Vocational education needs to make a comeback

We were pleased to find out that students in Rochester's public high schools will have some new options when they're filling out their class schedules for the 2012-13 academic year.

Some of the new classes are geared toward high achievers, such as Advanced Placement courses in calculus and history. Also among the new offerings are online versions of already-offered classes, thus allowing students more scheduling flexibility. It's an idea whose time has come.

And finally, we're big fans of the new "Math for College" class that will help seniors keep their skills sharp. Today, far too many students who've already completed the required three years of math opt to "take a year off" from math during their senior year. The price for that hiatus? They forget what they'd learned and need a remedial class when they get to college. We'd far rather see them taking a yearlong "review and refresher course" in high school.

But as the school district tries to make sure Rochester students are ready for college, we can't help but wonder if the students who might follow different career paths are receiving the attention and resources they deserve.

It's a statewide problem. Vocational education — such as courses in auto repair, electronics, carpentry, agriculture and even cosmetology — require a lot of space, equipment and raw materials, which makes them fairly expensive. In an educational environment that prioritizes standardized test scores above everything else, it's difficult for cash-strapped schools to invest in classes that don't focus on core areas like math, reading and science. So, when money runs short, vocational classes end up on the chopping block.


As a result, since 2008 the number of vocational and technical classes that are available to Minnesota high school students has dropped from 2,750 to 1,200. That's sad, because with college costs soaring, the demand for vocational training in high schools has never been higher.

What are the consequences of this trend? Last spring, Dan Meyer, who is president of International Precision Machining in Waite Park, described the situation during a conference at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. "The feeder system is lost," he said. "When I was in high school and took shop class, I thought, ‘Hey, this comes second-nature to me.’ Many people in the ’70s learned a trade in the same way. But there’s less and less of that going on. If young people in middle and high school are not exposed to this, they’re never going to know about it."

Meyer hit the nail on the head, because vocational education isn't primarily about training; rather, it's about exposure. It's about giving teenagers a chance to excel at something besides math, science, English, music or sports. It's about helping them discover aptitudes and interests that they might otherwise never have realized — and which might keep them from dropping out of school.

Budget cuts have hit vocational education in Rochester in recent years. But Jean Lubke, executive director of curriculum and instruction for Rochester Public Schools , says students still have some good options.

"We have a close partnership with RCTC and through that partnership have increased the number of Tech Prep Credit courses to 22 courses," Lubke said. "These courses, taken at the high schools, are given MnSCU credit when students enter the colleges, usually in technical programs. These courses include industry courses, including floral design and arrangement, power mechanics, culinary arts and child development. Additional courses help students prepare for and take industry skills tests and leave high school as certified home health aides, nursing assistants, veterinary assistants, pharmacy technicians, and child development associates."

We hope that in the next few years students will have even greater opportunities to explore vocational options while they're still in high school. As we try to make sure that the majority of our students are prepared to make the leap to college, we can't afford to ignore those whose career preparation won't necessarily include courses in macroeconomics or English composition.

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