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Employable skills training takes its place in classrooms alongside standard academic fare

Students looking ahead to world of work

Posted: Saturday, April 22, 2000

Add "resumes" to the list of the basic "three Rs" taught in school.

The old notion of shop classes being for students whose grades rule out college is obsolete. Now, vocational education is more diverse and sophisticated, blurring the lines between school and business.

"Any work experience can be educational," said Walt Ward, the work co-op coordinator for central peninsula high schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

With that attitude and federal grant funding, the public schools are modernizing and streamlining vocational education. They are pooling resources, partnering with post-secondary schools and private business, and revising courses to emphasize technology and applied academics.

"There have been a lot of changes, financially and offerings-wise," said Ben Eveland, vocational education coordinator for the district.

In the spring of 1999, the district adopted a revised vocational and technical education curriculum that focuses on skills that translate directly into industry requirements. To deliver those skills, the schools are relying more on flexibility and less on the vocational courses of the past.

"We are trying to do alternate methods of delivery and still keep the quality," Eveland said.

Schools are phasing out obsolete courses he called "clunkers," such as high school keyboarding. Once an elective for teens, keyboarding now will be required for elementary students, he said.

Instead, schools are planning new classes in health care and industrial process technology. Beginning last year, students who successfully complete the computer applications course receive actual Microsoft certification, he said.

The certification reflects more influence from the private sector on many levels.

The district's new curriculum guidelines use standards derived from the state of Alaska, the American Welding Society, National Occupational Skill Standards, Federal Aviation Regulations, the National Business Education Association and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

On a local level, a Schools to Careers Advisory Committee includes business people who volunteer their time, advise the district and visit individual high schools to review vocational programs.

The group has grown to two dozen members, Eveland said.

"Boy, it has just snowballed," he said. "(Members) have professional expertise in those fields (we teach)."

The district also is sending teachers on summer internships. Educators have worked at places such as Unocal, often alongside former students, applying their subjects to jobs such as chemical testing and computer-assisted drafting.

Students are working, too, and getting school credit for it, under the Work Experience Program.

The program gives high school juniors and seniors three options, said Ward, who coordinates it on the central peninsula. In work co-op, students are paid employees and get some credit for their time working off campus. In on-the-job training, they try out different jobs and get training but are not paid. In mentorships, they work without pay with a professional, one-on-one, learning about particular careers.

A separate project serves teens in special education. Job coaches assist them with employers and tasks, Eveland said.

"They take the kids right to the job in school vans," he said. "It has been a very popular and successful program."

Eveland explained that vocational and technical classes are controlled by individual schools, funded by school operating budgets and open to parental influence. But the off-campus programs and his office are paid for completely with federal grants.

Funding cutbacks are one force changing vocational education, and the ability of high schools to offer diverse classes is a major bottleneck, he said.

"We have lost sections -- there is no doubt about it -- from the good old days," he said.

To compensate, schools are revamping schedules and banding together to stretch resources.

Offering courses alternate years or semesters can create scheduling hassles for students, but can also increase elective options, Eveland said.

In Nikiski, for example, the power mechanics equipment is back in use now after years of collecting dust.

"It's been six years, I think, that the shop has been sitting idle," he said.

Small schools are teaming up with larger ones. On the south peninsula, Nikolaevsk, Homer Flex and Russian Old Believer village schools are taking students to Homer High School to use equipment.

"That is going great," Eveland said. "They are just so excited to have the opportunity to learn."

The district is working with the Alaska Vocational Technical Center in Seward and with Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna and Homer so upper-class students can take courses for dual credit.

The federal grants have allowed more flexibility and coordination in recent years than would have been possible otherwise, Eveland stressed.

Carl Perkins grants, renewable annually, allow the district to pass money to the career clubs in high schools. The clubs work together under an umbrella called the Vocational Student Leadership Organizations (VSLO). They celebrated Career and Technical Week Feb. 13-19, and Feb. 25 they held their annual conference at Kenai Peninsula College.

Another grant, the federal School to Work program, allowed the district to expand vocational projects beyond the traditional target group to include college-bound teens and younger children.

Job preparation extends all the way to kindergarten, where children go on field trips to businesses to see how education becomes a tool and to start pondering what they want to be when they grow up.

In high school, counselors recommend courses along career pathways and help students assemble portfolios for prospective employers.

School to Work expired last year, but the district has money left from it to continue through this school year.

In January, Eveland got the good news that the district was awarded a $75,000 Career Pathways Grant. That project will extend the School to Work projects for two more years and allow the district to finish an information system overhaul standardizing and updating vocational information, he said.

The district has set up a Web site for the vocational program that has Internet tools for students, staff and families.

The Career Pathways project will document skills learned on the job, allow students to review their portfolios online and make sure that all classes have access to opportunities such as job shadowing and career days.

"There are a lot of people trying to do a lot of things," Eveland said.



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