From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.
Jim Stone: Kids from poor communities were tracked off into becoming the worker bees.
Vocational education has had a bad reputation in America.
David Cox: There’s a basic mindset problem still in high school that you’re either college-bound, or you’re going to work at McDonald’s.
But career education is making a comeback, and it’s helping some students stay in school.
Demari Mumphrey: It’s really pulled me in. It’s like I discovered myself.
Chris Symonds: I saw why I needed math. I saw why I needed English.
Advocates say career and technical education can benefit all kids, even kids bound for college. I’m Stephen Smith. In the coming hour: “Ready to Work,” from American RadioWorks. First, this news.
[In hair salon]
Liz King: Caitlin
King: How are you?
Caitlin: Good, how are you?
King: Good, come on down…
King: I’m excited.
This is Liz King. She works as a cosmetologist at a salon outside of Boston. One of her regular clients has just come in.
King: All right, let’s talk.
Caitlin: Um, so I need color.
Caitlin: Um, and then I like the cut we did last time.
Liz: We brought it short last time. I really liked it too. So we’ll just bring it up again.
Liz King loves being a cosmetologist, but she grew up in a town here that kind of career was looked down upon. Liz lived in Lexington, a wealthy Boston suburb full of doctors, lawyers, and academics. Kids from there typically go to Lexington High School, where almost everyone goes on to a four-year college. In fact, every year several of them go to Harvard. Liz did not feel like she belonged in this world of academic high-achievers.
King: I am not a book person. You just, you just know you are, or you’re not.
For Liz, school was a drag.
King: I always knew in elementary school I was not going to sit and do paperwork, desk job, hell no.
What she liked was doing hair.
King: I always fiddled with hair, not that I was any good. If you see pictures of me in middle school, I looked like a wreck! But I always enjoyed, like, fiddling with people’s hair. One of my best friends in middle school, her mom owned her own salon, so we’d go hang out at her salon.
That’s what Liz wanted to do – open her own salon. But she had four years of high school to get through first, and she was dreading it. Then, near the end of eighth grade, a rep from a local vocational high school visited her middle school. Liz learned she could go there and study cosmetology. And she thought…
King: OK, yeah, I definitely want to do that.
Jeanette Chapman: I wasn’t having any of that.
That’s Liz’s mom, Jeanette Chapman. Years earlier, her son had actually asked to go to the same vocational high school. He wanted to study plumbing. She said no to him too.
Chapman: I just had the impression that going to vocational school, that he would miss out on something, a profession in something where you could make more money. I think it was all to do with making more money.
She’d gone to vocational school herself, in England, where she’d learned to be a secretary. She wanted more for her kids.
From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, “Ready to Work: Reviving Vocational Ed.” I’m Stephen Smith.
For more than a century, high schools have offered programs meant to train students for specific jobs or careers. But vocational education has had a bad reputation for a long time. This is Ed Bouquillon, who’s been working as a teacher and an administrator at vocational schools for years.
Bouquillon: Vocational programs were kind of relegated to one end of the building, or even in city schools, they were in the basements. And kids who were not doing well academically were funneled into those programs.
The students who ended up in vocational programs were mostly poor or working-class, and a lot of them were kids of color. The goal was to just get them through high school. And for much of the 20th century, there were plenty of jobs – good union jobs – for people with just a high school education. But those jobs began to disappear in the 1970s, and it became clear that a high school diploma was not enough. There was a new message for kids and their families: Everyone should go to college.
Bill Symonds: And it’s something that’s been embraced overwhelmingly by Americans.
Bill Symonds is a former education correspondent for Businessweek.
Bill Symonds: The model is that you take a college prep program of study in high school, go off to a four-year college, and get your degree.
But Symonds says the “college for all” model is not working for most young people.
Bill Symonds: The reality is that by the time they get to their late 20s, only 30 percent of young people have actually gotten a four-year degree. So you’ve got a paradigm that’s embraced by almost everybody, but only 30 percent are getting there.
Symonds co-authored a report in 2011 for the Harvard Graduate School of Education called, “Pathways to Prosperity.” The report argues the United States is failing to prepare millions of young people to lead successful lives, because high schools focus too narrowly on an academic, college-prep approach to education.
When Symonds gives speeches, he asks audiences to think about the young people in their families–
Bill Symonds: –and then start thinking: how many of them never went to college? How many went to college and dropped out before they got a degree? How many went to college, got a degree, and then found out they couldn’t get a job, at least not the kind of job they were hoping to get? And when I talk to large audiences and start asking those questions, pretty soon every hand in the room has gone up. Everybody knows somebody like that in their family who’s been affected.
Symonds says the college degree has been oversold. If you look at labor market data, you see that lots of well-paying jobs don’t require a bachelor’s degree. For example, people with certificates or licenses in fields like electronics and aviation can make good money. Thirty percent of people who only hold certificates or licenses actually earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient. Employers are desperate for people with this kind of training, and high schools could help, says David Cox, a general manager at a Toyota manufacturing plant in Kentucky.
David Cox: I do think there’s a basic mindset problem still in high school that you’re either college bound, or you’re going to work at McDonald’s. There’s not a lot of in-between thinking, right? And so, I think that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome — that there is value in a good, hands-on technical education.
Our story this hour is about what a good hands-on technical education looks like and why an increasing number of experts and educators say American high school students need this kind of education. We look at how vocational education has changed; why some students choose it over a traditional academic track; and how it may be a better path to higher education for many kids, even kids from upper income families who were headed to college anyway. We also ask: should every high school student do some kind of career education?
Our story begins with Bill Symonds’ own son. Here’s our correspondent Emily Hanford.
Emily Hanford: For as long as he can remember, Chris Symonds has loved food and cooking.
Chris Symonds: Weekends were just filled with my dad cooking. I just enjoyed it. I found it the coolest thing.
He began to imagine himself as a chef. When he was nine years old, he made his first meal.
Chris Symonds: –which was a mussels dish with just a quick sauce made out of clam juice and white wine and some jalapenos and peppers and what not. It was easy, but everybody liked it. And it’s something that you can see. You can see all your work coming together when you put out that dish. And if somebody likes that dish, you can feel good about yourself.
This was a big contrast from the way he felt in school. He grew up in Weston, a wealthy town outside Boston with lots of high-achieving students.
Chris Symonds: I found myself flustered, and I found myself learning slower than everybody else, and I just felt so stupid.
Things got especially bad in middle school.
Chris Symonds: I had C-minuses and stuff, and going into high school, and your grades are that low in middle school and it’s going to start ramping up and getting even harder? The chances of me going on was just–it wasn’t plausible. I knew there would be problems.
Hanford: You were really thinking if I go to Weston High School, I might not make it through high school?
Chris Symonds: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.
His dad, Bill Symonds, says there are millions of kids like Chris.
Bill Symonds: They may be having a hard time with math or English or some of the other subjects, and because of that, they’re getting very negative messages. You know: “You’re a struggling student, maybe you’re a failing student. You’re going to be a loser, and if you don’t turn this around, you’re never going to make it.”
He thought what his son needed was a chance to be good at something in school. But Chris couldn’t learn to be a chef at his local high school.
Bill Symonds: There wasn’t a single course that would really prepare him for a career in cooking. It just wasn’t offered. All of that had been eliminated from the curriculum.
But there is a school in a nearby town where Chris could study cooking. It’s called Minuteman Regional High School.
Ernest Houle: Hey guys, let’s go!
This is Ernest Houle, the principal of Minuteman. He’s standing in the hall, hustling kids to class. There are about 650 students at Minuteman. They come from 50 public school districts in the suburbs around Boston.
Houle: Minuteman Regional High School is a public high school that offers 20 career and technical education fields.
There are more than two dozen of these regional vocational high schools in Massachusetts. Students can learn everything from plumbing to biotechnology, and of course culinary arts too.
This is the Minuteman kitchen, where student Chris Symonds is helping to prepare lunch for the school restaurant. I’m going to catch up with him later, but first, Principal Houle gives me a tour of the school. It’s called Minuteman because it’s in Lexington, Massachusetts, just down the street from where the Minutemen militia fought the first battles of the Revolutionary War.
[Walking through hallways]
Houle: So why don’t we go upstairs, and we’ll go this way…
The first stop on our tour is the programming and web development shop. Students in this major go on to work in areas like network administration and video game design.
[Video game noises]
Alec: Whoops, I gotta start a new game. Just one second, sorry about that.
This is a student named Alec showing me his senior project. It’s a video game where the main character–
Alec: –discovers that the division you originally enlisted into is evil, so you leave and plot against it to take it down.
Alec is doing all the programming for this game. On the other side of the room is the student doing the artwork and graphic design. Her name is Annie. She’s working on facial expressions for the characters.
Annie: Um, let’s see… the angry face!
Hanford: Ooh, yeah!
Annie: That’s the angry face.
Annie claps with glee. This is one of the faces she’s especially proud of. I ask her what she plans to do after Minuteman.
Annie: Um, I’m going to go to art school. I haven’t decided which one yet. I’ve been accepted into three. And I’m going to be studying graphic design, so I can hopefully be a web designer.
Hanford: So you’re really doing what you want to do, right here?
Annie: Yes. [Claps hands]
Hanford: You’re clapping your hands.
About 60 percent of Minuteman graduates go on to college, either for a two-year or four-year degree. And a lot of them know exactly what they want to do when they get there.
Kendra: I want to double major in marine biology and captive wildlife and care.
Kendra is a student in the environmental science and technology program.
Kendra: You just pour… [Pouring] Let me make sure I’m watching…
She says when she started at Minuteman, she had no idea what she wanted to do.
Kendra: I was like, “I’m not good at anything.” Like, “I don’t know what I want to do,” and then I came here, and it’s like, you find out you have a passion for something.
Kendra: …that doesn’t drip. Then we’re going to pour more, because—
Kendra’s lab partner: And another, like…
This is Kendra and her lab partner pouring water onto the roof garden of a little model house. They’re experimenting to see which kinds of plants will absorb the most carbon and produce the cleanest water runoff. Kendra’s lab partner says after college, she wants to start a company that helps people in poor countries get clean water. Advocates for career and technical ed say one of the advantages of this kind of education is that kids get a chance to figure out what they’re interested in, before they go to college. But at Minuteman, the goal is not to get everyone to college. The goal is to give kids good options after high school. This is Steve, a student we meet in the electrical wiring shop.
[Sound of drilling]
Steve: I just didn’t want to get out of high school and not know what I was going to do with my life and stay working at a grocery store.
Steve will graduate with a high school diploma and a certificate that can get him started as an electrician’s apprentice. If he becomes a certified electrician, he can expect to make about $40,000 a year to start. That’s higher than the median wage for all workers in the United States. And a college degree is not necessary.
Michelle Roche: College isn’t for everyone.
You won’t hear many people at American high schools say this, but Michelle Roche, the director of career and technical education at Minuteman, says people can build good careers with just a high school diploma, as long as that diploma comes with good technical training. She went to a vocational high school, studied cosmetology, and worked for years as a hairdresser. She says she made good money and used that money to go to college later in life. Roche says even if Minuteman graduates do go right to college, she thinks the bottom line of all education should be to prepare people to make a living.
Roche: At the end of the day, our jobs are to get people working and to get these students working, and that’s what we’re doing. So, you know, when people ask me about, “What do we do at Minuteman?” That’s what we do. We prepare the next generation of workers.
Teacher; Want to give this a shot?
Student: Let’s see, where’s middle C? [Plays note]
At Minuteman, preparing the next generation of workers includes a well-rounded education, complete with things like keyboarding class…
[Student playing “Let the Saints Go Marching In”]
… as well as a full range of college prep courses – math, English, social studies, just like you’d find at any high school. This is a big change from the way things were when Principal Ernest Houle was a student at a vocational high school, back in the 1980s. He went for welding. Houle says the vocational program was in a wing off the traditional high school, the students were known as “trade rats,” and no one expected them to learn much in the way of academics. Certainly they were not expected to go to college.
Houle: The highest-level math I ever had in high school was in Algebra One, and that only happened my sophomore year because it fit in the schedule. It wasn’t until I went to become a teacher and I realized not being offered the classes during high school made it more difficult for me when I got into the college arena.
Vocational education was never intended to prepare students like Ernest Houle for higher education. In fact, the law that first authorized federal funding for vocational ed in the United States–the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917–explicitly described it as preparation for occupations not requiring a bachelor’s degree.
Jim Stone: The early vocational education was driven by a philosophy of fitting people to their probable destinies. We would today call that tracking.
Jim Stone is director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education.
Stone: Kids from poor communities, poor families, were tracked off into becoming the worker bees. Others were, you know, tracked off to go to universities and be the intelligentsia or however you want to think about it.
The person who did a lot of the research that showed poor kids were being tracked into vocational ed is Jeannie Oakes.
Jeannie Oakes: Vocational education and tracking both emerged as two very common sense ideas at a particular point in history.
Oakes says two things were happening in the early 20th century that made the idea of vocational education popular. Employers needed trained workers for their booming factories. And high schools needed to figure out what to do with an influx of new students that included farm kids moving to the city and immigrants coming from overseas.
Oakes: And secondary schools really didn’t know what to do with them. They were used to dealing with this very small group of mostly quite privileged children of educated families, and they gave them this nice liberal arts education in preparation for the university. Well, that didn’t seem to be fitting at all for these kids who’d come in from the farms or these new immigrants. So the idea was, well, let’s put vocational training into public education, and we can solve all of these problems.
Vocational education became a staple of American schooling.
Archive film audio: Three types of technical study are now in progress. Precision in the metal industry. Drafting. And the fascinating field of electronics. Students of today training to play their vital roles in the wonders of tomorrow.
[Film music continues]
This government film from 1959 promotes vocational ed as a way to meet the needs of employers and help young people get jobs. But vocational ed had its critics from the start. They didn’t want high school turned into job training and said all students should get a broad academic education. And by the end of the 20th century, it was clear that all students needed solid academic skills. Old industries were disappearing. and new career fields were emerging. To stay employed, workers needed to be able to re-train for new jobs throughout their lives. People in the field of vocational education realized that if vocational ed was going to survive, it had to change.
Dave Ferreira: And the early 2000s was a time of significant change in voc ed.
Dave Ferreira is executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators. He says when the No Child Left Behind law came along and states started comparing schools based on standardized test scores, it became clear that vocational programs were at the bottom. To avoid being shut down, they had to up their game in terms of academics.
Ferreira: What we wanted to do was to create a student who was equally able to go out into the field, but also college ready, a student who could get accepted to a four-year college or university, if that’s what they wanted to do.
More than a decade later, vocational schools in Massachusetts have largely succeeded. Students at regional vocational high schools do as well on the state English tests as students at traditional high schools, and they’re just a few percentage points behind in math. And graduation rates at vocational schools are higher than at traditional high schools. Students at vocational high schools can even take Advanced Placement classes now.
English Teacher: All right folks, um just a reminder: those exam fees.
We’re back at Minuteman High for an AP English Literature class. The teacher is reminding students to pay the fees for their upcoming AP exams. One of the students in this class is Chris Symonds, the aspiring chef who didn’t think he’d make it through a traditional high school. He’s now a senior at Minuteman, and today he and his classmates are analyzing a poem by Robert Graves. The teacher comes over to check on Chris’s work.
English Teacher: I’m not sure about stanza two and stanza three. How is that a shift?
Chris Symonds: It shifts from positive to negative.
English Teacher: Ok, so the tone shifts…
Chris Symonds is one of the best students at Minuteman high school, about to graduate in the top 10 percent of his class. Here’s how he explains his academic turnaround.
Chris Symonds: Instead of asking myself, “Why am I learning this?” I could make those connections for myself. So, I got into culinary arts, and I saw why I needed math, I saw why I needed English, and it all came together.
Hanford: So explain how doing culinary helped you understand why you were learning math and English.
Chris Symonds: In culinary arts, there’s not just the side of, make this recipe and put it out. There’s the side of, multiply this recipe. Break it down. Make more, make less. There’s the side of hospitality to it and learning how to write out business plans, pay wages, make a profit.
You certainly don’t need AP classes to learn these kinds of skills, but Chris says he likes AP English. He’s taking calculus too. Michelle Roche, the career and technical education director–herself a graduate of a vocational high school–says students at Minuteman make academic turnarounds like Chris’s all the time.
Roche: What happens to kids when they come here–and it happened to me–the students who have not felt success when they’re in a traditional academic school where they’ve gotta sit, the teacher’s talking at them, they’ve got to regurgitate this information, they’ve got to memorize and study–they’ll come here, and they’re standing on their feet, they’re working with their hands, you know, they’re putting all of this together, and they have success. They make something work; they figure out a problem. And success breeds success.
Perhaps one of the most amazing statistics about Minuteman is that close to half the students have some kind of learning or other disability. Yet 100% of the students at Minuteman passed the state English test last year; 94 percent passed the math test. Test scores like that get schools like Minuteman noticed. But for the teachers and students here, test scores are not the true measure of success. It’s what students are able to do in the real world.
[Sounds at Blue Ginger restaurant]
Chris Symonds is cleaning a huge wok he just used to make stir-fry. He works at Blue Ginger, one of the Boston area’s best restaurants. Chris is responsible for making the daily staff meal. Here he is telling the executive chef what he’s got planned for next week.
Chris Symonds: There’s spinach. There’s going to be the rest of that bean salad in there…
Chris works at Blue Ginger every other week, and goes to his classes at Minuteman the weeks he’s not working. This is the way the schedule works for everyone at Minuteman – one week in academic classes, one week in vocational classes – with a goal that by the time they’re seniors, most are out doing some kind of internship. Chris is the first high school student who’s ever worked at Blue Ginger, says executive chef Jon Taylor.
Jon Taylor: Yeah, I actually have a little soft spot for him, because he’s been doing vocational school, and I did vocational school myself. Puts his head down and works. I can tell his drive–he’s always cooking at home. And passion is what this business is all about.
Everything Chef Taylor knows about cooking he learned in high school or on the job. He never went to college. But Chris is taking a different path. After he graduates from Minuteman, he’ll be heading to the Culinary Institute of America, one of the best cooking schools in the world. His coursework there will include math and literature, and he’ll finish with a bachelor’s degree. For Chris, vocational education was a way to get to college when he otherwise might not have made it through high school. And even for academic high achievers, vocational education may be a better way to get to college.
Brandon Datar: My name is Brandon Datar. I am a senior in the environmental science and technology program at Minuteman High School.
Sean Datar: My name is Sean Datar. I’m currently a freshman, and I’m in the robotics program.
The Datar brothers went to private school until eighth grade. Their dad is an electrical engineer, and their mom teaches at a Montessori school. They’re probably not the kinds of kids you’d imagine at a vocational high school. But when the older brother, Brandon, was looking at options for high school, Minuteman stood out, says his dad Nijan Datar.
Nijan Datar: Being an engineer myself, I like the fact that schools like this sort of cater to making an actual living.
The family had been visiting private high schools, where Nijan says the priority seemed to be getting students into the best–and most expensive–colleges. But no one talked about what kids were actually going to do with their college degrees. His wife Teresa thinks high schools should be giving kids more direction.
Teresa Datar: My feeling is that in many high schools, students don’t know why they’re in the classes that they’re in. They’re just kind of biding time. And then they go off to college and they flounder, and you know, they’re just following the crowd like everybody else.
She and her husband say friends and neighbors were kind of startled when they heard their sons were going to a vocational high school.
Nijan Datar: What we did was definitely not the norm here. I mean, you know, I have had kind of raised eyebrow looks. It’s almost like you can read that other person’s mind thinking, “Ok, the reason I did this is because my son is not very smart.”
But his son Sean says he chose Minuteman, because when he toured the school, the students he met seemed to have a plan for their lives. He wanted to be focused like them.
Sean Datar: When you think about it, you want to know what you want to do, and you want to be sure of it by the time you go to college. ‘Cause you don’t want to pick a major, spend–get like $50,000 in debt ‘cause of a loan, to, like, get a major that you’re not going to utilize or, like, you’re not even going to enjoy what comes after that.
Every student at Minuteman is required to try every major. That means Sean had to try plumbing and welding and cosmetology too, which he did not like.
Sean Datar: I mean, it’s not that it was ‘cause it was girly. It’s just I was not good at it.
Painting nails, braiding hair – not his thing. But Sean did like automotive. His older brother Brandon liked plumbing and welding. This freaked his dad out a bit. He hadn’t imagined his son as a plumber or a welder; always assumed he’d choose a white-collar path and go to college. And Brandon is going to college. He’s heading to the Colorado School of Mines to get a bachelor’s degree in geological engineering. And listen to all the stuff he’s already learned in high school.
Brandon Datar: I’ve learned about wildlife, wastewater, drinking water, site assessments, geology, hydrogeology, marine science, fish.
Not only has he learned all that, he has several licenses and certificates to prove it, including a wastewater treatment plant operator’s license and a drinking water license. If he wanted to go get a good job right out of high school, he probably could. Minuteman graduate Alice Ofria did.
[Car door slams]
Alice is hopping out of her truck at the end of a dirt road in Billerica, Massachusetts.
Alice Ofria: So, when we do the samples, we get them directly from the main. Some sites are–like this is a dead end, and there’s not really much around, so we usually open a hydrant here.
[Sound of water coming out of hydrant]
Alice is a lab technician for the town of Billerica’s Drinking Water Department, a job she got because of an internship through Minuteman. Today, she’s collecting water samples, which she’ll take back to the lab and test to make sure the town’s drinking water is clean and safe.
Alice is 23 years old, and this job pays her nearly 28 dollars an hour. Her friends are amazed.
Ofria: Most of my friends are like waitresses or work at, like, as a secretary somewhere or at, like, a tanning salon, stuff like that.
But Alice – she just bought a new truck and went on a vacation to Puerto Rico. And she’s a college student, about to graduate from UMass-Boston with a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science.
Ofria: People in my college classes don’t know things I know that I learned from Minuteman.
Alice is currently being groomed to take over for the chemist at the Billerica Water Department. He’s planning to retire soon. But Alice isn’t sure yet if she wants that job.
Ofria: There’s a very wide range of jobs I could get. Working here is one, a wastewater job, I could work at a site that had a hazardous spill. I could work for, like, they’re doing a lot of fracking. I could go there and work there.
When Alice was thinking about whether to go to Minuteman, lots of people told her, “Don’t go there.” But she thinks it’s one of the best choices she’s ever made.
Ofria: Vocational school is where it’s at, to put it bluntly, because no one experienced, like, a field, a trade and stuff like that and also got the same education. None of my friends experienced that, except for the friends I went to school with.
Alice says when she has kids of her own; she’s going to tell them they should go to a vocational high school too.
Smith: That was American RadioWorks correspondent Emily Hanford. And I’m Stephen Smith.
For years, vocational education was seen as a lesser form of schooling, tracking some kids into programs that ended up limiting their future opportunities. Today, at least in the nation’s best vocational program, things are different. Students who do vocational ed may have the advantage now, getting both a solid academic education and the kinds of technical skills that can get them good jobs or at least a clearer idea of what they want out of a college degree. Now, some experts are saying all kids should get career education in high school.
Steele: We’re not preparing your kid to have a job; we’re preparing your kids to have those skills: critically thinking and communication, collaboration, and creativity.
Coming up, we visit Nashville, Tennessee to learn how school leaders there are using career and technical education to improve the city’s public high schools. We also return to the tracking debate, and consider the fact that poor and working-class students are still more likely to end up in career and technical education, while higher income kids pursue the four-year college route.
We have more about this story at our web site, American RadioWorks.org. You can see photographs of Minuteman High School and read more about the history of vocational education. That’s AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Support for this program comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation. More in a moment from APM, American Public Media.
Stephen Smith: You’re listening to “Ready to Work,” from American RadioWorks. I’m Stephen Smith.
Vanessa Romero: Here I come, ready or not…
It is a warm Thursday afternoon in Nashville. Flor Romero’s three-year-old is chasing the eight-year-old around a tree in the backyard. Flor just got off work, and the kids just got home from school. This is Vanessa. She loves second grade.
Vanessa Romero: We are studying about the water cycle at my school. They treat us good
Vanessa’s mom, Flor, loved second grade too. And all the grades through middle school. But things changed when she got to Glencliff High. Glencliff is in a neighborhood with lots of rundown strip malls and low-income families. It was a tough school.
Flor Romero: I started, you know, trying to have friends and stuff, but most of them were like, gang-banging, and they were doing a lot of crazy stuff. I remember one day we were in class. It was English class. I was just right there, listening to the teacher, and two students just started getting in a fight, out of nowhere, and the teacher got punched.
Her parents worked a lot, and didn’t know how to help.
Flor Romero: The only thing I remember them saying was, “You have to graduate from high school.” But they never kind of explained why. And it was so funny to me, and I was like, “We’re Mexicans. We don’t have to graduate.”
Flor dropped out after she got pregnant senior year. Nearly half the students in her class dropped out too, making Glencliff High one of the worst in Nashville. But things weren’t much better at the other city schools. The graduation rate in all of Nashville was less than 70 percent. In 2007, the state of Tennessee was about to take over the Nashville District.
Jay Steele: –because we were on rock bottom.
Jay Steele is Chief Academic Officer for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.
Steele: They were failing schools; the majority were failing schools–dropout factories, as identified. So I think you reached that tipping point where you either change, or you’re not going to exist any more.
And then, over the next few years, everything did change.
President Obama: [In speech]Over the past nine years the graduation rate here has gone up 22 percent. Twenty-two percent!
[Cheers and applause.]
In the winter of 2014, President Obama visited Nashville to praise the district for its turnaround. Nashville had saved its school district by turning most of its public high schools into what are called “career academies.” The idea is to bring career education to everybody. It’s a new twist on vocational education, and Nashville is betting the future of its schools on the idea that more career and technical training in high school will motivate more kids to finish high school – and go on to college, as well. Laurie Stern has the story of how it happened.
Laurie Stern: This is what lunch period sounds like at Glencliff High School, one of the most diverse public high schools in the country.
[Students talking animatedly]
Students at this table were born in Egypt. Arabic is one of more than two-dozen languages spoken here. The student body is about 40 percent Latino and 30 percent African-American. Almost all of the students are from poor or working-class families.
It’s a lot like big public schools in many cities. But it has classes that make it feel not-so-big.
Tara Meyers: Which piece are you going to build next?
Student 1: Uhh, rooftop?
In this advanced design class, groups of three or four students cluster around laptops at a couple of long tables. They’re designing little free libraries – basically boxes on poles that will sit in front yards where neighbors can exchange books. The class is part of the engineering academy, one of three “career academies” within the school. Demari Mumphrey is a junior in the engineering academy, and loves it.
Demari Mumphrey: I can go on a computer and do research on buildings and their architecture, and that’ll just keep me in for hours.
Demari says she didn’t used to care about school, but now she’s fired up. She wants to be an architect.
Mumphrey: I can sit in the shop and cut some wood, and that’ll get me. So the academy has—it’s really pulled me in. It’s really pulled me in. I have developed a love for it. It’s like I discovered myself.
[Design classroom conversation]
In this class, students work together on every aspect of building the library boxes, from design to installation. The idea is that each small group is learning more than engineering; they’re also learning how to collaborate and communicate, solving interpersonal problems as well as technical ones.
Student 2: Oh there we go. You could do that!
Meyers: Is that the platform for your roof?
And they’re making connections to the world outside school.
Today, a visiting architect from a big firm in Nashville is helping students with their designs.
Meyers: Your skin, where you’re going to put your slats. What is–that piece is the…?
Student 3: That’s the…the roof.
Meyers: Ok, that’s supporting your roof.
The architecture firm is one of Glencliff’s business partners. Other business partners include a chain of dialysis clinics, Dell Computers, Shoney’s Restaurants, a children’s hospital, and several hotels. Architect Tara Meyers says her company wants to encourage Glencliff students to choose careers in architecture, construction, and engineering. She says across the country, not enough students are choosing to study those fields in college.
Meyers: We’re not getting as many graduates coming out of those programs as we maybe did twenty years ago. We’re also trying to increase the diversity going into those fields, as well; more women, more minorities, and really just trying to open that up to a more diverse population.
The businesses that work with the Nashville academies get a chance to attract and train workers. And the students get field trips, internships, and professionals who help with class projects. They also get a more hands-on way of learning that focuses on projects and career themes. Even the regular academic classes try to incorporate those themes. Elizabeth Brewer teaches history in Glencliff’s medical academy.
Elizabeth Brewer: So we might, during our study of world wars, talk about how medicine has evolved and battlefield medicine. So there’s elements of pulling in medical science issues into history, and it takes a lot of extra effort, because that’s not in the textbook.
This is a far cry from how things are typically done in traditional high schools.
David Stern: High schools are organized in blocks of time, each of which is labeled with a particular subject.
David Stern is director of the College and Career Academy Support Network, a research institute at UC Berkeley.
Stern: Period one is English or something, and Period two is science, and Period three might be math. Different teachers, different groups of students, absolutely no connection from one period to the next. That is just a ridiculous way to organize learning. A lot of kids just can’t connect, so creating some kind of theme or focus or coherence to the curriculum is very helpful in providing direction and motivation for students.
Nashville began experimenting with more career education in 2005. By 2010, it had transformed most of its high schools into career academies. The majority of students now attend career academies, and the change has been dramatic. Graduation rates are up, and there are far fewer discipline problems. The suspension rate is down by 30 percent.
Career academy staff member: Good morning! Welcome to Glencliff!
Now people from all over the country are coming to see how it’s done here. Nashville’s career academies have hosted hundreds of visitors. People on this tour came from across the country, from the White House, and even from England.
Glencliff student tour guides: Don’t be shy. You guys can get closer! Don’t be shy!
The Glencliff students who greeted them wore dark blue jackets, white shirts, and thin red ties. They are school ambassadors, hand-picked for being leaders and good public speakers.
Tonia Romero: Now we’ll be going to the Ford Academy of Business and Innovation.
One of the ambassadors is Tonia Romero. She’s Flor Romero’s 16-year-old sister – remember Flor, the young mother who dropped out of Glencliff when it was violent and chaotic? Flor hated high school, but her sister loves it. Tonia is a junior in Glencliff’s Academy of Medical Science and Research. She says she wants to be an E.R. nurse, or maybe a special ed teacher, or she might join the military.
Tonia Romero: See, I can see myself in law enforcement too cause, I mean, I have that, kind of like, strong, tough personality, but at the same time I’m such a nice person.
At 16, Tonia’s not quite sure what she wants to do. But that’s ok. Experts say career academies are not designed to train students in specific careers. The idea is to help them see options. And they say that helps keep students engaged in school.
The career academy idea has picked up steam, in large part because of research led by this guy.
Jim Kemple: My name is Jim Kemple. I serve as the Executive Director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools based at New York University.
Back in the early ‘90s, Kemple and his team were looking for solutions to the high school dropout problem.
Kemple: We were looking around the country for promising interventions that were aimed at not just getting students to finish high school with the appropriate academic credentials but promising approaches to helping young people make healthy transitions into the labor market.
Kemple and his colleagues set up a study focused on urban schools made up mostly of low-income African American and Hispanic students. Students were randomly selected to be in career academies. The study followed the students for eight years after high school and compared them with students who had not been chosen for the career academies.
The researchers found that students who went to career academies earned more money later, and they were more likely to have jobs with benefits.
That research has led to an explosion in the number of career academies in the US. There are now more than 6,000 schools that say they have career academies. But Kemple says that not all of them are set up the way they should be. He says career academies need three things to be effective.
Kemple: So it’s the smaller learning communities, the curriculum that combines academic and career-related coursework and partnerships with local employers that provide work-based learning opportunities for students.
Nashville is doing all three of those things, and it does seem to be helping more students finish school. But not everyone’s happy with the way things are going. Some students say they are forced to choose subjects they aren’t interested in. For example, at Glencliff, the only options are business, medicine, and engineering. Across town, there’s a school that offers alternative energy, education, and law. In theory, students are allowed to go to any academy they choose, but the district doesn’t provide busing, so in reality, most kids are forced to pick an academy at their local high school. And some students and parents are skeptical of the whole career academy idea.
Steele: Some parents saw the word “career” as, “You’re preparing my kid for a job.”
This is Jay Steele again, Chief Academic Officer for the school district.
Steele: Well no, we’re not preparing your kid for a job; we’re preparing your kids to have those skills: critically thinking and communication, collaboration, and creativity. We say “college and career ready,” and we put a conscious effort to put college first, because we want every kid to go on to post-secondary something. I do believe no matter if you’re Harvard-bound or you’re going to a technical school/military, the experience you get in an academy will prepare you for all of those, if it’s designed correctly.
But a lot of families in Nashville are not convinced. They still want their kids to go to a high school with a more traditional academic program, one more like Martin Luther King Jr. High, on the other side of town from Glencliff.
Michelle Obama: [In commencement speech] Wow, good afternoon, everyone!
Yeah, I am thrilled to be here, and go Royals! You all are awesome!
Michelle Obama gave the commencement speech there in 2013. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of two academic magnet schools in Nashville. US News ranks it as one of the top 100 high schools in the country. Nearly all of the students who attend the academic magnets go on to four-year colleges.
M. Obama: And this fall, you will be heading to schools all across this country: UT, Vanderbilt, Columbia, Duke, Colorado, and so many more…
When the city turned most of its high schools into career academies, it spared the academic magnets.
Steele: If any of us were to say we wanted to close a magnet school, we would be run out of town.
Chief Academic Officer Jay Steele says there is huge demand for the academic magnet schools, with long waiting lists of students hoping to get in.
Steele: But I don’t want parents to think that if you don’t get into the magnet, you’ve lost the lottery, and you have no other choice but private school, because our zoned schools are just as good as the magnet schools…
…“zoned schools” being the neighborhood high schools, the ones with career academies. Jesse Register, superintendent of the District, says in spite of the demand, Nashville has no plans to open more academic magnets.
Jesse Register: The programs are very traditional. Now, they’re very strong, but the instructional approach doesn’t fit the needs of every student in our district. The academy model really is designed to serve the highest percentage of our population.
Most public school students in Nashville come from poor or working class families. But the vast majority of students in Nashville’s acclaimed magnet schools are from middle and upper-income families. In other words, there’s a huge class divide between who attends the magnet schools and who attends the career academies. This is a problem, says David Stern, the expert on career academies.
Stern: I think schools should try to level the playing field, rather than further tilt it. If schools are organized in a way that is providing greater advantage to the already-advantaged, I think that’s a bad thing.
School officials in Nashville say students at the career academies are getting good academic preparation, but there’s no data to prove it yet. Scores on state standardized tests at the career academies have actually gone down in recent years, though that’s partly because kids who might have dropped out before are staying in school and actually taking the tests. And it’s not clear whether more kids are going on to post-secondary education. But it is clear that more students are graduating from high school now, and all the research shows that students who make it through high school are much better off than students who never graduate at all. Especially if they have marketable skills and can get good jobs.
Anamartin Casteñeda: You doin’ ok?
Patient: Doin’ ok…
At a Nashville dialysis clinic, Anamartin Casteñeda is taking care of nine patients who sit in recliners, hooked up to dialysis machines. The clinic is run by Dialysis Clinic Incorporated, one of the businesses that works with Glencliff High School.
Patient: How many more minutes to I have?
Casteñeda: You have 50 more minutes.
Patient: Fifty more minutes. Thank you.
Anamartin started working here when she was a junior at Glencliff.
Casteñeda: When I started the internship, I didn’t know anything about dialysis. I didn’t even know it existed. So I felt like it opened up a path where I have a job now, and I’m good at it. [Laughs]
Anamartin is 22. She became a certified care technician while she was still in high school, thanks to Glencliff’s medical academy. As a high school graduate with a credential, Anamartin is already doing better than her parents. They came from Mexico and never finished high school. Anamartin is proud to say they’re citizens now. Her dad works for a lawn service, and her mom fills orders at an auto parts store.
And now, with help from her employer, Anamartin is going to community college. Dialysis Clinic Incorporated pays most of her tuition and will continue to support her as she pursues a nursing degree.
Casteñeda: I’m thinking pediatrics, but I know once I start my clinicals I’ll know for sure. Or I might stay here. [Laughs]
This is exactly the kind of result supporters of career academies have in mind – high school graduates who are ready for college and also able to get good jobs that can help them pay for college.
Smith: Our story on Nashville was produced by Laurie Stern. I’m Stephen Smith.
Partnerships between businesses like Dialysis Clinic Incorporated and the Nashville school district mean students like Anamartin can have career opportunities they might never have known about otherwise. But some teachers and parents are uneasy about the influence these businesses have on school curriculum. For example, cosmetology is being phased out at Glencliff, in part because there’s no business interested in supporting a cosmetology program.
There’s another reason that cosmetology, and some other traditional vocational fields like auto mechanics, are being dropped from Nashville high schools. District leaders see those fields as dead ends, because they don’t help steer kids to college. But the nation needs auto mechanics and cosmetologists, and there are some students who want to pursue those fields – like Liz King.
Liz is the young woman you met at the beginning of the program.
Liz King: I always knew in elementary school I was not going to sit and do paperwork, desk job, hell no.
Liz wanted to go to Minuteman High School in Massachusetts to learn cosmetology. Her mother said no. But Liz was persistent, and her mom, Jeanette Chapman, finally relented under one condition.
Jeanette Chapman: I told her that I wanted her to do the college prep classes, which she did, to give her the opportunity when she was finished with Minuteman and high school, that would give her the opportunity to go on to college, if she desired.
Liz knew college wasn’t going to happen.
King: I thought that if I went to college, I would waste a crap-load of money; I knew I wasn’t good at studying; I was a procrastinator, and if someone was like, “Hey, Liz, let’s go party. Hey, Liz, let’s go NOT study. Hey, Liz…” I would’ve been like, “Ok!” I’m not self-motivated like that.
But she is motivated about her career in cosmetology. Liz is now 28, and the salon where you heard her working at the beginning of the program–she owns that salon. She and a friend opened it six months ago. Liz says business is good. She’s not willing to say how much money they’re making, but she says it’s enough.
King: I’m like one of those people, I don’t like bragging or boasting. It’s like we’re good; we’re comfortable; we’re paying our bills; and we’re paying our bills at home; and that’s that, and people like us, and that’s it.
[Liz and husband playing with their baby]
This is Liz with her husband and their 10-month-old baby. They live in an apartment down the street from the salon.
Liz says when it’s time for her daughter to go to high school; she and her husband will definitely take her to visit Minuteman.
King: Who knows, she might be book-smart and want to be a doctor, and then I don’t know if Minuteman would be the right choice for her. Maybe she would need like a Harvard kind of high school. But I want her to know that it’s not one way or no way.
As for Liz’s mom, Jeanette Chapman, she’s proud of her daughter. She can see that vocational school was the right choice for her and thinks maybe that’s what her son should have done too. He had wanted to go to Minuteman to learn plumbing, but she wouldn’t let him. Instead, he went to a traditional high school and then to college, but he quit before finishing a degree, moved south with his girlfriend…
Chapman: … and he needed a job down there and he got a job with a plumbing company! And my son is now a plumber.
She says he’s making a good living, but she still wonders if her kids might someday need college degrees. She thinks her daughter Liz could benefit from business classes, for example. Liz says she doesn’t need business classes, but she is still getting education. She often goes to trainings to learn more about hair, and she still struggles with the book-learning part. She says other cosmetologists at the trainings do too.
King: Even when we go to classes as hairdressers, these educators know that. You have a little bit of time to try to sit there and flip through paperwork with these people, but you know, the hairdressers are like, “You know, what the hell, like when’s break, when’s lunch, like can we get to the hands-on part, or the demo part?” Or, “Jesus.” You know, it’s just, that’s the creatures that we are. Can’t read and learn. I just can’t. It’s hard. Really, really hard.
But she still has to do it sometimes. In fact, right now, she’s studying for a big exam to get a board certification in hair coloring. It’s going to be a challenge, but she thinks she’ll pass. One of the things she learned in all those college-prep classes at Minuteman is that she can do it if she has to.
There is clearly growing interest in bringing more career and technical education into American high schools. Advocates say it can help students become more engaged in learning. It can help them make it through high school, and it can help them get the kind of job that will pay for a college degree. But the renewed interest in vocational education makes some advocates for low-income and minority students nervous. Their fear is that anything less than a “college-for-all” message will result in fewer of those kids going on to higher education, while upper income kids will keep going to college the way they always have. People who get bachelor’s degrees do, on average, make more money than people who don’t. But averages can be misleading. There are millions of jobs that require licenses or certificates but no college degree. Close to a third of those jobs pay better than jobs requiring degrees. So it all raises the question…
Ed Bouquillon: What is school for? Is it for getting into college?
This is Ed Bouquillon, superintendent of the vocational district in Massachusetts where Minuteman is located.
Bouquillon: There are other pathways to success that do not require college education. They require some pretty heavy-duty academics, but they’re not all based upon a four-year degree. So what is school for?
For Ed Bouquillon, and many other advocates of career and technical education, the answer is this: school is for preparing young people to lead successful lives. Bouquillonbelieves giving everyone good career education in high school is better than sending them off without a set of job skills and a plan for their future.
[American RadioWorks theme music]
You’ve been listening to “Ready to Work: Reviving Vocational Ed.”
It was produced by Emily Hanford and Laurie Stern, edited by Catherine Winter, and mixed by Craig Thorson. The web producer is Andy Kruse. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Samara Freemark, Dylan Peers McCoy, Minna Zhou, Peter Clowney, Ellen Guettler, Michael Osborne, and me, Stephen Smith. Special thanks to Kohnstamm Communications and the Hatcher Group.
We have more about vocational education at our website, AmericanRadioWorks.org. You can read more about the research on career academies and see photos of the students you met in Nashville. We’d love to hear what you think of this program. You can find our contact information at the website, AmericanRadioWorks.org. While you’re there, check out more than a dozen of our other documentaries about education, and sign up for our weekly podcast. You can also find us on Facebook at American.RadioWorks and on Twitter at AMRadioWorks.
Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This is APM, American Public Media.