Students throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District are learning more than study skills in area classrooms these days.
In addition to the many academic, "book based" classes, the district places a significant focus on vocational education -- helping high school students get ready for the "real world" by learning a trade.
"I think you have a full range of life offerings when you offer vocational education," said Rick Matiya, the district's director of federal programs -- including vocational education programs funded by the national Carl Perkins grant.
"Not everyone will go to college, but everyone will have a job," he said. "What vocational education offers is more practical application."
Most high schools in the district offer some form of basic vocational education, which may range from family and consumer sciences -- formerly known as home economics -- to business and technology to auto and wood shops, Matiya said.
"Generally speaking, students have up to nine courses to obtain in vocational education," he said.
But while the district knows that vocational education is important on the peninsula, where many students are more apt to go from high school to the job market rather than a university, offering a full range of vocational classes is still a challenge.
"One of the limiting factors in vocational education is school size," Matiya said. "The smaller schools the Kenai Peninsula struggles to maintain yield smaller staff and that means fewer classes are available."
Even the larger high schools in the district -- Skyview and Kenai Central high schools -- are small on a national scale.
"Classes are typically offered throughout the district according to which teachers are hired in what building," he said.
As a solution, the district is approaching new ways of offering vocational training.
One option students may explore is the work co-op program. About 150 students each year take the co-op class and gain a half credit for working in area businesses.
The program requires employers to commit to offering students both gainful employment and training opportunities.
Another option is the new Workforce Development Center at Kenai Central High School. In its second year, the center offers afternoon and evening classes to students from throughout the central peninsula. The classes typically go a step beyond the normal school-day courses and provide students an opportunity to get advanced vocational training and earn industry certificates.
This fall, the school district has partnered with Kenai Peninsula College to offer a CISCO computer system class and an introduction to process technology course. KPC certified instructors teach these classes, giving high school students a leg up in their career training.
In the spring, the Workforce Development Center will offer a certified nursing assistant program that allows high school students to obtain their CNA certification and enter the job market.
KPC also now offers a distance-learning program through Weber State University in Utah that allows CNA certified individuals to continue to receive associate, bachelors and registered nurse degrees without leaving the peninsula.
"(The CNA program) really is the first step to being able to move up a career ladder," Matiya said.
Though the Workforce Development Center is only available to central peninsula students, vocational education is going strong in other parts of the district as well, Matiya said.
Homer High School, for example, offers a vocational endorsement on diplomas for students who take enough career training courses.
In Seward, the Alaska Railroad sends people into the high school to teach tourism classes, which often offer students a chance to jump into the tourism field.
"If they take the class, there's a good chance they'll be hired into the tourism business because they've had an introduction," Matiya said.
While vocational education may not be a route every student wants to take, Matiya said the goal is to offer options -- and to prepare Alaska students for Alaska jobs.
"Alaska is facing a draining labor population. The labor age is increasing and in 10 years, there's going to be a huge turnover," he said.
"We're looking at schools to make kids aware of the opportunities. There are good paying jobs coming vacant."
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