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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"Look at this," Downey says as she shows me a fully stocked medical laboratory. "We got $1.5 million from Veterans Affairs to run a program for surgical assistants, and they gave us a teacher to teach it." The premedical and -nursing students here are dressed in scrubs. Downey barges into a classroom and begins polling the students. "How many of you are going on to some form of higher education?" Almost everyone's hand goes up. "How many of you are taking advanced-placement programs in your home high schools?" A scattering of hands. "How many of you have had to make sacrifices to come here?" Again, a forest of hands. Most of the sacrifices involve hours of travel and having to give up extracurricular activities. "And how many of you were discouraged from doing this by your local high schools?" About half. The home high schools tend to have the standard biases against vocational education--that it's a waste of time, that it takes away from the academic experience.

"The public school system also has a civic purpose," says Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University, citing a common academic argument against vocational education. "You're not just preparing people to work. You're preparing people to be citizens. In a democracy, you need citizens who can think critically." But people with jobs, especially skilled jobs, tend to be better citizens than those without them. And the teamwork involved in the training programs at East Valley and on the Navajo reservation tends to help create a sense of community. "In my home high school, you're sitting in a room with 30 other students who don't care, trying to pay attention to a teacher who doesn't care," says Aaron Pietryga, who is training to become a firefighter. "But [East Valley] is like my family. Most of the kids at my home school don't have any idea what I'm doing in the afternoon, and when I explain it to them, they say, 'Wow, you're doing all that cool stuff, and you're going to college. Why didn't I know about that?'"

On a recent chilly morning at the Navajo reservation, McBride was giving Huppenthal and me a hands-on tour of his veterinary facility. Husband-and-wife veterinarians from Pittsburgh had volunteered their services for a few days and were spaying a dog in the small-animal operating theater, with the help of students in blue surgical scrubs. "They're very good," says Sharon Wirtz, one of the vets. "They have an exceptional feel for this, especially with the larger animals," like sheep and horses. Students were suturing bananas and injecting oranges with red dye for practice. Recently a pack of wild dogs attacked some sheep on the reservation, and McBride took some students to care for them. "Some of these kids suture better than I do," he says. "It brings tears to my eyes."

But his real triumph wasn't in teaching the Navajo the technical skills. These students also knew how to make an impression; they had learned the soft skills necessary to be good employees. They looked you in the eye, introduced themselves and shook your hand (which was universally true at East Valley as well). This was striking, given the history of depression and despair on the reservation. "These kids are thirsty. All you've got to do," McBride says, eyes brimming, "is let them drink."

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