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Learning Matters: Career-technical education is about more than academics and economics

As I visit and hear about programs such as digital media and robotics in our schools, I’m continually reminded of the two main arguments posited for the expansion of career-technical education, or CTE. One is academic, the other economic.

CTE programs have been an important correction for an education system that over the last 100 years has become divorced from real life, insulated in academic silos, and irrelevant in the minds of many students.

Education researchers point to data showing how technical skills-building and work experience improve academic understanding and achievement. They show how studying digital arts and robotics can improve student performance in math or physics.

Particularly for students who struggle academically, CTE is one way to close the achievement gap and improve college completion rates — as long as it does not become a program “for the non-college bound.” Research supports CTE programs so that all students can succeed in some form of post-secondary instruction, widely understood as necessary for gainful employment.

The academic argument relates directly to the economic one. Economists and employers alike look at the growing need for skilled workers who can take over the jobs of retiring Baby Boomers and meet the increasingly technical needs of employers in every industry.

Legislators, governmental departments and charitable foundations want their career education grant funds to lead to jobs in economic sectors with good prospects for employment — such as digital arts.

Yet, despite my advocacy of CTE, I worry about the messages we send as we promote these programs. We talk a lot about what’s in it for students — good colleges or high-paying jobs “starting at $70,000 or $100,000” a year — but are we saying enough about how students might learn to help improve the world they’ll live in?

We’re teaching students how to make movies, but are they learning enough about life to create content worth sharing? Worrying about the balance between CTE and the liberal arts, and reflecting on the purposes of public education, I can’t help but think of the words of Glendale’s well-known resident and our children’s former youth leader, Don Galleher: “Pep without purpose is piffle.”

Happily for my own sense of purpose, I recently met a young filmmaker who reminded me how the early development of technical skills and motivation for learning can go together.

Monica Zinn is a 24-year-old filmmaker who graduated from the Fairfax Academy for Communication and the Arts in Fairfax County, Va. and came to California to attend USC’s film school. Now working in L.A. on two film projects, she contacted me after reading one of my columns on arts and technical education, interested in sharing her experience with other students.

We met for coffee — after I’d viewed some of her work — and very quickly I became the student, learning not only about her high school program but about the serious and important subjects she has explored.

For her high school project, motivated, in part, by the experience of some of her classmates, Zinn undertook a study of eating disorders. Zinn credits the mentorship of a teacher who helped guide her ideas and the participation of mental-health experts for the success of her documentary film, titled “Perfection,” which gained the attention of both CSPAN and Scholastic.

For her next project, inspired by the individuals she met in her first film, Zinn researched and produced “Self-Inflicted,” a film about another mental health issue affecting teens and young adults: non-suicidal self-injury, or cutting.

“Everyone suffers, and everyone copes,” she told me, as she talked about her films. She wants more students to have access to information about healthier ways to cope.

Karen Carlson, coordinator of mental health services for the Glendale Unified School District, affirmed the need for more access to mental health information. In the past six years, she told me, she has seen the number of students needing mental health services increase fivefold, from 60 to 300 students, out of a student population of 26,000. Carlson said she was pleased to tell me that 600 employees were scheduled to receive suicide prevention training this week.

Monica Zinn said she hopes her films — already shown in 300 schools across the country — will help bring more reliable mental health education to schools. Her current project is a series on adaptive coping strategies, including “emotional first-aid.”

Zinn has a lot to share, both about high school CTE programs that work and about matters of critical importance to teens and young adults. Talking with her was a refreshing reminder that the purpose of education goes beyond academics and economics. It’s about finding and communicating ways to improve lives.

JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.

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