Learning That Works

Dismissed by the left, vocational schools are making a comeback with new approaches that push kids to graduate — and get them jobs too

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Mark Peterman / Getty Images for TIME

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Arizona has another, rather unusual advantage. Its state education superintendent, John Huppenthal, went to high school in Tucson on the voc-ed track. "It was considered the path for losers, but I didn't know any better," says Huppenthal, a Republican who was elected to the statewide post. "I came from a family of machinists. I didn't know anybody who'd gone to college, and I was happy in wood shop. I remember making a chess set, a very complicated project that really made mathematics come alive for me." He also happened to be a state-champion wrestler with pretty good test scores, and his coach encouraged him to study engineering at Northern Arizona University. "I really believe that some form of CTE is essential for a world-class education," he says. "Most students respond better to a three-dimensional learning process. It's easier to learn engineering by actually building a house--which my family did when I was a kid, by the way--than sitting in a classroom figuring out the process in the abstract. Some students can respond to two-dimensional learning, but most respond better when it's hands on. Every surgeon needs to know how to sew, saw and drill."

Precise statistics are sparse; it's difficult to keep track of students after they leave high school. But Carolyn Warner, a former Arizona schools chancellor, says tech-track students "are more focused, so they're more likely to graduate from two- and four-year colleges. Those who graduate from high school with a certificate technical expertise in a field like auto repair or welding are certainly more likely to find jobs."

Still, Huppenthal finds vocational school is a tough sell to the state's education establishment. "It doesn't have the prestige of a college-prep course," he says, "and it costs a lot more than two-dimensional education to do it right." Traditionally, Democrats have tended to be opposed on ideological grounds. They're the strongest believers in college for everyone. Republicans are reluctant to spend the money on state-of-the-art equipment like the veterinary center on the Navajo reservation, although some concede that CTE programs that prepare students for actual jobs are a good idea. "It's like walking in a hurricane," says Huppenthal. "You know where you want to be going, but the winds keep pushing you off course."

But CTE is beginning to produce its own weather systems--human tornadoes like McBride and Downey, the superintendent at East Valley, who is smart and passionate and extremely pushy, constantly working the business community in Phoenix for help in starting training programs. There are 38 programs on her campus, with more coming. There are firefighter, police and EMT programs; a state-of-the-art kitchen for culinary-services training; and welding (which can pay $48 per hour), aeronautics, radio-station, marketing and massage-therapy instruction. ("We have a lot of resorts around here," Downey explains, "and our students often work part time as masseurs to earn money for college.") Almost all of these courses lead to professional certificates in addition to high school diplomas, and many of the students are trained by employers for needed technical specialties. None of her 3,200 students are full time. They spend half a day, usually afternoons, at East Valley and receive academic training at 35 different home high schools in the mornings.

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