Hands-on classes make a comeback

SUMMARY: High schools are bringing back classes such as auto shop and adding nursing to give students more career options

Hands-on classes

make a comeback


Jason Cirlincione never considered attending a university.

Early on at Forest Grove High School, he knew construction would be his career. He lucked out: His high school is one of a handful of Portland-area schools with a thriving construction program. Advanced students build a house each year that's sold at market value, with profits funneled back into the program.

Cirlincione graduated last spring and immediately found a construction job building homes near Newberg that pays $16 an hour --almost twice Oregon's minimum wage. The 18-year-old from Gaston also takes construction classes at Portland Community College that he hopes will culminate in an associate's degree, as well as a bump up in salary to $30 an hour or more.

In a competitive era when a four-year college degree is pushed by parents and educators alike, career technical training --once commonly known as vocational education --is making a comeback.

Washington County high schools that two decades ago ditched classes such as auto shop or home economics have resurrected these courses and added new ones, all retooled to kick-start careers for students who might not pursue a bachelor's degree. Programs ranging from horticulture to culinary arts to health careers now thrive in high schools countywide.

The trend has national strength, fueled by family struggles to finance four-year college educations and increased demand for skilled U.S. workers in everything from computer technology to construction. Enrollment in high school and post-secondary technical education has soared by 57 percent, from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 15.1 million in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Traditional learning, especially reading, writing and math, has hardly been shelved. Educators emphasize how technical training requires a bedrock of basic skills, typically bolstered by two years at a community or technical college.

But students also are learning that the path to a top-paying profession doesn't always require high-priced Ivy League credentials.

"It's been drilled into students that they should attend a four-year university, but if you look at statistics about how many kids start college and how many finish, it's actually pretty low," says Chris Higginbotham, a former construction superintendent who now teaches wood classes, and supervises the annual Viking House building project, at Forest Grove High School.

"There's a little bit of a stigma to say that you work with your hands," he says. "But people in automotive or construction fields are making more money than most of the teachers in this building."

Fewer than 50 percent of U.S. college students who enter four-year colleges or universities graduate, the Council for Aid to Education said in a 2000 report on higher education to the National Governors Association.

One reason: Students unsure of career objectives often take college classes that lead nowhere, causing them to flounder.

High school technical education classes allow students, college-bound or not, to test-drive careers, says Kathleen Newell, a longtime nurse who heads the 37-year-old Health Careers program at Beaverton High School.

"So many kids find out that medicine is not for them," Newell says of her program, which requires a lottery drawing for spots in the 20-member advanced class. "We vote them as being the greater winners for not spending the time or energy pursuing something they don't like."

Students who flourish, though, can get a step up on career skills. An advanced health student, Newell says, can train to become an entry-level certified nursing assistant, earning $10 to $18 an hour.

"My heart and passion knows that we have kids walk out of high school who will never continue on further with education," Newell says. "If they had this certification, they would elevate their lives."

Rick Thornbloom thinks likewise of his automotive technology program at Sunset High School. In the 1970s he learned his trade taking adult education classes, applied for a job and earned a "low paycheck."

Now Thornbloom --who worked his way up to become a high-paying auto technician --says it's possible for a student to become certified in Automotive Service Excellence, making upward of $30,000 a year.

"I tell my students that with the right training and experience, they can make $75,000 to $100,000 in this profession," says Thornbloom, who encourages all his serious students to continue their studies in college or through an automotive factory training program.

Earning that kind of money requires that students read well and learn more than simple arithmetic. It's the same in most technical trades: Beaverton High's advanced Health Careers program requires students to take tough prerequisites such as anatomy and physiology. In Forest Grove, all students interested in building Higginbotham's annual Viking House must take prerequisites such as geometry and architecture. Thirty to 40 qualified students typically apply each year for 16 work crew spots.

That continued push for college-level learning is why vocational training has managed such a triumphant return, says Ralph Riden, the Beaverton School District's regional administrator.

"The assumption is that every student will want to go to college," he says. "But if a student chooses to go into welding, we will help them focus on what it would take to get them there.

"But every kid needs to be able to read, write and have math skills, regardless of what they go into."

Technical education may be back, but it's not always readily available. All Washington County school districts offer at least a handful of vocational programs, but students in large districts often must transfer to a different high school to study in the one that interests them.

Transferring out of district isn't so easy, something Andrea Herb discovered when she tried leaving Hillsboro's Liberty High School to attend Forest Grove High School, known for its architecture program.

Herb, a 16-year-old junior, has since embraced Liberty's award-winning culinary arts program. This year she's president and manager of the program's in-school Cafe Couture.

Dawn Montgomery, Hillsboro's executive director of school improvement, wishes Hillsboro's four high schools had technical training for everybody. She says she dreams of a partnership with local businesses that leads to a training facility for construction students, including future plumbers and electricians.

Time and money, she says, stand in the way.

"But there have been conversations about how to make this happen," Montgomery says.

Even if school districts could pay for twice as many technical programs, finding the journeyman teachers needed for these jobs would prove challenging. Montgomery says field-seasoned teachers such as Higginbotham, Newell and Thornbloom are rare.

That, says the hammer-swinging Cirlincione, is why he considers it such grand luck that he hooked up with Higginbotham.

"I could not have built a house before I worked on Viking House," Cirlincione says.

"Now I could pretty much build a house by myself."

Michelle Trappen: 503-221-4388; michelletrappen@