Students thrive in an alternative to college

A growing trend might give educators a clue about how to change their high schools.

Published July 11, 2005

As high school becomes little more than a memory for thousands of recent Tampa Bay area graduates, some have begun to wonder what they will do with the rest of their lives.

Others already have a pretty good idea, and it doesn't involve a traditional path through college.

Among them is Andrea Austin, who spent the past four years in the veterinary science academy at Tarpon Springs High School. Austin started working at Coastal Veterinary Clinic in April and will enter a two-year veterinary science program at St. Petersburg College next month.

After that, she plans to transfer to the University of South Florida to work toward a bachelor's degree in education. Ultimately, she wants to teach veterinary science, perhaps at Tarpon Springs High.

The 18-year-old is among a growing number of young people who are looking beyond traditional high school options that prepare them for four-year colleges.

Such students - and the programs they are pursuing - could offer clues to educators in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties who are scrambling to reinvent a high school system the Gates Foundation described in a recent report as "stuck in time" and "dysfunctional."

Comments made at a recent gathering of Pinellas teachers, students and business leaders indicate that increased emphasis on career and technical education programs could be time well spent. Among their observations:

--High school students rarely are introduced to options other than college.

--College bound students are encouraged to achieve while students who do not plan to pursue postsecondary education are not.

--Trying to interest some students in college is like "pushing them through the eye of the needle."

Sylvia Albritton, general director for technical and career education for the Hillsborough County School District, shares their concerns. While high schools continue to promote college prep programs, many students are falling through the cracks if they have goals that do not include traditional college, Albritton said.

Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who has made high school redesign one of his priorities, sees career and technical vocational programs as an "absolutely essential part" of his plan to improve student achievement.

Faced with a dropout rate significantly higher than the Florida average and SAT scores lower than the national average, Wilcox is working with high school administrators to expand vocational education opportunities.

The thought is that while career education programs are popular, attracting about 30 percent of all Pinellas high school students, more options would provide even more opportunities.

On the drawing board for 2006 and beyond are a pre-engineering program at Boca Ciega High School, a business and finance program at Countryside High School, and an entrepreneurship program at St. Petersburg High School.

Wilcox also has begun a discussion with St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker to convert Pinellas Technical Education Center-St. Petersburg to a vocational education charter school. The plan includes dual enrollment opportunities at postsecondary institutions and connections with area business leaders who will offer students employment upon graduation.

Pinellas already offers many opportunities for high school students interested in pursuing vocational programs, said David Barnes, the district's director of workforce education. Students can apply to one of several magnet programs, such as the criminal justice academy at Pinellas Park High School, or the business, economics and technology academy at Gibbs High School.

They also can choose from a number of "career academies," such as the graphic design academy at Dixie Hollins High School or the automotive academy at Northeast High School. Such programs, led by a team of teachers, weave core academics into specialized areas of study.

Students in the criminal justice academy, for example, might read and discuss To Kill a Mockingbird as part of their English curriculum, while students in the automotive academy might explore an automobile manual, Barnes said.

Many high schools also offer "stand alone" vocational programs, such as the cosmetology program at Largo High School or the early childhood education program at Osceola High School. Such programs teach students marketable skills without integrating academic subjects, Barnes said.

Critics of vocational education programs often say they limit a student's options. In worst-case scenarios, they say, lower performing students are "tracked" in to such programs by educators who don't know how to help them any other way.

Barnes disagrees. Because vocational classes are offered as electives alongside academic classes, students get everything they need to prepare them for college as well as the workplace. If they change their minds about pursuing a particular career path, they can easily switch to another vocational program or to a straight college prep curriculum.

"There is great value in students getting a taste of what a career is like," Barnes said. "They can make a decision about continuing in that field very intelligently. It's not like saying, "Let's roll the dice and see if I like this subject area."'

High school vocational programs also give students a chance to find out if they're not cut out for a particular field before they invest thousands of dollars in additional schooling or training, Barnes said.

But perhaps most important, vocational classes can provide the hook that will keep students coming to school when they might otherwise drop out, he said.

Magnet programs, career academies and stand-alone vocational programs all provide students with several options upon graduation. One option is direct entry in to the work force.

Shawn German, who began taking classes in electrical wiring as a junior at Dunedin High School, went to work for Time Warner as a cable installer after he graduated in 1996. Now 27, he is a service technician for Bright House Networks.

For him, vocational education classes were an incentive to stay in school and work toward a goal.

"I was always more in tune with electronics, working hands-on and actually repairing and fixing things," German said. "If I could have taken electrical wiring classes all day long, that's what I would have done."

Some vocational education graduates decide to continue their education in postsecondary workforce development programs at St. Petersburg College or at one of the district's two technical education centers.

Others opt to attend four-year colleges or universities to continue their studies. Kong Lee, who graduated in May from the finance academy at Northeast High School, plans to attend the University of South Florida to pursue a degree in business and accounting.

Lee,17, is among the first wave of Northeast's finance academy graduates. He landed a job as a teller with Wachovia Bank earlier this summer.

Academy director Debbie Fischer credits the program for preparing students to enter the work force much better prepared than other teens.

"Most kids coming out of high school can't start in the positions where these kids are," she said. "Our kids go through their training at a much quicker pace, and they definitely start at a higher rate of pay."

Fischer is among many Pinellas high school teachers who embrace the philosophy of Willard R. Daggett, a former teacher and school administrator who now heads the International Center for Leadership in Education. The author of 12 textbooks and four books on education reform, Daggett preaches the gospel of the new three R's: rigor, relevance and relationships.

His organization sponsored the recent Model Schools Conference in Memphis, which Fischer attended along with a large contingent of bay area educators including Catherine Fleeger, Pinellas' associate superintendent for secondary education.

"The message that came out of that conference is that the reading level of materials an entry level worker has to read on the job is typically higher than the level of your average college textbook," Fleeger said.

"The notion that some people hold in their minds that vocational education in some way is less than college is absolutely not true today. The requirements of the job market today are as rigorous or more rigorous than college entrance."

The challenge facing Pinellas educators, Fleeger said, is finding a way to add rigor to career programs and relevance to academic programs. Accomplishing that will have far-reaching implications, she said.

"It is first of all about helping students be more productive and ensuring that they will be employable. A secondary goal is that it's a major part of high school reform.

"We know we have to improve graduation rates," Fleeger said. "We believe that doing this will be a large step toward that."