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Commentary: Let's expand vo-tech options

By Michael G. Cobb
For the Salisbury Post
In the recent article concerning the gubernatorial candidates’ views on the state’s high school dropout rate, I was pleased to see vocational technical education finally get some attention. After working several years in the field of international transportation and logistics, I began my career in education at a vocational technical high school in Massachusetts. I am definitely partial to vocational technical education as an option for students to earn their high school diploma.
Vocational technical education is alive and well in other parts of the country. Mind you, this is not “vocational” education where “problem” students are sent. I am referring to established vocational technical programs open to all students. As an example of a well-run program, let’s look at Worcester Technical High School in Worcester, Mass. The Worcester School District is similar in size to the Rowan-Salisbury district in that it also has six high schools, including the technical school. Worcester Tech, established in 1908 as one of the first vocational schools in the nation, is a public high school. It offers 24 trades within four different academies, ranging from telecommunications, computer technology, welding and HVAC to culinary arts (the students run a restaurant) and automotive technology. They have programs to train students to be electricians, plumbers or carpenters, preparing them to qualify for Master’s licenses in their trade. I also have to mention the drafting, finance and marketing, allied health and environmental technology programs. The list goes on.
Students apply for admittance to Worcester Tech during spring of their eighth grade and go through an interview as part of the selection process. After orientation, students declare a major from one of the four academies and their course schedule follows alternating weeks, with a week of the traditional high school curriculum followed by a week of the technical courses for their trade area. The academic curriculum is reinforced in the trade classes as students see the practical application of academic concepts in their selected trade. The school has over 1,500 day students and 3,000 evening and post grad students. Students who complete the program graduate with a high school diploma and are still eligible to attend college if they choose. The bottom line is that hundreds of students graduate each year from Worcester Tech with a marketable trade they would not have gotten in a traditional high school setting. Based on national statistics, it is not a reach to estimate that at least half of these students would have dropped out of school if not for the technical training available at Worcester Tech.
Now compare this to what is currently offered as career and technical education programs in North Carolina. For a student to earn a high school diploma under the College Tech Prep or Career Prep diploma pathways, all that’s required is to take four classes in a specific career track. Yes, professionals, who are certified teachers as well, teach these classes and they do some great things, as evidenced by recent success in some competitions. However, generally speaking, this trade education amounts to only an eighth of a student’s high school course selections. Everything else is based on the same one size fits all education, and not all CTE courses are available at every school.
We also offer the Huskins program. Unfortunately that is limited in its course offerings and is also limited to juniors and seniors who take a couple of classes at the local community college, provided they can supply their own transportation. Most students drop out long before they are considered juniors. The vocational technical high program at Worcester Tech is a fully integrated four-year approach.
So, if we want to lower the dropout rate in North Carolina and Rowan County, a true vocational technical high school would be a great asset. Another thing to consider; nationally, less than 30 percent of high school graduates actually go on to graduate from a four-year college; even Bill Gates is a college dropout. We need to offer a relevant education to the other 70 percent who will not graduate college. One solution to the dropout problem recently mentioned, guaranteeing free college tuition to students, is not, I believe, an incentive to stay in school for students who have no interest in attending college. And, unfortunately, we see this every day with students whose athletic ability would qualify them for an athletic scholarship but they can’t meet the minimum academic requirements of the NCAA to be admitted to college on scholarship. The underlying assumption to all this is that everyone has to go to college to earn a decent living; we know that is not true. What is true is that everyone needs to be trained, whether at college or in a trade, to earn a decent living. Skilled tradespeople make more money then many of those in white-collar positions that require a college degree. Education is just one example; ever compare what a good plumber makes compared to a teacher? Let’s provide a relevant education to the majority of those who are not going to college.
A final thought: With recent disappointment concerning North Rowan High being classified 1A due to shrinking enrollment, maybe we should explore the feasibility of converting it to a full vocational technical magnet school drawing students from the whole county. By having a vocational technical school available, with a full selection of trade opportunities, many students at risk for dropping out will find a trade they are interested in and complete their education.- – –
Michael G. Cobb is a counselor at Salisbury High School.

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