Ask 19-year-old high-school senior Andy Garza about his career plans, and he's anything but vague. Petroleum process technician, he'll say, then quickly add: "All it takes is a two-year degree — and the pay, I mean, it's good."
Indeed, starting pay is as much as $20 an hour, and it's not at all uncommon to draw a six-figure salary after just a couple years on the job, according to Garza's teacher, Reginald Christy, at Charles Milby High in the Houston Independent School District. Next fall, thanks to a $200,000 industry grant, Milby will open the country's first Academy for Petroleum Exploration and Production Technology.
Milby's student body is 99 percent black and Hispanic and 79 percent poor. Last year, a Johns Hopkins University study dubbed it a "dropout factory" where more than 40 percent of freshmen don't make it to their senior year. The new petroleum academy, which will teach students about lucrative careers in an industry clamoring for technical workers, could prove a powerful incentive for kids to stay in school.
In Spring ISD, 17-year-old senior Jerod Redmon is wrapping up his second year in the automotive program at Carl Wunsche Sr. High. "Before I started, I didn't even know how to change oil," he says. Now he's a specialist in steering, suspension and brakes.
Through an internship program at his school, Jerod landed a part-time job as a service adviser handling customer complaints at DeMontrond Cadillac in Conroe. He plans to continue working at the dealership while attending community college in the fall, with the long-term goal of transferring to the University of Houston for a business degree.
"If it wasn't for Wunsche," he says, "I'd probably still be working at Movie Tavern making popcorn."
When Lily Espinosa signed up for the emergency medical technology class at her high school, she wasn't sure if she really had what it took to realize her dream of becoming an emergency room doctor.
Then one day several months ago, after spending hours interning in the back of an ambulance, the 17-year-old was making the rounds at Memorial Hermann Katy when a man went into cardiac arrest. She revived him several times with CPR, but he died in her arms.
"If you're an EMT," she says, "you have to have the stomach to see dead bodies, blood everywhere, trauma."
Lily learned that day that she has the stomach for it.
In the coming weeks, while still a high-school senior at Morton Ranch High in Katy ISD, Lily will become certified as an emergency medical technician, a job with a starting pay as high as $15 an hour. She plans to work part-time as an EMT while earning a degree in biology at Baylor University on her way to medical school.
Andy, Jerod and Lily are the new faces of vocational education, once considered the B-track for high school kids lacking the brains and desire to go to college.
Sure, many school districts still offer wood shop, now dubbed "trade and industrial," and home economics, known today as "family and consumer sciences." Even the old familiar names such as "vocational" or "vo-tech" have recently been scrapped and replaced with "career and technical education."
But it's not just the names that have changed. School districts across the Houston area are expanding and modernizing their vocational programs, constructing multimillion-dollar facilities and placing a greater emphasis on kids gaining job skills and industry certifications while still in high school.
"The word 'vocational' denotes low wage, blue collar," says Rosena Garcia, director of career and technical education programs at Houston ISD. "We're trying to get away from that stigma."
Visit college campuses with your kids; get them enrolled in Advanced Placement classes early; have them participate in extracurricular activities; make sure they do volunteer work — and not just for a few months during their senior year.
David Johnston, a college counselor at Lee High in Houston ISD, offered these tips last month during one in a series of community meetings on "what parents should be doing right now to get children ready for college."
The kids were only in fifth grade.
Houston ISD's slogan used to be "Expectation: Graduation." Seeking to raise the bar higher than merely getting through high school, in 2006 district superintendent Abelardo Saavedra changed it to "College-Bound Culture."
But what is college? During his 90-minute presentation, Johnston never mentioned technical schools, certification programs or two-year community colleges. Rather, he stressed the importance of pre-AP and AP classes, the PSAT and class rankings: all key factors for gaining admission into traditional four-year institutions.
According to U.S. Census data, a person with a bachelor's degree, on average, earns twice as much income as somebody with only a high school diploma. But more than 40 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges don't graduate in six years, and most dropouts leave with a mountain of debt, Marty Nemko, an author and career coach, wrote earlier this month in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
"College is a wise choice for far fewer people than are currently encouraged to consider it," Nemko concludes in the article, titled "America's Most Overrated Product: The Bachelor's Degree."
In Texas, the high-school dropout rate for African Americans and Hispanics ranges as high as 50 percent. Research shows that a mix of career and technical education classes and academic courses lowers the dropout rate. A 1998 University of Michigan study found that high-risk students were eight to ten times less likely to drop out in 11th and 12th grades if they enroll in a career and technical education program instead of a general program.
Steve Blow, a columnist for The Dallas Morning News, wrote last month that the fixation on college-prep curriculums in high schools is what's leading kids to drop out. "Rather than face reality and steer students in directions suited to their talents," he wrote, "schools would rather live with the pleasant fiction that every child can be college material."
It seems every day a stronger case can be made against the four-year college degree.
According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, from 1996 to 2006, the cost to students for tuition and fees needed to obtain an undergraduate degree at a public university rose 257 percent.
Today, the average total sticker price in Texas for public four-year universities is $17,000 a year, and $26,000 a year at private ones. Tuition and fees at public universities have risen 40 percent since 2003, when the Legislature let schools set the rates to help cover budget shortfalls.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, two-thirds of four-year college graduates leave with a substantial student loan. The average amount is about $20,000. In the last decade, the percentage of undergraduates borrowing at least $25,000 more than tripled from 7 to 26 percent.
Prohibitive tuition and fees may be costing Texas 47,000 undergraduate degrees a year, according to a report cited last February in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Now consider the effects of today's economic woes.
Federal and state college loan programs are reeling from the credit crunch caused by the subprime mortgage crisis. According to the College Board, private loans accounted for 24 percent of all education loans in 2006-2007, up from six percent a decade earlier. Unlike federal loans, whose interest rates are capped by law, private loans typically include variable interest rates tied to credit scores.
Several lenders have halted or cut back their student-loan programs, saying they can't raise money in the securities markets due to wary investors. With fewer companies offering college loans, students may be forced to take out loans with rates that can reach 20 percent, just like with credit cards.
"When a student signs the paper for these loans, they are basically signing an indenture," Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, told The New York Times last summer. "We are indebting these kids for life."
Meanwhile, only about one-third of jobs require a college degree, according to federal labor statistics. And many industries, such as engineering, are in desperate need of skilled technical workers as baby boomers set to retire.
According to the Virginia-based Association for Career and Technical Education, state and federal workforce data show 80 percent of current and emerging occupations require two-year technical degrees and/or two years of on-the-job training, while just 20 percent require baccalaureate degrees.
Garcia says school districts need to do a better job of defining terms.
"College doesn't just mean four-year degree," she says. "It could be advanced training, a certificate or associate's degree. There's a lot of room for interpretation."
Sarah Wrobleski, director for career and technical education programs at Pasadena ISD, takes the argument a step further.
"The trend in education is to tell everybody they need to go to college," she says. "It scares me. If all kids go to college, we're all in trouble. We'd have a lot of overqualified people in the workforce. And, anyway, you can't do much with a lot of four-year degrees."
According to Wrobleski, school districts too often lose focus of their mission:
"Why do we go to school? To get a job. Educators are bad about saying that."
Carl Wunsche Sr. High in Spring ISD has set a new standard for career and technical education in the Houston area, and possibly the entire state.
"That's the Rolls-Royce," says Wrobleski. "They charge $50 a day just to tour the facility. In education, that's unheard of."
The gleaming $40-million, 270,000-square-foot campus, opened in August 2006, is organized around a medical tower, a technology tower and a professional tower, which is divided into academies for legal studies, business and finance, and child studies and teacher preparation. Each tower serves as a kind of mini-college.
The glass and stone building, which last year won an international prize for educational architecture, features Wi-Fi technology throughout, and all students are given free laptops. Core classes for math, science, English and social studies overlook state-of-the-art laboratories where students spend two-hour blocks every day getting hands-on training in anything from biotechnology to hotel management, software engineering and criminal investigations.
The school offers students dozens of career paths and opportunities to gain industry certifications, including as veterinary assistants, Microsoft Office specialists and pharmacy technicians. The course book rivals that of any community college, and includes information on education levels required for each career as well as the average annual salary it yields and an employment outlook, based on state and federal labor statistics.
There's a working childcare center, veterinary clinic, culinary kitchen and automotive garage as comprehensive as any dealership's. There are computer labs for graphic design, a mock courtroom and a television studio that ranks among the largest in the Houston area, according to Russ Armstrong, who worked in film production for ten years in New York City and now serves as the school's media technology instructor.
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.
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.
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."
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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."