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Uncertain future
Can the District's last vocational school survive?
(Published April 4, 2005)

Staff Writer

Monique Sims fastened the Velcro of the sphygmomanometer’s blue cuff to a snug fit around the arm of her mock patient and explained the procedure for taking someone’s blood pressure.

Using her middle and fore fingers, she traced the path of the vein from her patient’s wrist to the slight concave of her inner elbow, where it emitted a pulse. There she placed the stethoscope, gave the bulb a few quick squeezes, and watched the tiny red needle of the gauge as it soared, paused and fell slowly back to zero.

Sims is a junior Nursing II student at Margaret Murray Washington Career Senior High School, the city’s last vocational education school. In addition to nursing, the school offers programs in dental assisting, culinary arts and entrepreneurship.

Each of the school’s programs are divided into three skill levels that are not grade specific, but generally correspond with the sophomore through senior years. Freshmen spend their first year exploring their career options, and as sophomores, they are required to choose the field that they will study until they graduate. The school’s dozen or so honor students have the option of studying more than one field.

Acting Principal Consuella Ellis said M.M. Washington, which boasts a 96 percent graduation rate, "is not a boundary school," but it attracts students from all quadrants of the city who are interested in its programs.

In the nursing classroom one recent day, students measured one another’s blood pressure as part of their lesson on testing vital signs, including temperature, pulse and respiration. Posted on a bulletin board on the back wall were photographs of the students learning how to use a wheelchair, walker, cane and crutches. Other photos showed the students practicing cardio-pulmonary resuscitation on a model figure.

On a table directly in front of the board were stacks of various health and lifestyle magazines, such as RN, AARP and Washington Women, and a coffee table nearby contained dozens of brochures on sexually transmitted diseases and healthy living.

Approximately 52 students are enrolled in the nursing program, taught by Patricia Tellish. Graduates of the program are qualified to assist with the care of physically and mentally ill patients, as well as provide in-depth therapeutic care under the guidance of a registered nurse or physician.

Earlier this year, a group of M.M. Washington nursing students taught a class on safety at nearby J.F. Cook Elementary School, where they reviewed steps people should take to prevent injury in situations involving fire, home appliances or riding their bikes.

Robin Wilson-Givens, who teaches M.M. Washington’s dental assistant program, said that, like nursing, dentistry is a growing industry where workers are always in demand. Givens, a 1979 graduate of the program, worked as a dental assistant for 20 years and said she always had a job while friends in other fields struggled to find one.

In developing her curricula, Givens said she refers to a guide from the Southern Maryland Dental Society, which outlines the courses students at the institute must take to become certified as dental assistants.

Adorning the dental assistant classroom are photographs of healthy smiles and student drawings of the anatomy of a tooth. A large glass case in the back of the room displays numerous models of teeth. Decorating the front door are articles cut out by students on oral care.

The dental assistant program requires its 36 students to write reports throughout the year, as well as complete a cumulative exam at the end of the year, which Givens said she uses to assess their placement in the program’s three skill levels.

In each of two mock examination rooms located down the hall from the classroom, students learn techniques like fore-handed dentistry – the proper way to pass tools – and how to use instruments such as high- and low-speed evacuators, a drill, and an air and water syringe. Beginning students can practice using the tools, which are not provided with power, on a doll head fastened into the chair, but more advanced students can take turns being the mock patient. Each room also contains an X-ray unit, complete with lead aprons, where students learn about dental radiology.

Among its programs, M.M. Washington’s culinary arts curriculum is widely known throughout the District for catering various city events.

"M.M. Washington usually has the best students because they have a chef on hand," said Troy D. Williams, a chef who serves as program coordinator for the Career Through Culinary Arts Program, or C-CAP, a curriculum enrichment program located throughout the country.

M. M. Washington’s 57-student culinary arts program is taught by chef McArthur Thomas, a 20-year certified culinary instructor who received his license at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, headquartered in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Thomas, who has taught at the school for 15 years, said one challenge in teaching the program is helping students realize that culinary arts require more than just cooking skills. Some students interested in the field become dissuaded by the math involved in adding and converting metric units, which they are required to learn in the program’s freshman introductory course.

Every year, the school’s junior and senior culinary students can choose to participate in the C-CAP competition. The citywide contest brings together about 20 students from the District’s three high schools that offer culinary arts education – M.M. Washington, Ballou Senior High and Roosevelt Senior High – to vie for top scholarships at the nation’s culinary schools, including the Culinary Institute of America, Northeast Culinary Institute, Johnson Wells and the Art Institute of Washington. Last year, an M.M. Washington student walked away with the highest prize – a $40,000 scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America.

Recently, five M.M. Washington culinary students competing in the C-CAP preliminary competition, held in the school’s bright, spacious kitchen, successfully sliced, diced and pureed their way to the final competition, which will be held May 10 at the Art Institute of Washington.

M.M. Washington’s most popular program by far is its entrepreneurship and technology curriculum. Boasting 128 students, more than a third of the school’s enrollment, the program started with one class and grew to six classes through its popularity with students and parents.

The program, headed by Aloha Cobb, has a partnership with the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, an international nonprofit helping low-income youths acquire business skills. NFTE provides the school with textbooks and supplies, as well as professionals to mentor the students. The organization also sponsors field trips for the students to New York City.

By the end of the curriculum, M. M. Washington’s entrepreneurs will have written business plans, complete with business cards, using start-up money provided by NFTE.

The students then pitch their plans in formal presentations to NFTE executives, who select the most promising ones to compete in the organization’s annual competition, where they can win up to $1,500 toward their venture.

This year, the business plan of Jamie Holt, Yvonne Mason and Josephine Beyene, entitled "Sweetcakes and Pies," was selected for the contest’s semifinal round. The three seniors’ plan creates a business to sell their own baked goods.

As vocational education programs have gradually dwindled in the District, Ellis said M. M. Washington has survived due in part to the strength of the programs and the activism of parents and community leaders.

"Ultimately, there is a greater power that sees the need for the vocational school," she said. "So even when we are down to one school left, and it would be so much easier to ‘pull the plug,’ there is hesitation to do so."

Ellis added that educators must do a "high level" job of preparing students to leave high school and enter the workforce with the skills "to advance to the top," whether students want to go to college or not.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator