Can Vocational High Schools Be a Viable Alternative to College?
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Can Vocational High Schools Be a Viable Alternative to College?

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, a new night for
education. The NewsHour has long been committed to covering
that topic. And starting tonight, we will be expanding our coverage on Tuesdays with
a new feature series called Making the Grade. We will provide in-depth reporting on education
issues at every level, from early childhood and preschool, all the way through high school
and beyond with the world of higher education. We will explore the most fundamental concerns
in schools, communities and workplaces, and we will also cover plenty of approaches you
may not have heard about yet. Tonight, we focus on vocational education.
There’s a growing recognition of its value for some students. But how do you determine
when it’s working for the long haul? Special correspondent John Tulenko of Education
Week has our story. JOHN TULENKO: This year, more than a million
students will graduate from high school, and most will go on to college. It ought to be
something to celebrate, but, in fact, nearly 40 percent of those who go to four-year colleges
and some 70 percent of students at community college will never earn their degree. DAVID WHEELER, Principal, Southeastern Regional:
It’s the shame of our nation, when you look at, a student comes out of high school, not
knowing what they want to do, goes to college, drops out. Now they’re in debt, without
a job, and not knowing what they want to do. They’re worse off than they were, you know,
as little as a year before. And that’s all preventable, all of it. JOHN TULENKO: One solution, principal Dave
Wheeler says, lies in schools like his, Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School,
south of Boston. Here, in addition to the regular school subjects,
students learn skilled trades and professions, and, if they choose, instead of college, they
can go directly into the work force. DAVID WHEELER: You can become anything you
want here, if you take advantage of what we have. JOHN TULENKO: Choosing a career program starts
in ninth grade. Students spend the first semester sampling each of the roughly 20 professions
taught here. Dajon Lopes (ph) chose culinary arts. DAJON LOPES, Student: We learn to cook everything,
a whole bunch of foreign dishes, American dishes, anything. You name it, we got it. This right here is Asian scallop saute. JOHN TULENKO: Is this a new dish for you? DAJON LOPES: Yes. It’s my first time, matter
of fact. JOHN TULENKO: The first time, yes? May I? PAULA KFOURY, Southeastern Regional: It’s
not like you’re opening a book and reading about it. JOHN TULENKO: Culinary arts teacher Paula
Kfoury. PAULA KFOURY: It’s hands-on, which is so
different. JOHN TULENKO: That’s very nice. PAULA KFOURY: They come in here every day
and open a restaurant. And we do all of the functions for the school. MAN: This car has — gave us a lot of problems. JOHN TULENKO: In collision repair, the work
is also real. MAN: A customer brings in a car, we, like,
do a estimate on it. JOHN TULENKO: This is someone’s car? MAN: Yes. And then, after that we call the
customer up, we tell them how much it will cost, and we start repairing it. DAVID WHEELER: Almost all of our shops do
some form of, we call it live work. Cosmetology takes clients. Construction, we have done
complete renovations of buildings. We have done Web sites for people. We do printing.
There is no better way to engage a student than they’re doing real, meaningful work. JOHN TULENKO: Of course, they also do academics.
Every other week, students are in traditional classes full-time. DAVID WHEELER: Every single kid is going to
learn algebra. Everyone’s going to get a high-level literature class. Everyone’s
going to get physics. JOHN TULENKO: On the state math test, 73 percent
of students scored above proficient, in English, 90 percent, numbers that nearly match state
averages. And Southeastern’s 93 percent graduation rate is better than average. On the flip side, SAT scores and scores on
advanced placement tests lag significantly behind the state as a whole. But, for Dave
Wheeler, those are not the numbers that matter most. DAVID WHEELER: When we do follow-up studies,
generally speaking, we hit the 90 — high 90 percent range of students that are either
in the work force, continue to be enrolled in college, or have gone into the military.
The point is to get you to be a happy, productive citizen. JOHN TULENKO: This approach is getting lots
of attention from reformers these days, who see it as a way to improve engagement and
achievement in high schools. But career and technical education, or CTE,
as it’s sometimes called, has its critics. CAROL BURRIS, Network for Public Education:
Even though that is what people are touting as a possibility, rigorous CTE programs, in
the reality, I don’t think it’s going to happen. JOHN TULENKO: During her 15 years as an award-winning
high school principal in New York state, Carol Burris had an insider’s view on these programs. CAROL BURRIS: I think a lot of schools will
take kids that are behavior issues and will say, you know what, I think technical education
is where you need to be. I think they will take kids who have learning disabilities,
and rather than work with them in academics, push them on that track. We just know that
historically. JOHN TULENKO: Almost from the start, high
schools were organized into tracks, with separate programs for students bound for college and
those bound for work. MICHAEL PETRILLI, Thomas B. Fordham Institute:
And, oftentimes, the way the system made that decision was based on the color of their skin
or by their zip code. You can imagine that it was mostly kids of color and low-income
kids who were shuffled into vocational programs, many of which were terrible. JOHN TULENKO: But Mike Petrilli who heads
the Thomas Fordham Institute, an education think tank, says a major shift was coming. MICHAEL PETRILLI: There was a big effort to
de-track the high schools and the middle schools starting the late 1980s, early ’90s, which
was very successful in most big cities. ANTHONY CARNEVALE, Georgetown University:
We decided that we were going to give academic education, which essentially teaches abstraction,
we decided to give that to everybody through high school. JOHN TULENKO: The mission of public schools
changed, says economist Tony Carnevale, and college became the goal. ANTHONY CARNEVALE: The basic American model
is high school to Harvard. The difficulty with that is, it doesn’t work for most students.
You ask the teacher, why am I taking this course? And they will say, well, you need
it for college, and that’s enough. For a lot of kids, that’s not enough. JOHN TULENKO: Many arrive at college unprepared,
fall behind and drop out. MICHAEL PETRILLI: It would be a lot better
for those people to go out into the work force, get some real skills, and maybe down the road
they would be ready then to go and get a postsecondary credential. JUSTIN MEEKS, Class of 2015, Southeastern
Regional: Schoolwork wasn’t — I wasn’t the greatest at it. I feel like I’m more
of a hands-on person. JOHN TULENKO: For Justin Meeks, fabricating
metal was a better fit. He learned the trade at Southeastern and, through an apprenticeship
arranged by the school, landed a full-time job just days after graduation. JUSTIN MEEKS: School prepared me well for
this. I weld here a lot. I have to cut well on here and very accurate. JOHN TULENKO: You can’t make a mistake on
a beam like this. JUSTIN MEEKS: Yes, you can’t fix it. JOHN TULENKO: If you don’t mind my asking,
how much do you make? JUSTIN MEEKS: Fourteen sixty-six. And if I
can keep getting more money and more money, and a raise, and working harder, I think I
could be fine without college. JOHN TULENKO: Is this a success? MICHAEL PETRILLI: First of all, let’s look
at the alternative. If this was a young person who wasn’t doing well in school, if he hadn’t
been engaged in something that really motivated him, he probably would have dropped out or
maybe he would have made it to graduation, and then that was it. And then he’d be going
into the work force and lucky to get a minimum wage job. This is a much better outcome. JOHN TULENKO: And Petrilli says vocational
schools like Justin’s are different these days, because, at places like Southeastern,
tracking is a thing of the past. MICHAEL PETRILLI: It’s very important that
the pathways are chosen by the kids themselves. We want to provide options, and let the young
people make decisions. CAROL BURRIS: I think it’s very dangerous.
I have seen so many kids who have been academic late bloomers, who all of sudden they mature
and they buckle down and they do their studies and they go on to college. When you start to push kids when they are
too young to make that decision, they’re just not ready to make it. JOHN TULENKO: But that’s not stopping families
from enrolling their teenagers at Southeastern. This year, some 800 students applied for 400
spots. In South Easton, Massachusetts, I’m John
Tulenko of Education Week, reporting for the PBS NewsHour.

About James Carlton

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8 thoughts on “Can Vocational High Schools Be a Viable Alternative to College?

  1. Am I the only one who finds it ironic that school districts across the nation keep pushing for "project-based learning" programs? Yet, so many of these were the very districts who pulled the plug on and denounced their age-old vocational-education programs, home-economics classes, wood shop, metal shop, and auto mechanics-THOSE WERE THE VERY DEFINITION OF PROJECT-BASED LEARNING PROGRAMS! Bring back those PBL programs that made your average high-school graduate immediately employable and self-sustaining! If a child is a "behavior issue," it could very well be that the curriculum does not engage and inspire him/her and perhaps finding something like these trades that he/she can be good at, productive with, is just the perfect prescription for turning their lives around in a positive direction! Hmmm, I wonder who was responsible for the shift toward making the goal for EVERY CHILD to be college….? Could it be colleges and universities themselves, who in their own desire to enrich their enrollment rosters and their coffers, insinuated that there is something "less" or "wrong" with acquiring a non-collegiate profession? Many of the wealthiest people I know (and happiest) own their own businesses and provide a "trade-level" service to the communities in which they live!

  2. Vocational schools are a great way for students to find an alternative route to education. I work at a vocational school called E & S Academy or This vocational school helps thousands of students graduate with better careers.

  3. At the time when i was growing up and made it to high school, students had the choice to pursue academics or transfer to a vocational high school. I would visit the school every once in a while since i had a lot of friends there and all graduated with a firm grasp of the fundamentals of electricity, plumbing, carpentry, metal shop, heating/ventilation, etc. or whatever discipline they had chosen. Most were able to secure paid internships while others became apprentices. What the hell happened? Or are such important trades going out of style?

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