodman-Lopez, training supervisor at the Juneau Job Center, said that more than 80 percent of high-paying jobs in Alaska don't require a college education.

"There are employers here who can't find trained people for jobs," she said noting the area's rapid growth

Mapes, Flanagan, Rodman-Lopez and others identified three areas where they feel career education should change at the high school.

First, they said, programs need to be better funded. According to Mapes and documents from school districts across the state, many vocational programs in Alaska get double and in some cases triple the rate per student here.

Evidence in Mapes class is obvious. His students have mismatched and broken chairs; at least one power sander is missing its belt; power tools, though working, are decades old.

Next to his desk, Mapes keeps a list of things he needs to buy.

Second, technical-education advocates said, the school needs two to three more teachers to meet demand.

According to school registration figures, 736 students listed industrial arts classes as their first or second choice for an elective. That's more than twice the number of seats available.

Third, Mapes and others said, there needs to be more guidance and a commitment at the district level to direct the schools' vocational/career technology programs.

An example he gives of the low level of commitment is the lack of a classroom designed specifically for industrial arts in the new high school being built.

All of these priorities have to be matched, Mapes said, with a district-wide change in attitude toward vocational education.

For decades, vocational education classes have been seen as a place to house low-performing or troubled students. Expectations toward vocational education need to be raised. When vocational education is embraced, it is often limited to computer education, a poor choice in the face of global outsourcing, Mapes said.

"Our school is still in the mode of thinking tech education is networking and computers, but that's not accurate," he said. "When you need a plumber, you're not going to call India or Pakistan."

As long as the list of critisims are, there has been progress, however.

Staley said the district is in the process of rebuilding a career technology advisory board at the high school.

Also, a School to Apprenticeship program, first started at Yaakoosge Daakahidi alternative high school, gives accepted students direct admission into training programs at certain labor unions.

On Thursday, 300 students attended an assembly where they learned about the apprenticeship program and other vocational opportunities. Later that day, a group of parents gathered to hear the same information.

Staley said he understands the criticism and considers it valid, up to a point. Many of prerequisites for college are the same for technical training.

"If we go back fifteen years, there was a distinct difference of what they needed if they were gong to college and what they needed if they were going to a tech school," Staley said.

Now, Staley said, technical training requires a high level of reading and math skills.

"You still need a lot of the same core requirements," he said.

Staley agrees the shops need more money for materials and more teachers.

The biggest roadblock to change won't be willpower or money, but time, he said. Because of all the demands placed on schools today, administrators can only do so much, so fast.

"I don't see anyone throwing up any roadblocks." he said.

• Will Morris may be contacted at william.morris@juneauempire.com

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