Last year, Aaron Hunting welded a boat in school. For his efforts, he was named Homer High School's vocational Student of the Year, but a greater reward came when he stepped off the stage, award in hand. An audience member immediately offered Hunting a job.
After several decades on the sidelines, vocational education is being scrutinized as business owners, educators and community members look at the practical needs of students and society.
At a meeting March 4 with the Kenai Peninsula School District board and staff, proponents of vocational education programs pointed to stories like Hunting's -- and the fact that only a quarter of Kenai Peninsula students finish a four-year degree program -- as proof that more emphasis is needed districtwide to arm youths with useful job skills.
Charlie Franz, administrator at South Peninsula Hospital, has been working with Homer High School and the Kachemak Bay Branch of Kenai Peninsula College to encourage more students to enter a certified nursing assistant program now offered at the college.
"I'm concerned about having enough staff to take care of us as we get older," Franz said. "I'm very concerned about that."
Franz said the hospital now has an education loan forgiveness program as an incentive for people to work toward specific degrees that are difficult positions for the hospital to fill. Vocational education programs that ready students for computer use, math and other necessary skills are essential, he said.
"Voc-ed is not a place to park the dummies," Franz said.
Many at the meeting echoed Franz's point, saying vocational skills are valuable to everyone, whether students are planning to go to college or trade school or enter the work force directly.
"It's a pathway," said vocational education teacher Kurt Racicot. "It's not that we are just trying to create welders."
Racicot noted he is an example, having partially funded his college education by working as a welder.
The problem many school districts face in developing vocational education programs is that generally one semester of carpentry, welding or computer class isn't enough to develop job-ready skills. Instead, educators strive to create a sequence of classes from which students graduate with a certified skill.
Homer High School Principal Ron Keffer helped organize the Southern Peninsula Regional Vocational Advisory Committee, which has designed several sequences of vocational classes that can be taken parallel to academic, college-preparatory classes and result in a vocational endorsement certificate at graduation.
"I do believe that vocational education is important," Keffer said. "We've got to find a way to do it."
Homer High has partnered with the college to offer vocational endorsement opportunities in business and health care fields as well as a higher level of welding certification than has been offered in the past. In addition, the school offers automotive repair, family and consumer sciences and culinary arts. Next fall's freshmen will be the first to be presented the option of following one of the five vocational education sequences resulting in certification.
Though Homer High received praise for developing its program, some commented that a districtwide effort is needed.
Colleen Ward, a member of the School to Careers Advisory Committee, said the district is missing opportunities to partner with businesses.
"You need to stop thinking about conventional education and start thinking about a competitive work force," Ward said.
Peninsula businesses would embrace the idea of working toward skills- and standards-based certifications, she added.
"For the sake of the overwhelming majority (of students), I ask that they aggressively address vocational education," she said.
Board member Al Poindexter, who taught vocational education at the high school for a decade, also presented his feelings on the district's current approach to vocational education.
"Our school district needs to develop a vision (for vocational education) rather than letting schools slave through this individually," he said.
He also stressed the need to develop programs that build on skills year after year, like other subjects taught in high school.
"It would be much like basketball where when the basic dribble is developed, each succeeding year they learn more things to do with that skill," Poindexter wrote in a document accompanying his presentation.
The district's vocational education program will be reviewed in 2004. Poindexter and others at the meeting said they hoped beginning the discussion early would allow time to set a direction and at least agree on a definition of vocational education.
School District Superintendent Donna Peterson said all the presenters made points that the district will find useful, but more discussion is needed.
"There are nine different entities setting vocational education's direction in the state of Alaska, and I'm not sure all of them are talking to each other," she said.
Carey James is a reporter for the Homer News.
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