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This would be crippling in today's new global economy, says Stephen Klineberg, a professor of sociology at Rice University. Teaching kids how to learn is critical, he says, given the constant advances in technology and global competition for jobs.
"We are condemned to lives of continued learning," Klineberg says. "The trouble with vocational education is that unless you're careful, you're locking kids into blue-collar careers that are going to be obsolete. There's no technical skill we can give that won't be obsolete in five to ten years."
Klineberg says kids today need at least 14 years of education, not 12, to escape poverty. According to U.S. Census data, Texas ranks 50th in the nation in the percentage of high school graduates 25 or older. Nearly 70 percent of Texans ages 18 to 29 are Hispanic or African American — the two groups with the highest high-school dropout rates.
"Texas will invest in the education of Latinos and African Americans or it's going to find itself poorer and poorer and poorer," Klineberg predicts. "If they can't succeed in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, it's hard to see a prosperous future for Houston."
Today the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, named for the late Kentucky congressman, provides about $1.3 billion in federal support for school districts nationwide. In August 2006, President Bush reauthorized the act, which now calls for more students gaining industry certifications while in high school.
"Kids should major in whatever turns them on to learning," Klineberg advises. "I tell my students, 'Forget about employment security — think about employability security."
Tomas Solis doesn't attend his zoned school in Houston ISD. Instead, the 17-year-old sophomore travels far from home each day to Sterling High, near Hobby Airport, which boasts the Houston area's lone aviation technology program.
After classes, Tomas practices flying a small, single-propeller Grumman plane. He's working on earning a certification to fly solo while still in high school.
"I was nervous in the beginning, but I love it," says the native Nicaraguan, who has always dreamed of becoming a pilot. "It makes me excited coming to school."
The same goes for Jorge Luna, a 17-year-old senior at Lee High who has spent four years in the school's welding program. "I like it because it's hands-on," Luna says.
At Miller Career & Technology Center in Katy ISD, friends 17-year-old junior Kim Howard and 16-year-old junior Tori Fitka spend two hours every school day afternoon learning to style hair and perform facials and manicures.
"Being girls, it's all about hair," says Kim, who plans to get certified next year then work part time as a stylist while earning a business degree. Her class costs about $300 — a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of dollars for post-secondary cosmetology school.
For now, Kim mostly performs on mannequins, though next year she will be able to work on women from the community. The facility itself, which she calls "outdated," is getting a major facelift as Katy ISD spends nearly $18 million to expand the building from 23,000 square feet to 93,000 square feet and adds 18 new career and technology education programs.
One of the newer programs at Katy ISD is Emergency Medical Technology, which attracts students with a brochure that reads, "Have you ever wanted to go speeding down the road in an ambulance? Do you like action, adventure and serving your community? Then becoming an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) could be for you."
The marketing has apparently worked as enrollment in next year's class is expected to triple from eight to 24, according to Morton Ranch High teacher Dave Watson, a licensed paramedic for 16 years.
But even as school districts across Houston work to increase participation in career and technology education, many program directors complain they're facing new obstacles from the state.
The Legislature recently mandated that high-school students increase the number of core classes in math and science they must complete to graduate. More core classes means fewer electives, says Wrobleski of Pasadena ISD.
"It will squeeze out our programs," she says. "Kids who had space in their programs, won't."
Karen Batchelor, state director of career and technical education at the Texas Education Agency, says students may be able to substitute some of their new core requirements with vocational classes.
Still, Garcia of Houston ISD says she's concerned that fewer kids taking career and technology classes could mean more high-school dropouts.
"If the reason the student was hanging on, coming to school, was because of a course or a set of courses that they were interested in, and now you take them out of those courses and you force them to be in something they don't want to be in, sooner or later that student says, 'I'm just not coming anymore,'" Garcia says. "It's almost like we steal their joy."
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