Jeffrey Homme is a young man in a hurry. Three years ago he started a courier service with $1,500 and this year he hopes to make $100,000. He is a model of the modern entrepreneur: alert, aggressive and always attached to an electronic pager.
But when the 26-year-old Alexandria man speaks of his accomplishments, he says they have come almost in spite of his education; he regards his years at Arlington's Wakefield High School as a waste of time.
"I always felt like I was spinning my wheels there," said Homme, whose Independent Courier Service sends four messengers to businesses in the Washington area. "They weren't teaching me what I needed to know. I wondered why I couldn't take a marketing course instead of studying the amoeba."
Homme's complaint -- that high school often fails people who wish to enter the working world -- has long been the cry of vocational educators throughout the country.
Now, as most states are tightening academic requirements for high school graduation, education officials contend that for the first time in years the stigma they thought had diminished has returned to vocational education. That means, they say, that students who forsake the traditional academic route are relegated to a dumping ground within many school systems.
"The whole excellence movement has been shortsighted, focusing only on academic skills and the brightest students," said Gene Bottoms, executive director of the American Vocational Association in Arlington. "We're seeing that old attitude that vocational education only requires the ability to work with one's hands, as if the brain were not connected to the limbs. What we need is more vocational training, not less."
Almost $6 billion a year -- about 5 percent of every public school dollar -- is spent on vocational education at the secondary level, according to the Center for Educational Statistics.
In the Washington area, more than 400,000 high school students took at least one vocational course during the last year. Virginia and Maryland, both of which have highly regarded programs, ranked 10th and 11th among states in expenditures at the secondary level, according to CES.
Bottoms and others point to the rapidly changing nature of the work place, particularly the emergence of high-technology jobs that many economists say rank among today's fastest-growing occupations, in support of their assertions that sophisticated training is more necessary today than ever.
Officials in some states, angered that the educational establishment almost completely overlooked vocational training in its recommendations for high school students, have ensured that their schools will be able to offer vocational courses.
In Maryland, the state Board of Education this year joined three other states in requiring all high school students to choose one class in vocational education, home economics, computer studies or industrial arts.
"You say a bunch of people don't need to learn because they are going to work, and that's ridiculous," said Addison Hobbes, director of vocational education in Maryland. "This two-tier system is so destructive. To break the world into workers and scholars would be bad for everybody."
In Virginia, which also has strengthened its academic requirements in the last year, local school boards are allowed to substitute a vocational education class for a math or science requirement. The state has begun to offer in four high schools throughout the state, including one in Fairfax County, a course in the principles of technology. The two-year course is designed to apply practical applications to theoretical sciences.
Most vocational education programs at the high school level attempt to give students an introduction to specific careers and train them to perform jobs. In general, the term vocational education applies to programs that are designed to prepare students to enter a field upon graduation.
In the past, these programs have often been seen as a place to assign people with little initiative or academic talent. Many school systems have used vocational education to create a two-tier educational system, one for the academically talented, another for those who are not.
"Teaching someone how to be a beautician or a car mechanic isn't going to do a hell of a lot for them in the long run," said Noe Medina, director of education for the Children's Defense Fund. "But the idea of vocational education is vital. It can mean the difference between keeping a kid in school and letting him slip away. The best vocational programs are the ones that combine basic education with job training. The new requirements will increase the chances that some kids will leave school."
Critics have said that vocational education rarely works when it attempts to train students for a lifelong career. Increasingly, vocational educators say that a strong grounding in academic skills must precede any technical training.
Some experts predict that the new emphasis on rigorous academic training in high school will destroy vocational education; enrollment is already down by as much as 9 percent, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. But more than 10 million secondary students now take at least one vocational course each year.
As measured by current definitions, more than 80 percent of all secondary school students take some form of vocational education, although for many it is instruction in typing.
There is are no data yet available to show the exact effect that new requirements will have on vocational education in secondary schools. The full effects are still at least a year away, say educators say.
Many educators argue that the strongest asset impetus for vocational education will have in the coming years is the complex nature of the work place. Many industrial arts courses are now being redesigned to emphasize electronics and high technology.
The days of metalworking shop and woodworking are nearly over, most vocational educators now agree.
Some educators even say that new science and technology high schools are in keeping with the goals of vocational education.
"We want to make real and relevant our students' exposure to science, math and technology," said David Sawyer, assistant superintendent of the Fairfax County schools, in reference to the new, highly selective Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which will open this fall.
Sawyer does not see the new school as vocational. "We are not training people for specific jobs," he said. But other people believe that this is the direction that vocational education must move in if it is to survive.
"It's important that good job-specific training be offered in our chools," said Nathaniel M. Semple, vice president for research and policy at the Committee for Economic Development. "Technology is the future. But most employers are always going to want the student who has fundamentals mastered . . . . Vocational education has always had an image problem. And it will have to work hard at the basics to overcome it now."