Vo-Tech as a Door to College

David Gonzales, a vocational student, plans to attend college and become a construction manager.
David Gonzales, a vocational student, plans to attend college and become a construction manager. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

Every day, after a morning of classes at Wheaton High School, David Gonzales, a dark-haired, slightly scruffy senior, headed to Thomas Edison High School of Technology. There he donned a tool belt and goggles and went to work as part of a team of student builders who have been constructing a 2,252-square-foot home in Silver Spring since October.

Others might have chafed at the heavy lifting and chilly weather -- not to mention the splinters and the potential for puncture wounds -- but the 18-year-old was fully aware of the benefits of being able to hammer a nail into a two-by-four.

Last summer, while other teenagers were flipping burgers for minimum wage, Gonzales picked up $1,600 a month using the carpentry skills he had learned at Edison.

Vocational education programs were once viewed as a destination for students who wouldn't go beyond high school. But students such as Gonzales are changing that.

"The common misunderstanding is that these are kids who aren't going to college," said Paul Jeffries, who has taught the course in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, at Edison for more than a decade. "But the kids who come here are no less bright than the kids in regular high schools -- as many go on to college as don't. What Edison does is it opens doors."

Gonzales has made good money, but he knows he needs to do more to secure a good future. That's why he plans to go to college and become a construction manger. After all, why be bossed when you can be the boss?

"Anything you do today, you have to have a degree," Gonzales said. "It's so important to have that piece of paper. If something happens and I lose my job, I want to have as much training and knowledge as I can to fall back on."

In the past, when it was thought that most U.S. students did not have the capability for college studies, vocational education programs were the place for those with strong backs but average grades.

Strong backs are still needed for such specialties as carpentry and masonry, but so too are algebra, geometry and trigonometry. According to the 2004 National Assessment of Vocational Education report to Congress, 1 in 4 students in vocational education programs takes trigonometry or higher-level math. Want to become a member of Local 602 of the steamfitters union? You'll need to be able to solve 50 word problems without the help of a calculator. Cosmetology courses require some knowledge of chemistry.

"The parents of today, their exposure to career tech is when they were in high school and the vo-tech kids were the dummies," said Jan Bray, executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education. No longer. Even the name for the programs has been revamped -- it's now "career and technical education."

Bray said that groups such as hers are partly at fault for not doing more to promote the changes. They have begun collecting data to show that career and technical education programs can enhance academics and motivate students who prefer hands-on work.

Career and technical education includes such specialties as carpentry and plumbing but also programs for future teachers, architects and engineers. There is less emphasis on shop classes and more on biotechnology, landscape management and other specialties, said Shelley Johnson, director of the division of career and technical education for the Montgomery County public schools.

At Edison, which is in Silver Spring, students can learn masonry but also study information technology. Other Montgomery high schools, including Damascus and Sherwood, offer programs in landscaping, construction and automobile repair.

Many students earn college credit for the work they do in high school or take college courses as part of their career and technical training, Johnson said. Graduates are parlaying their hands-on skills into careers as engineers, architects and business owners.

Take Tom Clendenin, a 1986 graduate of Edison's electrical program. He is co-owner of Crown Stairs and Rails, a Gaithersburg firm. He got his start in Edison's electrical and carpentry class and worked his way up the construction ladder into management. He is now on the board of the Construction Trades Foundation, which supports Edison's home-building efforts.

"Even though now I'm in sales and managing, the skills I learned at Edison and work experience -- well, I've probably saved $200,000 doing additions on my house," he said.

To Clendenin, the key was the mix of hands-on work and academics.

For students who decide that college isn't for them, the training offered at schools such as Edison provides ample options after high school.

Arion Carr, a senior at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, has used his carpentry skills in two successful businesses. Last fall, he and a classmate, Tom Dolan, launched a handyman service building decks and doing other carpentry jobs for friends and neighbors. In the process, the two learned a valuable lesson in economics -- at $6 an hour, they were practically giving away their services. The fee schedule was revamped. Now he is working on his second start-up, B4UMOVE, with his father, Dale. The two specialize in fixing up homes to get them ready to be sold.

Their most recent project is a two-bedroom, 1 1/2 -bathroom townhouse in Germantown, where they have installed new closet shelves and doors and are putting in recessed lighting.

At a time when SAT scores and AP exams are emphasized in schools, programs such as Edison's offer an option for students who want something different.

"It turns out a lot of kids are bored by pure academics," said Jeffries, the HVAC teacher. "If they see they can apply the math and linear theory to a project, now they see that it matters. For a lot of kids, Edison gives them perspective."

For Gonzales, it's also giving him class credit and additional spending money. He recently left the home-building team and moved into an on-the-job training program that will pay him $12 to $13 an hour.

"It's pretty cool," he said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company