Reading, writing -- and welding?

Posted: Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Eighteen high school students sit in class studiously taking a test. But while the crouched posture and quiet concentration are reminiscent of any quiz day, this is no ordinary classroom.

Sure, there's the obligatory chalkboard, lecturn and cluster of tables -- but instead of a globe, dictionary or overhead projector, heavy machinery and welding equipment fill the room.

This is one of Kenai Central High School's vocational education classes -- where learning is all about hands-on practice and training for the future.

"This is a pretty traditional welding class," said teacher Tom Burck of his fifth-hour class.

Students will spend a semester practicing using a wide range of equipment to learn four types of welding processes: oxyacetylene -- or basic welding, tungsten-inert-gas -- with steel and alumninum, metal-inert-gas -- including hard wire, aluminum, inter-shield and outer-shield forms, and shield metal arc welding. The class also touches on metal fabrication, spot welding, soldering, brazing and hard surfacing.

In other vocational educaiton classes at KCHS, students also can learn about drafting, auto mechanics and carpentry.

But while vocational education traditionally focuses on specific skills, Burck said his classes also center around bigger lessons, like preparing for the job market and for a life of education.

"It's an exploratory thing," he said. "A lifelong learning experience."

Burck said he recognizes the wide varity in the students he teaches and tries to teach his classes accordingly. Some, he said, are taking vocational education classes to prepare for future jobs. Those who know they want to go into welding can take Burck's class as well as Kenai Peninsula College classes simultaneously and graduate high school with a welding certificate.

"Students can walk out of high school and make very good money without much further training," he said. "That's probably one of the best things about the job -- to go out and see my students working in the industries."

Other students, he said, are just interested in learning a new skill, taking a break from a day full of more academic pursuits or taking classes to hang out with friends. And that's all right too.

Like any class, the benefit depends on what the students put into the class.

"We have everything from the top students to the lower students -- girls and guys. I try to give all the students something that they need. Some go on in welding and I try to give them skills to build on," Burck said.

"For some, this is the only welding instruction they'll ever have. Maybe they'll pick it up as a hobby, maybe they'll never pick it up again. But they can look at something and say, 'Wow, I know how to weld that.'"

Burck's students -- and children -- agree.

Senior Katie Burck admitted that part of the reason she's taking the welding class is because her dad is the teacher. But, she said, "I like vocational classes. I took carpentry too."

Though the younger Burck hopes to go to college next year and has no plans to pursue a career in welding or carpentry, she said the skills she's learned help her in everyday life.

"A lot of stuff I learn I use in different stuff when I go home. I can fix stuff at my house and it helps with math," she said. "This stuff is for background, but I know how to fix it if it happens."

Senior Drew Cramer added that the high school vocational classes give students a chance to explore possible careers before having to make up their minds.

"It's good if you want to do this for a living, so you don't get into it and find out you don't like it when it's too late," said Cramer, who has taken welding and carpentry at KCHS before and hopes to become an apprentice electrician after high school.

Sophomore Dennis Chapman sees the class as a fun was to work toward a career in big machinery.

"I definitely want to go to college after high school," he said. "I kind of want to go out of state, then if I get the right job, come back here."

Whatever their future plans, Burck said he hopes his students gain some life preparation from his class.

"An awful lot of these kids will go on to college, but a large percentage of those that go on probably are not going to finish. That means they'll be out in the job market," Burck said. "Then there's a percentage of kids who will not go to college.

"What we can at least offer here is an idea of what may be out there. We can give some basic skills and a certain amount of work ethic. We can show an employer that this person can be trained, they've taken classes, know what it is to work and know how to learn something."

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