Raquel Payan dunked a squeegee into a bucket of soapy water and spread the mixture across a rectangular window at Ventura High School while a classmate timed her work.
Raquel, 14, wasn't getting paid for her efforts on campus last week. She was in math class, learning to compute the average time it takes to wash one window by timing herself cleaning seven.
Later, teacher Lloyd Vadnis would ask the students: If you owned a window-washing business that won a contract to clean all of the school's windows at 45 cents each, how much could they afford to pay an hourly employee to do the work?
"It's not just learning out of a book, it's learning from experience," Raquel said.
Ventura High is one of three Ventura County schools this year testing a new math program that educators say is the model for improving courses for students who do not plan to graduate from college.
"Schools are evolving, and we're trying to get ready for the new millennium and make kids competent for the jobs they will be expected to do," said Charles Weis, Ventura County superintendent of schools. "We can't have kids floundering anymore."
Panels of educators representing all 20 school districts in the county have been working for more than a year to similarly overhaul English, biology and physics classes attended by students who will enter the work force after high school.
The panels, known collectively as the "Tech Prep Consortium," are designed to better prepare average students for jobs such as auto mechanics, which increasingly demand technological skills, administrators and teachers said.
The effort is part of a state and national movement toward creating classes that have practical applications in everyday life, officials said.
"This is the wave of the future," said Tom Stoddart, career education coordinator for the Ventura Unified School District. "There's a whole new world out there."
In the applied math class being tried out at Ventura, Westlake and Moorpark high schools, teen-agers do not learn math in the abstract. Yet, they master the same algebra and geometry skills taught in more traditional classes, Weis said.
"Often in school we have to say to kids, 'Trust me. You'll need this some day,' " Weis said. "Here they see the application and relevance."
The hands-on math demonstrations not only reinforce the need for students to learn the skills, but it makes learning fun, Moorpark High School Principal Cary Dritz said.
"By experiencing math, kids are more excited to learn and motivated to comprehend the very sophisticated concepts we're trying to teach them," Dritz said.
Elevating math from rote memorization to group problem-solving also helps students develop into creative, independent thinkers who are able to work cooperatively, teachers said.
"Kids need to like math and understand it to keep their options open," said Carmella Ettaro, math department chairwoman at Westlake. "If we don't get to them now, we're going to have a whole group of kids out there who aren't going to have many choices in life."
Within the next five years, practical instruction will be tailored to highly specialized courses of study as students reach their final two years of high school, educators said.
A student interested in the health-care field might choose an upper-level math class focusing on solving problems typically confronted by health-care professionals. An example: converting temperatures from Fahrenheit to Celsius.
That same student might learn to write a mock medical report in English class, officials said.
Other courses of study would include business education, engineering, industrial arts, agriculture and home economics, officials said. "We're not sure yet exactly how it would work, because it is still evolving," said Phyllis Throckmorton, coordinator of the consortium.
Asking students to choose a major area of interest is intended to get them thinking about jobs at an early age, Weis said.
"This is not a thing that locks students into working in a certain profession," Weis added. "We're not saying that a 14-year-old has to choose a profession, because we know that's irrational."
Students could easily transfer the basic skills they learn from one major to another, Weis said. "We think it has great potential to increase student interest in school," he said.
Traditionally, college-bound students have picked from a list of classes intended to prepare them for the rigors of higher education, while other students have followed a non-specific and less challenging general education path in high school.
However, only about one-quarter of the general population holds a bachelor's degree, said Jan Prezzano, who teaches the applied math class at Westlake.
"It's the other 75% we really need to be concerned about," Prezzano said.
The success of the new system depends on making the practical new courses and subsequent community college classes complement each other, officials said.
Under the consortium's plan, students would get community college credit for technical courses completed in high school. In addition, community college courses would be planned to follow the high school classes in a logical sequence, officials said.
"It's a leg up we're giving our students," Weis said.
Although students would choose either technical or college-oriented paths of study from their freshman year, school officials insisted that youngsters could change courses as they become more certain of their future occupation.
"A lot of the kids don't really know what they want to do, and they haven't been successful as far back as junior high," Throckmorton said.
"Ideally, I can see this being a way for them to get turned on to more advanced classes, because they would see that they can do it."