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Vocational Education on the Rise in S.D. High Schools

When most people think of high school vocational classes, they may recall building a birdhouse in wood shop or baking a cake in home economics. But all that has changed. Vocational education is now ca

Vocational Education on the Rise in S.D. High Schools

When most people think of high school vocational classes, they may recall building a birdhouse in wood shop or baking a cake in home economics. But all that has changed. Vocational education is now called career technical education, and it's poised for a comeback in San Diego and across California. KPBS Education reporter Ana Tintocalis has this report.

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Eighteen-year-old John Pranger is surrounded by metal widgets, gizmos, and gadgets at Construction Tech Academy. The high school senior has a pencil tucked behind his ear as he puts together a six-foot robot. John says he likes working with metal, but it's not his first love.

<b> Pranger: </b> Well, I've always enjoyed woodworking. And my dad always told me to follow what I want to do, and not what everyone is telling me to do. So you know, I'm going to go into carpentry.

And that's something he's learned a lot about during his fours years at this public trade school. Construction Tech is one of four small schools at the Kearny High Educational Complex. Students learn about construction, architecture and engineering through hands-on training. Senior Dana Robertson plans to work as a civil engineer. She says she's gained both academic and practical skills.

My grandmother, when our plumbing is down, she's like, 'Dana get in the bathroom and fix it.' And I'm like, Okay. It’s really cool. It’s like an extra in life.

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Vocational education in high schools almost vanished several years ago as the push for college prep intensified. But in San Diego, more high schools are either turning into career academies or adding smaller vocational schools to their campuses. Today many high school students are learning to be graphic designers, chefs, engineers and mechanics. Educators say trade schools are making a comeback because businesses desperately need skilled workers. Construction Tech principal Glen Hillegas says too many people enter the workforce with a degree, but without skills. 

We have some highly educated people, that have learned from books, that don't have much application for what they know. They can't do a whole heck of a lot, but they're very, very intelligent people. What industry is crying out is for these very, very intelligent people to take what they know and be able to apply that.

In other words, businesses want workers who can not only draw the hole, but dig the hole too.

Vocational programs in San Diego also include a pathway to college, something that wasn't offered to students three decades ago. Rob Atterbury is the former director of school-to-work programs at San Diego City Schools. He says research shows students who participate in new school-to-work programs are far more likely to pursue higher education. He says last year's entire graduating class at Construction Tech went on to a community college, university or job training program. 

<b> Atterbury: </b> These are students who didn't think they were academically bound at all. And here they are going to community colleges and four-year institutions studying academic majors, so that's exciting.

And that's why state politicians are taking notice. Two California state senators recently toured a couple of San Diego trade schools. Senator Tom Torlakson was impressed. But says there are challenges to expanding career tech programs in California. Funding for example. Torlackson wants businesses to help put up cash and other resources to support tech schools. Another challenge is finding enough teachers with specialized skills. But Torlackson says the biggest obstacle is the way people view some jobs.

<b> Torlakson: </b> We need auto mechanics but some parents think that's dirty work, its work with your hands, but those jobs make $100,000 a year.

You don't have to convince students like 17-year-old Dana Robertson. She says Construction Tech Academy has prepared her to tackle life after school.

<b> Robertson: </b> You know I see what you do in the work world not necessarily in the construction but what's required of you, you know, deadlines, and everything that they try to tell you in school that you don't really get until you see if for yourself. So I'm a step ahead of the game.

There are signs career tech will catch on throughout the state. The California State School Board just adopted a new blueprint for career technical education. And Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger included $154 million in the state budget over the past two years.

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.