Cover Story: College Immaterial

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This week’s

cover story on vocational programs in today’s high schools

reminds me of the old Woody Allen zinger: “Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat, college.”

The idea for it came from an energetic young teacher in Houston Independent School District frustrated by all the emphasis the district places on getting kids to college when the stark reality is that as many as half are dropping out of high school totally unprepared for employment or postsecondary education.

Not only that but as many as 40 percent of kids who enroll in college don’t finish, carry huge loan burdens and end up in jobs that require no college education.

“How powerful and wonderful would it be if I could speak frankly with my middle school students who are not college material about their options, and help them choose a high school that I know would provide them with real job skills,” the teacher, who did not want to be part of the story, wrote in an email.

She went on for several pages lamenting what she called “the death of vocational education.”

It turns out, though, the opposite is true. Vocational programs are thriving in Houston-area high schools today – it’s just that many school districts have done a lousy job promoting them to kids and parents, not to mention guidance counselors and teachers. And, thank goodness, the vocational track is no longer the B-track for kids weeded out early on as not bright enough or motivated enough for college.

Rather, many of today’s vocational students are straight-A students seeking good-paying, part-time jobs as automotive technicians, veterinary assistants and emergency medical technicians while on their way to becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers and bankers. Today, while still in high school, kids can get licensed and certified to do anything from programming computers to grooming pets, styling hair and flying airplanes.

Vocational programs and academic work are no longer viewed as mutually exclusive, and studies show that a mix of the two lowers high school dropout rates especially among at-risk kids. During the last couple weeks, I met with the directors of vocational programs, now called career and technical education, for four local school districts – Houston, Katy, Pasadena and Spring. All described their program as a “best-kept secret.”

Hopefully this story will help get the word out that there are other options – excellent options – for kids besides the traditional four-year degree. – Todd Spivak

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