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Vocational education shrinking in District

Five-year plan sets goals for improvement, but offers few details

(Published June 14, 1999)


Staff Writer

City officials estimate the District needs 200 receptionists, 215 legal secretaries, 161 residential counselors, 116 utility workers, 465 new waiters and 320 new security guards every year for the next five years. But chances are that many of those jobs wonít go to D.C. public school graduates ó the schools offer no vocational training programs in those high-growth fields.

Two D.C. public schools do offer training for emergency medical technicians, however, a field in which officials predict three openings per year.

A city where unemployment routinely stands at three times the rates of neighboring jurisdictions can ill afford that stark mismatch, say advocates of vocational education.

School administrators admit vocational education in the District isnít what it should be.

Cynthia Bell, director of vocational education for D.C. schools, said there is no comprehensive list of programs offered and no reliable statistics on how many vocational students actually find employment after graduation.

In recent years, three of the cityís five designated vocational high schools have closed. Dozens of programs, from bricklaying to horticulture, have been cut. In some schools, tools and machinery sit gathering dust. In others, teachers run short of critical supplies.

Ten years ago, Phelps offered 21 different programs and enrolled 600 students. Today it offers eight programs to about 375 students.

But the problem is not just shrinking budgets.

With more and more focus on college education and high-tech white collar jobs, there is now a negative stigma associated with what were once considered respectable occupations, said Cardell Shelton, a longtime advocate of vocational education.

"There are a lot of these bourgeois blacks who donít want their kids to get their hands dirty with work," said the contractor from Anacostia, who is black. "They want them to be PhDs."

After 50 years in the building trades, Shelton said he is frustrated that construction sites across the District are filled with workers from Virginia and Maryland, most of them immigrants, while young black men in the city stand on corners selling drugs.

"When I have to pay my plumber $65 an hour and then find out he went to some technical school in Virginia, I am quite disheartened," said Gloria Green Ridley, a fifth-generation Washingtonian and mother of four.

A five-year plan submitted in April to the U.S. Department of Education aims to reverse the decline. A renewed emphasis on quantitative data, analysis and tracking of student progress, and increased accountability should improve things, said Sandy Anderson, vocational education coordinator for D.C. schools. In addition to helping vocational students learn basic skills in reading and math, vocational education will focus on a series of courses leading to nationally recognized certification, she said, rather than on individual classes which may or may not lead to a job as is often now the case.

The 17 aspiring nursing assistants who graduated June 11 from the M.M. Washington vocational high school got "certificates of competency" from D.C. Public Schools instead of industry certification. The Districtís nursing program no longer provides the eight-month practicum required by the licensing board, Bell said. So if these young people want to land a job in the field they have prepared for four years to enter, they will have to enroll at the University of the District of Columbia and pay up to $4,500 in tuition before they can sit for the licensing exam.

Restoring certification as the goal of the nursing program is one of the goals of the five-year plan, Anderson said. Administrators expect a response to the plan by July 1.

But critics say the plan is too abstract and lacks detail. For example, the plan says: "The percentage of students who graduate from vocational and technical programs will increase. The number of students who graduate with a diploma and certification in their skill area will increase."

"District students do not benefit from (these) sweeping statements," said Ward 2 school board member Westy Byrd, a critic of the plan.

The plan does not include information on current graduation rates or set any target for the increase. Similar open-ended statements set vague goals for "increases" in parent involvement, student grades and attendance but do not say how to achieve them.

"There is not baseline data followed by steps for realistic progress," said Cathy Reilly, a high school parent and activist who criticized the plan. "There is a tendency to describe ideas based on broad themes without detailing the steps necessary to implement them. The actual descriptions as to how D.C. will actually accomplish the requirements are often lacking."

Bell said most of the day-to-day decisions about vocational education will be left up to individual principals, who will decide which vocational courses and programs are offered.

She admits some principals who arenít particularly interested in vocational education could be tempted to use their money for other things, especially since vocational education tends to be more expensive.

Critics also note that public comment on the plan, offered at two hearings, resulted in no changes to the plan. In carefully documented records, the draft committee responded to nearly every citizen comment with the notation "ncr," meaning "no change required" in the plan.

Administrators expect $3.9 million in federal grants, known as Carl Perkins funds, to add to the $10.3 million in local funds designated for vocational education next year.

While the federal funds must by law be used only for salaries and equipment associated with vocational education, Byrd said in a letter to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman that school records show the funds were spent this year to pay music, gym and foreign language teachers at several schools.

Ackerman did not respond to the letter, Byrd said.

Anderson said the federal government has "not been too strict" about how the D.C. schools use the money.

All high school students in the city school system must complete one year of vocational education in order to graduate. Two schools, Phelps and M.M. Washington, are designated as vocational high schools. The combined enrollment is about 700 students. Most other students fulfill the requirement through courses such as typing, home economics, auto shop, computers or other elective courses that fit their schedules and interests. Individual principals have broad discretion over how much or how little money to spend on vocational education. Few "regular" schools offer more than one or two semesters in most subjects.

The five-year plan is not enough to turn around the "abominable" state of vocational education in D.C. schools, said Alfred Taylor, a former vocational education teacher who is now a professor at UDC and who helped draft the plan.

"Vocational education needs an advocate to help change its image," he said.

The failure of public vocational education has left professional degree programs without a stream of students, he said. A program at UDC that trains students to fix airplanes has gone begging for students, Taylor said, even though it leads to a $40,000 job.

"We canít fill the demand of the airlines for our graduates," he said.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator