Vocational classes make a comeback

Ted Bunch remembers a time when the campuses of Burbank schools were abuzz with the pounding of hammers, the whining of drills and the grating of sandpaper ? a patina of sound slipping out of the district's woodshops, auto shops and other vocational training classes.

The classes, however, began to disappear as school district funding changed, teachers became scarce and budgets tightened. But those sounds Bunch so fondly remembers are beginning to make a comeback.

"It may almost be a renaissance of interest," said Sue Boegh, director of educational support services for the Burbank Unified School District. "We want to have something in place for every single student."

At the district's two high schools, vocational programs have been making a comeback for the past few years.

"When the last instructor left, the program shut down," Burroughs culinary arts teacher Tania Hurd said of the original cooking class. "I started it up three years ago, and it's been very successful."

Some of her students are even pursuing culinary arts as a career, she said.

The culinary arts class was revived at Burroughs after a nine-year hiatus. Other programs, like the aircraft and small engine, video editing, furniture building and computer drafting classes have also been resurrected or created in the past few years.

"I like to call them hooks," Bunch said. "You hook the kids in, so they're interested in school."

Seventeen-year-old Jason Rheaume was quickly hooked by his cooking class.

"On cooking day I definitely come to school," he said. "You have your whole group here and if you miss it, you don't get to eat the food."

Bunch is not alone in valuing the vocational classes that they had. A poll released in early April by the James Irving Foundation found that 90% of ninth- and 10th-grade students in California would be more interested in schools if more vocational classes were offered.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has also given his support to strengthening vocational education. The governor has set aside $50 million on vocational education in his 2006-07 budget, not yet approved by the California State Senate, and has proposed a state bond measure as part of the state's strategic growth plan that would provide about $1 billion to vocational programs.

"I think there is a movement within the legislature that directly suggests that school districts should provide these programs," said Supt. Gregory Bowman, who pointed to emerging grants and funding options for vocational programs.

Bowman believes the district can have it both ways ? rebuilding vocational programming, while maintaining academic standards.

"We don't want to diminish in any way the importance of the academics, of graduating from high school." Bowman said . "But we want our students to have an array of options ? it's not a one-size-fits-all."

Although 70% of the district's students pursue some sort of secondary education, most of those students enter into two-year, rather than four-year-programs. Throughout the district, about 35% to 38% of graduating seniors go on to four-year institutions. Others attend community colleges, trade schools or go straight to work.

A large number of students look to the classes to browse for future careers, Burbank High School counselor Debbie Pennington said.

"There's a lot of interest in nursing programs, in firefighting and police work," Pennington said.

She encourages students to explore their options through the classes the schools offer, career days and classes offered by Los Angeles County's Regional Occupational Program, which features courses on fire science, teaching careers and cosmetology.

Despite improvements made in the past few years, there are still programs that the school doesn't provide, Bunch said. The district is working with the Five-Star Coalition, a group of school districts including Pasadena, South Pasadena, Glendale, La Cañada and Burbank, to work out a comprehensive program between them.

"This is in its conceptual stages," Bowman said. "We want to identify what we already have and make some suggestions of what we might do on a broader geographic scale."

The district has also applied for six different vocational education grants.

"We're waiting to see which of these have been accepted," Boegh said. "In the end we want to set up career pathways, where a student can go from grade seven through 12 and be prepared for a skilled professional career.

Not all students will choose to go on in the careers they studied, but they will be able to explore their options while in high school, Boegh said.

"That's what high school is all about ? helping students find themselves," John Burroughs High School Principal Emilio Urioste said.

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