College Immaterial for High School Students in Vocational Training

Good paying jobs, no huge loan burdens, exciting course work — the new vo-tech attracts more and more hi-tech students

Wunsche also houses a student-­operated coffee shop and full-service credit union and day-care facility where students intern. All seniors at the tenth-through-12th-grade school are required to complete internships lasting at least six weeks with local industry, and school buses take them where they need to go.

"Our philosophy is that students will engage in coursework if they see a relevant reason to do so," says Teresa Dossman, director of career and technical education at Spring ISD, echoing the objective of all such programs today. "It's about exploration. Hopefully, by their senior year, they've made some decisions based on their exploration here on what's going to be their career path or their career goal."

Of course, it's a lot cheaper to explore careers while still in high school. Wunsche students pay nothing to attend the school, which even covers the costs of industry certifications in some cases. Students can change career paths at the start of each school year.

Lilia Caban specializes in early childhood education and plans to become a bilingual teacher.
Daniel Kramer
Lilia Caban specializes in early childhood education and plans to become a bilingual teacher.
Students in the veterinary clinic at Wunsche High perform physical exams on pets from surrounding communities.
Daniel Kramer
Students in the veterinary clinic at Wunsche High perform physical exams on pets from surrounding communities.

Perhaps best of all, Wunsche is a school of choice. You don't need a high grade-point average or even a clean disciplinary record to attend. The student body — 38 percent black, 31 Hispanic and 20 percent white — is similar to the district's other high schools.

"Our No. 1 criteria is interest," says Dossman, adding that the medical tower has proven the most popular.

Jerod Redmon, the auto technology student, says working on cars in the school lab and going to his internship are things he looks forward to every day. But even his core classes are better, he says, since, for instance, his history teacher incorporates the history of the automobile into lesson plans.

"Classes are real easy," he says, "because you're already interested."

Some of the more traditional vocational classes, such as cosmetology and carpentry, which remain popular in other school districts, have been phased out in Spring ISD, according to Dossman.

"What we knew as vocational has changed a lot," Dossman says. "People don't realize the opportunities in high school now."

Schools such as Wunsche aren't for everybody, says Lilia Caban, an 18-year-old senior who specializes in early childhood education and plans to become a bilingual teacher.

Internships pretty much take the place of extracurricular activities. The school has a small fitness room rather than a full gymnasium. Students can return to their zoned schools to participate in University Interscholastic League activities, but two-thirds don't.

"The people here want to be here," says Caban, whose 14-year-old sister, an aspiring obstetrician, also plans to attend ­Wunsche. "They're given a lot of responsibility. They're more mature."

In Spring ISD, all ninth graders take an annual field trip to Wunsche to tour the facilities and learn about the programs offered there. In other Houston-area school districts, the career and technology education programs often are not so well promoted.

For instance, Garcia at Houston ISD says that of the more than 30,000 students who took at least one course in the career and technology education program last year, fewer than 300 gained any sort of industry certification. "That hurts," she says, adding that some guidance counselors in the school district likely don't even know what programs exist.

This past January, Houston ISD held its first-ever career and technology education expo, a three-day event in which students displayed projects and industry representatives set up booths showcasing job opportunities. But, according to Garcia, the expo attracted only kids already enrolled in the program.

"Career and technical education is the best-kept secret in high schools today," says Wrobleski. "Why are we keeping it a secret?"

Chris Barbic isn't exactly sold on vocational education.

"If vo-tech programs look like they did just ten or 15 years ago, then they're not preparing kids," says Barbic, founder and head of Houston-based YES College Preparatory Schools, hailed nationally as a model charter school system for low-income minorities. "They shouldn't be a B-track for people who can't handle the rigor of academic courses. Sorting kids at an early age is dangerous."

At YES, it's written into the charter that every student must gain admission into a four-year university to graduate. Technical schools don't count and neither do two-year community colleges, says Barbic, citing low completion rates.

YES students attend classes for nine hours each weekday, four hours on Saturdays and one month during the summer. Almost no career and technical education programs are offered.

This fall, however, Barbic does plan to introduce a new Chinese language course.

"We're doing that to prepare kids for the workforce," he says. "That, to me, is vo-tech."

Critics of traditional vocational programs say they risk segregating kids at an early age, often adversely affecting minorities and low-income students.

Vocational education in this country dates back to World War I. In 1917, Congress passed the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act, providing funds to train people for farm work. "The promotion of vocational and industrial education is of vital importance to the whole country," President Woodrow Wilson urged legislators at the time, "for the critical years of economic development immediately ahead of us in a very large measure depend upon it."

Problems later arose due in part to the way the money was allocated. Federal and state funding was spent exclusively on vocational teachers and programs, separating them from the rest of the schools. Students, meanwhile, were required to spend as much as three-fourths of their school days in vocational classes, where teachers emphasized job skills over theoretical content.

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