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Learning a career

Few D.C. kids take hands-on courses

(Published April 22, 2002)

By ERIKA WAAK

Staff Writer

It takes more than muscle contractions for hands to fix a broken pipe, stitch a seam or weld metal Ė it takes a well-trained and coordinated brain to create these material essentials.

Cardell Shelton, a self-employed contractor and president of the Washington D.C. Contractors Guild, has fought for years to improve vocational training programs that he and others believe are greatly needed in the D.C. Public Schools. Shelton says the schools need to provide young people with the hands-on education to repair an escalator or turnstile, fill a hole with concrete, or provide heating and ventilation maintenance.

"Train the youngsters how to earn their living, teach them how to survive, earn their keep, raise a family and become constructive law-abiding citizens. With as much money thatís being put in the prison systems, itís worth the education dollars to have experimental projects rather than to keep thinking that youíll wake up and it will go away," Shelton said.

Shelton said that students need real-world education and that many who receive exposure to pre-apprenticeships and trade shops turn their lives around for the better. "We need to give hope and motivation to our youth by proving that doors can be opened, even to those who have little more than utilitarian aptitudes," Shelton said.

D.C. public schools "have no, nothing, zero, vocational training departments. No place in the D.C. public school system do they teach the coordination of the eyes, ears, hands and brain to assemble things. They have [instructors] with degrees trying to teach carpentry, but they havenít built anything and donít have the tools. How can they teach something they donít have experience in?" Shelton asks.

In fact, the Districtís public schools arenít training many young people in vocational trades at all. The systemís two "career senior high schools," the updated term for vocational schools, have fewer than 600 students enrolled in a school district with more than 60,000 students.

Shelton, a Ward 8 resident in his mid-70s with more than 50 years of carpentry experience, said that if students are given a chance they could excel through vocational training and on-the-job training.

"If young people learned how to use their hands, theyíd find out that their brain has to be in tune with their hands. To fill a hole with concrete, you need to know how many cubic feet or inches youíre filling and need to know some area of math. You need to know about the fusion of steel and how it bonds with other metals," Shelton said.

He suggested the community could establish work programs for young students that would enable them to learn on the job. He said he knows roofers, carpenters and doll makers that could teach these students, and he volunteered himself and his peers, 70 and older, to be instructors as well.

"The students can be rewarded with money and see the fruits of their labor. Itís a privilege to work out here and get paid, and it provides work discipline by having them report at 8 a.m. Use me, and oldtimers like me who are still around Ė they can teach from their wheelchairs," Shelton said.

"We are blue-collar workers who have evolved from high school, technical trade and college into the construction industry. We recognize that not everyone will attend college, but [he or she] can still be a productive member in society, just like ourselves.

"Thereís no community meeting place where the youngsters can get experience. There are lots of humanitarians who want to help, and if things are put together in a harmonious way, there can be a positive structure," Shelton said.

The current emphasis that students attend college after high school graduation is a "new hustle," Shelton said. It costs $20,000 to $40,000 a year for a student to attend college, which will put that young person in debt for the rest of his or her life for an education that may or may not even be useful, he asserted.

"Most students ease out the door of the school system and donít get more education. In one year I could help them find real work for a respectable living wage. Then they can then go to college comfortably with a more mature mind after experiencing the real world of survival. They could have a degree and also be a professional cabinetmaker," Shelton said.

"Many black parents and even school counselors indiscriminately work to instill in the minds of the young the concept that nothing less than a college degree will insure them with adequate means to escape from second-class citizenship. Each person of this earth is endowed with individual aptitudes, abilities, talents and potentialities," Shelton said.

The booming construction industry in the District, plus the Metro transit system, need skilled workers, Shelton said.

"When in an urban environment, someone must teach people how to repair these properties. How can a community operate and function when it doesnít teach people how to live in it? Iíve not ever heard of any society that has not survived without using its hands. The successes of any community [require] that youíve got to use all of the people," Shelton said.

Shelton recalled a visit to Phelps Career Senior High School in Northeast Washington to learn about what vocational training programs are offered there.

"They have all old equipment that hasnít been used in 10 years," Shelton said. "Weíre not providing exposure to these youngsters. There are no shops where young people can get training for real-life survival."

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator