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Julia Steiny: Vocational Ed Connects Kids to Real Futures

Thursday, December 13, 2012

 

Michaela and Brittney had no clue what they wanted to do as adult workers. But then few 8th graders do.

They did know that if they went to RI's only stand-alone vocational school, William M. Davies Career & Technical Center , they could learn a trade. They wanted to go to college, but knew they'd need to finance that dream themselves, mostly. With the media now braying stories about the mountains of student-loan debt crushing kids and families, parents and guidance counselors have become more cautious about helping students make sustainable plans for their futures. Job skills can pay the rent.

At Davies, the 9th-graders rotate through all 11 of the school's technical programs, encouraging them to play in a vocational sandbox, to see what might be fun to pursue as a career. Work can't just be about money; it's got to get you up in the morning, on time and every day. Teachers also observe the students and make recommendations about what might best suit them.

As sophomores, Davies' students start down a career path, like automotive, electronics, or graphics. Lively Brittney started in the Health Careers program, then switched to Culinary and finally Manufacturing.

Michaela had spent her 9th grade at a Pawtucket high school until Davies took her off their long waiting list. "So I missed most of the rotations," she laments. When she met Brittney in the Culinary program, they agreed that where they really wanted to be was in the machine shop. If they went together, they'd feel less weird about being girls in what has always been a guy's world.

They enthuse about their futures the way they might about an upcoming rock show. Brittney exclaims, "Just a while ago a senior friend of ours went to work at $18 per hour! But really, it's not about the money. It's about making stuff. Accomplishing something you can actually get done with."

Michaela chimes in, "Our first thing was to make a whistle. It was so cool to see a bunch of scrap and then be the one to turn it into something."

Brittney overlaps, "And learning how to weld is soooooo cool. I want to be able to tell people that I know how to weld!"

And that's just what the business community wants to hear. Machinists, including skilled welders, are in high demand. The pay is great. Davies has the only machine program in the state, even though manufacturing is finally shedding its image as a dying, gone-to-China field. The U.S. manufacturing industry is robust.

Bernard Blumenthal, Davies' Business and Education Partnership Coordinator, reports that he gets phone calls every day from industries crying for skilled labor. Even when the students aren't yet credentialed or fully trained to do the needed work, businesses want them as apprentices, hoping to lure them to work eventually. That's fine with Blumenthal, who's always looking for business partners for kids' work-place learning. Four industries in particular call him constantly: machining, culinary and hospitality, electrical and healthcare.

Davies' Director since 2002, Victoria Gailliard-Garrick, states emphatically, "Emerging industries like electronics should be our primary focus. That's our economic development piece right there. What are we doing to build a workforce for our state and country?"

She's shepherded much change at the school. "For one thing, everything is digital. For years the electronics program was still fixing TVs. We weren't meeting the needs of industry. Printing is digital. Healthcare is going to digital records. Bio manufacturing, bio tech, and even machining technology are all computer-based."

Educators can no longer afford to ignore the needs of business. "The programs must be rigorous enough to support industry needs."

Gailliard-Garrick rose through Davies' ranks starting as a teacher decades ago. Surely that's helped with the tough job of shifting RI-unionized faculty away from yesteryear's teaching to industries' current needs. The Manufacturing program, which had dwindled to 28 students as recently as two years ago, now has 42 students, including 5 girls, with an infusion of new teaching talent. Briar Dacier, one of Davies' own grads, had been working in industry making great money, but now beams while talking about teaching.

"The majority of shops are transferring to Computer-Numerical Control for milling and lathe operations. Our machines here are getting updated. We have a 3D prototype machine, but the machines are often down." Learning to maintain them is part of the package.

"We're here together, on the shop floor, honing our skills, working in teams to learn the operations. We're transitioning to the Common Core for academic, because that's what the Department of Ed wants. But the standards in this shop are also driven by the National Institute for Metal Working Skills."

Gailliard-Garrick nods acceptance, "Career and Tech is always meeting two sets of standards, academic and technical."

Which works. As Brittney emphasizes, "We learn a lot of math which turns out to be really useful!"

Well, yeah. More schools should be able to bring that point home.

Davies has a proud record, sending all but 15 percent of their graduates into the world with great immediate prospects. Fully 20 percent go directly into the workplace, the bulk of the rest go into higher education.

Especially poor and working-class kids need some concrete sense of what is out there that will support them. As Gailliard-Garrick puts it, "This is their time, their life, and their future."

Something too often forgotten.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building demonstration projects in Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

 

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