This fall, if all goes as planned, there will be a construction academy at Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest Washington. Students will be offered opportunities to learn carpentry, brick masonry, plumbing, electrical work and a variety of other building-related skills.
The area's construction industry has joined with D.C. public schools in strong support of the idea. So what could possibly hold up the show?
"We've run up against this resistance to blue-collar work," said Carol Randolph, a consultant to a coalition of groups working to make the construction academy at Cardozo High a reality. "When we interview students and their parents from various high schools in the city, many of them say this is not what I would necessarily want for my child."
In other words, they want a college education for their children, as the black scholar W.E.B Du Bois had urged; not a vocational education, which was pushed by his intellectual rival, the black educator Booker T. Washington. And so, in this centennial year of Du Bois's founding of the Niagara Movement -- which he used to counter Washington's views -- a contemporary version of their conflict is being played out in the District.
"If you say to a parent, 'Do you want your son or daughter to make $50,000 to $80,000 a year,' they all say yes," Randolph said. "But if you add that they will be carrying a lunch pail instead of a briefcase and wearing jeans and a hard hat instead of a suit, many of them say, 'Well, I'm not so sure.' . . . Many of us have come to believe that if you wear a hard hat and jeans at work instead of a suit and tie, you are somehow less than, and that blue-collar work doesn't merit the respect that having a government job does."
For Du Bois, a higher education for a "Talented Tenth" was necessary to create a cadre of black leaders to guide blacks to "self-realization." Washington believed that if blacks became efficient workers, they could gain wealth and then educate their children as they wished.
While the two theories of black progress were not totally contradictory, many blacks now believe that Du Bois's approach is the only way to success. And yet, many blacks have gone down the path toward higher education only to find themselves one paycheck away from poverty, if not outright unemployed.
"My experience as a teacher, a minister and now head of the Job Opportunities Build Success Coalition have taught me that not only must we identify ways to help D.C. residents find and keep jobs, we must help young, underserved, underemployed and returning ex-offenders look at employment in a new way," the Rev. Anthony Motley wrote in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post last year. "Despite everyone's best efforts, a construction academy, or, for that matter, any trade academy, will not succeed unless we can change people's attitudes about vocational education. . . . If we are going to give the next generation of students a chance at success, we must help them to understand that while education remains the foundation, a college degree is not the only way to become successful."
Last year, students at Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Montgomery County designed and built a single-family home. They put it on the market for $409,000. The house sold for $464,000.
"The students are not only taught the construction trades according to national standards, we also relate the work to academics," said Steve Boden, executive vice president of three nonprofit educational foundations, including one that runs the licensed home construction business at Thomas Edison.
"When students in carpentry start framing a roof, what better opportunity to talk about geometry?" Boden said. "When students see the real-life application of a subject, they are more likely to be interested in it, to learn it and retain it."
The other two foundations operate at other high schools, teaching students how to run an information technology business that specializes in computer repair and a licensed used car business -- which renovated and sold 50 cars last year.
Clearly, the choice today is not between Du Bois and Washington. With a good business-oriented vocational program, students can truly have it all.