Gone is the time when Los Angeles high schools routinely offered a wide array of vocational options--the era of wood shop, metal shop, auto shop and drafting.
These days, it is feast or famine for manual arts students in the nation’s second-largest school district.
They may encounter high-tech instruction on state-of-the-art machinery, geared to the demands of employers of the future. They may wind up stuck in overcrowded classes, saddled with obsolete equipment.
Or they may land at a school with no vocational courses at all.
Far from the political rhetoric of Washington, where Congress is debating the future of vocational ed, urban districts such as Los Angeles Unified are struggling to bridge the chasm between high school and productive lives for the “50% in the middle"--students not bound for college but likely to earn a high school diploma.
The results of that effort have been uneven, reflecting the whip-saw history of funding and philosophies that has shaped vocational education in this country during the past decade. In the mid-1980s, as demands on school budgets increased, academics took precedence over vocational training. Then, the pendulum swung back as “school-to-work transition” became the mantra of education reformers, unleashing a new wave of high-tech options that promised to lift vocational preparation from its status as education also-ran.
Now, with vocational ed at a critical juncture, proposed federal budget changes threaten to cut the lifeline for innovative programs designed to usher in the new era.
Graphic arts teacher Hursey Fortenberry’s print shop at Los Angeles’ University High is a living symbol of the decline of traditional vocational education, with its outdated computers and printing presses.
Downstairs and out the door, more signs of deterioration await: A former auto shop is now defined by rusting engines and shuttered garage doors; a fully equipped wood shop, abandoned mid-project, is half-filled with surplus desks and chairs instead of students.
Fortenberry’s faltering graphics program is the sole survivor of more than a dozen vocational education classes once offered at the West Los Angeles high school--courses that disappeared as enrollment dropped and funding dried up, leaving students not bound for college with few opportunities to acquire job skills.
“I don’t know how we can say we’re preparing these kids for their futures,” said Fortenberry, leaning an ink-stained sleeve against a drafting table.
Similar situations exist at about half of Los Angeles’ 50 senior highs, some of which no longer offer any vocational courses.
But other schools look more like Monroe High in the San Fernando Valley, which offers students a smorgasbord of job-preparation choices, including culinary arts taught in a gleaming commercial kitchen, child care learned in a school-based preschool, and aircraft mechanics practiced on real planes at a nearby airport.
Sometimes known as “career academies,” other times as “tech prep,” programs such as Monroe’s epitomize the new wave in high school vocational training that aims to knit job preparation into all aspects of a student’s education.
At Monroe, counselors channel entering sophomores with poor middle school grades to so-called career tracks, where they spend two hours a day in technical courses and the rest of the day in academic courses that include assignments tailored to their specialties. For culinary arts students, an English essay involves describing a blender; a math assignment converts pecks to quarts; a science experiment concentrates on gases produced in cooking.
The contrast between the two schools epitomizes the status of vocational education today. Like a gawky teen-ager with no firm handle on its future prospects, it waffles between the new and the old, the proven and the experimental.
Education and labor experts fear that vocational training, as a program in transition, will fare badly in the competitive arena recently approved by the House of Representatives and favored by the Senate.
Their proposed vocational spending bill lumps more than 100 youth and adult job-training projects together, trims funding by up to 25% and gives governors--and private employers--more control over how that money is spent.
Backers say the consolidation will create a more cohesive system of job training, ending overlap and cutting administrative costs. But opponents worry that the funding flexibility will allow governors to funnel the $1 billion previously spent on high school courses to glaring needs such as adult job training or dropout recovery programs.
“Will they end up targeting the problems of troubled youth after they’ve already dropped out of school, instead of trying to prevent that from happening?” asked Daisy Stewart, an education professor at Virginia Tech and president-elect of the American Vocational Assn. “Either way we’ll be looking at less money--trying to do the same amount of things with less.”
In urban school districts such as Los Angeles, the federal government has been providing less than one-tenth of the money spent on high school vocational training--amounting to about $5 million for Los Angeles Unified annually.
But those federal grants--which would be wiped out as of next June by the congressional budget overhaul--finance many of the cutting-edge programs, and their requirement for matching funds makes their impact greater than their budget percentage indicates.
They have “helped set the direction and determine some priorities,” Stewart said. “It has been forward-looking.”
The grants were established a decade ago, after the landmark “A Nation at Risk” report urged public schools to set higher academic standards and focused on longstanding criticism that vocational education had become a dumping ground for low-achieving students.
In response, Congress cut off routine support for traditional job-training classes and began funneling the money through grants to model programs that combined academics and vocational training.
“A Nation at Risk” also led many states and school systems to increase academic graduation requirements, dealing a double whammy to vocational education by siphoning money from job-training classes and cutting into the time students had to take such electives. As fewer students signed up for vocational classes, state funding--which is based primarily on enrollment--declined further.
Meanwhile, the working world was becoming more complicated, and vocational education’s original goal--to prepare students for jobs right out of high school--became increasingly elusive.
More and more, fields such as auto mechanics and drafting were requiring proficiency in the use of computers, which many students could not get in their high schools, which lacked expensive training equipment.
Those national trends have taken a toll on Los Angeles Unified. In the past six years alone, while overall district enrollment rose, high school vocational enrollment dropped by 13%--draining more than $50 million from vocational ed coffers, district officials said.
That means that many teen-agers are leaving school prepared neither for college nor the job market. Last year, a state performance report found that only a third of Los Angeles Unified high school students were enrolled in college-prep courses, yet fewer than half of those not headed for college were receiving vocational training.
The loss of funds for vocational education comes at an inopportune time for California, landing in the midst of a lingering economic downturn and following the closure of military bases that historically have offered technical training to young adults.
“California . . . never amped up [its] high school training because they had the military to fall back on,” said state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, whose father was a U.S. Navy machinist. “The changes in our society make the need even greater now, and our ability to do it is even smaller.”
Eastin has begun forming partnerships involving the U.S. Department of Education, the state Employment Development Department and a variety of trade unions. She envisions using that base to fortify vocational programs and create a system that ultimately will require every high school to offer a full technical menu.
But that will require a major infusion of money, and until then, many programs will be forced to rely for their existence on scavenged equipment and the dedication and ingenuity of teachers.
Twenty-five years ago, in vocational education’s heyday, Edward Corin spent much of his time as a machinist working for the Los Angeles school district setting up shops and installing new equipment in classrooms across the city.
“I don’t think there was a school that didn’t have all the shops going,” said Corin, who later taught industrial arts. “Then the money got tight, and they started closing down the programs that were higher per capita. Metal shops and machine shops were most expensive, so they went first.”
As shops were shut down, the abandoned equipment was claimed by people such as Corin, who recently reopened the Venice High machine shop with lathes and drills left idle by closures at other schools.
“It’s so sad to pirate these classes,” he said, “because once a school goes through a ‘conversion,’ that shop is never coming back.”
Such vulture-like assaults became commonplace in Los Angeles Unified after 1984, when the shift in funding priorities caused annual supply budgets to be cut from a typical high of $5,000 to $600 at many schools--too little to even replace damaged and lost tools, not to mention keep up with technological advances.
Whether the decline in traditional vocational programs is a natural progression or an ill-advised detour remains the topic of great debate among educators.
At the Berkeley-based National Center for Research in Vocational Education, director David Stern considers traditional job training “an outdated model,” whose death provides a prime opportunity for academy-style programs such as those at Monroe High.
“Voc ed is an 80-year-old program designed for the time when most jobs didn’t really require much formal education,” Stern said. “The good news is, with the decline of traditional forms of vocational ed, there is a vacuum. There’s a need, within the schools themselves, for a program that can get kids’ attention.”
One persistent argument against the academy programs, however, is that many require academic prerequisites for admission, which may preclude some students who most need an alternative to college prep: those who struggle academically.
But critics of traditional approaches counter that a constantly changing work world requires more versatile employees--those who have learned how to think, not how to do.
Indeed, a survey of 50 small Chicago-area employers by Northwestern University sociologist James Rosenbaum found that they rarely were concerned about job candidates displaying specific skills, which they believed could be taught on the job.
But, Rosenbaum said, the employers universally wanted proof of good work habits, which he maintains can be imparted in either traditional or academy-style vocational programs, if they are done right.
Matthew Goldenhar said he nearly dropped out of North Hollywood High before wandering into Russ Mukai’s auto mechanics class. A month after his 1992 graduation--after two years of auto shop--Goldenhar landed a job at Lexus of Glendale.
What he learned from Mukai went far beyond the basics of engine repair.
The veteran teacher devotes the first class of every semester to the techniques of resume writing, not the how-to of changing brake pads or oil. Later, he turns a simple textbook description of pistons into a complete hands-on science lesson about how they work and why.
Mukai has kept his 17-year-old program operating, despite ever-diminishing budgets, by spending hours after school every day on the telephone, begging car companies for donations of equipment and money.
And his extraordinary efforts have paid off: About half of his students decide to continue their education and head for community college each year. A few seek four-year colleges. And none, he brags, will ever have to work for minimum wage.
Graduate Goldenhar has found that in a good year at the Lexus dealer, “you can make close to $50,000, and for somebody like me, who’s not going to go on to college, that’s a great deal.”
By piquing students’ interest in life after high school, a good vocational program can provide more than job skills; it can be a catalyst for better academic performance and a conduit to college.
At Monroe High, one senior culinary student won a scholarship to a prestigious cooking school through a regional competition. Others have lined up well-paid post-graduation jobs or gone on to college.
“My grades used to be terrible--straight D’s all across--and now I have straight A’s,” said a smiling Dena Mesirow as she prepared to graduate from Monroe’s child development program in June. “Now I think I want to be a child psychologist. . . . I’m going to work my hardest to get a degree.”