Don't call these kids at University City High vocational students

The days of standing in front of a class to teach are over

On a Friday morning in mid-January, the students in room 607 at University City High School cluster around computer screens in small groups. Most wear sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers. One girl sports the light-blue-and-white jacket and tiny skirt of the school’s cheerleading uniform. A handful wear white lab coats, which, on Fridays, earns them five points of extra credit.

I approach a group of four girls near the front of the classroom. Their monitor shows a page illustrated with the outline of a human body. It looks no different than a worksheet a teacher might pass out in kindergarten for children to use as a template for a self-portrait. But Mykalah Palado, the bare-legged cheerleader, and one of her group-mates, Ana Radic, a serious-looking girl with long straight hair and glasses, explain that their assigned activity is a bit more complicated.

“We’re basically supposed to come up with a patient,” Radic says.

“Like a homicide story,” Palado interrupts.

“Well, yeah,” Radic continues. “We have to give a type of death, like, homicide, accident, or natural cause.”

“And a story of how exactly they died, and what’s shown in their autopsy,” Palado says.

Radic points to the diagram on the monitor. “Basically, that’s an external-injury diagram, and then there might also be internal injuries. So we’ll probably fill that out. And then, for the actual autopsy, which is also internal, we’re going to take out the organs and weigh them and measure them and see which organs were affected.”

Her manner is matter-of-fact, her face serious. Ellie Vandiver, her teacher, will later predict that Radic will end up with a PhD in biomedical research.

University High School interns at Veterans Medical Center with their teacher Ellie Vandiver (second from 
left) and hospital youth volunteer coordinator Nonnie Artero

University High School interns at Veterans Medical Center with their teacher Ellie Vandiver (second from left) and hospital youth volunteer coordinator Nonnie Artero

“It’s all hypothetical,” Radic says. “We come up with a story about a person and what disease they’re afflicted with, and then we use that disease [as a starting point].”

The assignment, Vandiver explains to me further, is to create a forensic autopsy case complete with toxicology reports, organ weights, and emergency-room and police reports. When each group has finished, they’ll share their reports with their classmates, who will then use the reports to guess the patient’s cause of death.

The exercise follows a two-day fetal-pig autopsy and precedes the 12-week clinical internships that all 32 seniors will begin next week at area labs and hospitals. Alonzo, Palado, and Kobayashi will go to the Veterans Hospital associated with UC Davis. Radic will go to Scripps Genomics.

This is not an advanced-placement class or a room full of pre-selected child prodigies. These students only had to have decent attendance grades and to write an essay about their interest in the medical field to get into this particular biomedical-sciences program. And the program, believe it or not, is one of over 100 vocational-training programs in San Diego high schools, in everything from business management and ownership to fire protection to the foundations of legal practice and introduction to teaching.

But don’t call it vocational training.

The (politically) correct term is “career technical education,” which in 2006 governor Arnold Schwarzenegger included in a state bond for the first time in California history. His Strategic Growth Plan offered $500 million in grants for career technical-education facilities (Proposition 1D). In November 2008, San Diego voters passed Proposition S, a $2.1 billion bond measure for the restoration and renovation of district schools. The San Diego Unified School District has spent roughly $29 million ($16 million from Prop S, $13 million from Prop 1D) in the past five years on 22 career and technical-education facilities at 12 schools. Seven of those are still in the design phase and are scheduled to break ground next year.

According to the district website, the “courses are offered in 15 industry sectors tied to local economic and workforce needs,” and they “provide high school students with skills necessary to succeed in post-secondary/college education, entry-level employment and/or career advancement. The instructional integration of academic and workplace skills provides career awareness and exploration, including paid and unpaid internship opportunities.”

The programs are taught by teachers with a minimum of five years of industry experience. Vandiver, for example, worked ten years as an intensive-care nurse before becoming a teacher. The seniors clustered around the computers in her classroom now have been with her for four years. In the spring, they’ll be the first class in the district to have completed a full four years of the Biomedical Innovations curriculum created by Project Lead the Way and adopted by the district when they were freshmen.

We have more technology than Pep Boys

Even with a new name, new curriculums, and updated facilities, many career and technical-education programs have been unable to shake the “VoTech” reputation.

“Those people out there still think we’re just a bunch of dirty people,” says 55-year-old Leonardo Zarate, who has taught auto -shop classes at Morse High School for 23 years.

We’re standing at the front of his classroom, where 25 boys and 1 girl sit at computer monitors taking a quiz entitled “Inspecting the Finish, Paint” from their I-CAR (Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair) curriculum. Zarate wears a gray-blue button-down shirt, khaki trousers, and a tie imprinted with images of Tweety Bird, Daffy Duck, Marvin the Martian, and other Looney Tunes characters.

“Parents want their sons and daughters to be doctors and lawyers,” he says. “They don’t want them to go into auto repair. But we’re the smartest people in town. We see a problem and we think about how to fix it.”

These days, he explains, auto repair and refinishing is technologically advanced and requires computer-savvy technicians. He emphasizes that his program is called Auto Body Repair and Refinishing Technology, and that it also addresses a range of academic subjects.

“This is where art marries science,” he says. “There’s chemistry in mixing the plastic fillers, the putties, and the sealers. In the paint-mixing, you have color, hardener, and reducer. There’s math. You have to know how much for supplies, how much for labor, and you have to figure your profit. There’s physics. When you’re welding, you’re fusing two metals. There are 13 different types of metal in a car. And there’s English communication, when you have to order your parts and materials. And when you’re talking to the customer, of course.”

Zarate’s 135 students (spread through five classes) alternate between two weeks in the classroom and two weeks in the shop facility, performing such tasks as removing and replacing damaged panels; pulling, measuring, cutting, and welding damaged automotive structural parts; and preparing vehicles for new paint jobs.

“Some students who fall behind end up in my class,” he says. “And when they see that they can apply what they learn next week, they get excited.”

Leonardo Zarate with his students at Morse High School’s three-million-dollar facility for auto-body repair and refinishing

Leonardo Zarate with his students at Morse High School’s three-million-dollar facility for auto-body repair and refinishing

He calls a senior named John Abad up to the front of the room and instructs him to show me around the $3.7 million facility that opened last September. Abad started the program as a junior, a year before the facility opened.

“Last year, it was pretty much all concept,” he says as we head out the door and across the asphalt to the 6855-square-foot building that looks like a Midas or a Pep Boys garage, only cleaner. “All we did was watch videos and take tests.”

The building houses a paint booth, a clean room, and auto alignment and frame bays. A 1999 Honda Civic sits up on a frame-puller. A car lift holds a 1998 Nissan pickup. A 2001 Volvo awaits attention atop an alignment rack. In the sanding and shop-lab areas stand a 1971 Chevy Chevelle and a 2001 Dodge Intrepid.

Abad wears khaki pants, a black button-down, a black sweatshirt, and red shoes. Black-framed glasses make him look simultaneously intellectual and trendy. The soft-spoken 17-year-old rubs his hands together while he speaks, but once we have moved all the way across the yard to where the action is, he occupies that nervous energy by fingering machines and tools and demonstrating the workings of magnets and sensors.

We start at the spray booth, where bicycle parts hang from a rack. Abad grabs the paint-spray nozzle, mimes using it, gestures in the air to show how paint fuses with the dust, and then bends down to point out the fans near the floor. He explains how the ventilation sucks the dust out of the room.

He takes me through the other bays, showing me computers that provide the alignment specifications of a car once its vehicle identification number, year, and model are plugged in. He uses phrases like “angles of camber” and explains the use of sensors and magnets in frame-pulling.

It’s a language I don’t quite follow, but I get the gist when he turns away from the tire-balancer, looks directly at me, and says, “I went to Pep Boys, and our shop has more technology than them.”

Today, Abad is something of a poster boy for the program. He gave a speech at the dedication ceremony last September, he led tours to prospective eighth-graders at the orientation last Saturday, and he appeared in all five of the photographs featured in a November 2012 Autobody News article about the facility.

But more than being the face of this particular program, Abad could also stand as the face of career and technical education, period. He’s one of those students to whom Zarate was referring when he said, “When they see that they can apply what they learn next week, they get excited.”

Abad says he applies what he learns in class on a regular basis. He and his friends hang out in each other’s garages and work on their cars after school. Sometimes girls come and hang out with them, he says, “but they kinda just get bored because we’re only paying attention to our cars.”

Abad has two cars of his own that he tinkers with: a 1991 BMW his dad gave him to fix up, and a 2005 Mazda RX-8. Ultimately, he’s hoping to get his hands on a Subaru STI, but for now, he’s saving his allowance for a new suspension system, which will run him about $1000.

“I have a really tight budget,” he says of his five-dollars-a-day allowance. “If I see something nice in the store, I ask myself, Do I really want it? I have to save for car parts and gas.”

Senior essays and portfolio requirements take up too much of Abad’s time for him to consider an internship now, but he’s hoping he can secure one at Discount Tire after he graduates in the spring.

Why Discount Tire?

“The first time I used the tire-changer, I had trouble with it,” he says. “And I want to learn how to change tires.”

In the fall, after the internship, he plans to attend the automotive-technology training program at Universal Technical Institute in Rancho Cucamonga. And after that, “Hopefully, I can get into the industry and work at a dealership as a mechanic for collision repair.” After a pause, he adds, “Or an estimator.”

When I ask if he knows what the pay is for those careers, he answers without hesitation.

“I think estimators make about $90,000. And mechanics range from $30,000 to $50,000.”

Like Hell’s Kitchen, but without the language

Instructor Sara Smith-Piatti with her student at Morse High School’s 
state-of-the-art culinary kitchen.

Instructor Sara Smith-Piatti with her student at Morse High School’s state-of-the-art culinary kitchen.

A few hundred feet east of the auto shop at Morse stands the Culinary Arts building, another multi-million-dollar facility (funded by Proposition 1D and Proposition S) that opened in 2012. This morning, the Hungry Tiger (a 6662-square-foot building complete with kitchen, restaurant -seating area, laundry, cold and dry storage, loading dock, offices, and restrooms) kitchen teams with juniors and seniors in blue aprons, performing all manner of kitchen duties.

Two girls stand in the grill area, cooking eggs and heating tortillas for breakfast burritos. In the cook-line area, two more girls assemble signature Tiger Muffins: the bottom of an English muffin piled with sausage, then egg, then cheese, then the muffin top, all wrapped up in the foil. Three students stand on the other side of the counter, looking on and waiting to deliver the breakfast sandwiches to classroom teachers.

The whole enterprise seems less like a classroom and more like a restaurant kitchen, with everybody performing his or her tasks. But instructor Sara Smith-Piatt (“Ms. Smith” to her students) says, “It’s kind of crazy today. We just changed everybody’s jobs. Today is only their fifth day.”

In another prep area a few feet away, a petite girl with a brown ponytail and round hazel eyes cuts large russet potatoes into wedges, then tosses them with herbs and olive oil in a stainless-steel bowl.

The round-eyed girl is named Karina, and she informs me that she’s here because “it’s fun,” making it clear that not everyone who takes career and technical-education courses has their life path plotted as well as Abad.

Each month, the students in Smith-Piatt’s class learn and perform one job: expediter, cashier, phone, barista, prep, dishes, or grill. The Hungry Tiger Cafe is open only three days a week. The other two days, students learn from their textbooks (Culinary Essentials and The Foundations of Restaurant Management and Culinary Arts) or participate in discussions with guest chefs.

Smith-Piatt, who once owned (and now still works as executive chef for) a local catering company, says that the restaurant days are “like [the reality show] Hell’s Kitchen, without the language.”

Indeed, as we talk while surrounded by working students, Smith-Piatt frequently stops to address their inquiries about how to store the pesto, whether to cube or slice the carrots, and whether to add bananas to the oatmeal prior to or after heating.

In the Hungry Tiger Cafe, on the other side of a wall of windows, a laminated poster hangs on a bulletin board above the bookshelf where textbooks are kept.

“The A-G Requirements,” it reads. “Your pathway to California’s Colleges and Universities.”

Then it lists the requirements: a) history/social science (two years); b) English (four years); c) mathematics (three years required, four years recommended); d) laboratory science (two years required, three years recommended); e) foreign language (two years required, three years recommended); f) visual and performing arts (one year required); and g) college-prep elective (one year required).

Smith-Piatt’s culinary-arts program gained approval this year as a college-prep elective, after more science was added to the curriculum. For some people, she says, the reputation of career and technical education overrides the idea that some CTE courses count toward California State and University of California entrance requirements.

“CTE went out of fashion for awhile because they considered it tracking,” Smith-Piatt says, dismissing the idea with a wave of her hand. “But [the food industry] is one of the few fields where you can go either way. You can go to culinary school, or if school’s not your thing, you can still end up an executive chef.”

She believes that the skills and work ethic she emphasizes in class will serve the students well in whatever path they choose. The office of college, career, and technical education at San Diego Unified echoes this sentiment on its website, where it stresses that the integration of academic and workplace skills is the special recipe that prepares students for college and career.

And yet, as Smith-Piatt suggests, opponents of career and technical education worry that the courses offered don’t lead to post-secondary/college education. Last March, after obtaining nearly 1500 signatures in three weeks, a group of La Jolla parents shut down San Diego Unified’s bold attempt to mandate two years of CTE courses as a graduation requirement. The parents’ reasons were that such a mandate would thwart their college-bound children’s trajectory by replacing academic courses with career/tech courses.

Culinary students taste their work

Culinary students taste their work

Even when the district explained that the University of California and California State University systems have approved over 10,000 CTE courses that meet their “A-G” entrance requirements, the parents were not convinced. Currently, only 60 percent of San Diego Unified’s advanced CTE courses are A-G approved.

At University City, for example, the biomedical-science program meets A-G requirements for lab sciences. The Morse auto-body program, however, is not A-G approved, but instead leads toward industry certification.

This inconsistency worried the opposing parents, who feared that their children would be forced to replace their advanced placement and elective courses with classes that did not interest them or help them get into college. After meeting with opponents, San Diego Unified voted to rescind the mandate.

Not all programs are created equal

The number of A-G courses in any given program is only one area in which these career and technical education programs differ. While internships and real-life work experience play a large role in the district’s promotion of their CTE programs, a look at available internship opportunities paints a vastly different picture from one program to another.

Lisa McDonnell, communications and operations associate at San Diego Unified’s office of college, career, and technical education, says that the students learn the “nuts and bolts” through their beginning and intermediate classes. The advanced courses, available mostly to juniors and seniors, she says, “are supposed to have internships with them.”

The expectation is that teachers will come into the programs with years of industry experience and contacts in the field.

“We’re hoping that they come in with names of people and places,” McDonnell says, “so when they have a student that’s ready to go out, they can pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, friend-person from my days in the industry, could you do an internship?’”

Ideally, all students would have a four-day-per-week internship that takes place during the last period(s) of the day. The fifth day would be spent on campus, checking in with their teacher.

“We’re shooting for a minimum number of 35 hours,” she says. “Obviously, there are glitches.”

A student’s class and/or sports schedule, for example, may only allow for an hour a day, which might not fit the needs of the company offering the internship.

“Or, let’s say you have somebody who was a nurse up at Rady Children’s Hospital in Kearny Mesa and you’ve got a program down at Morse; that’s quite a distance for a kid to travel. I will say, transportation is a big hurdle.”

These “glitches” result in inconsistent internship opportunities.

In the Morse auto-body program, for example, students can only attend internships during off-school hours, mostly during the summer. At University City’s biomedical-science program, however, all seniors participate in an internship (at area labs and hospitals such as Scripps Genomics, and the Veterinary Hospital affiliated with UC Davis), which they do during school hours. The teacher helps arrange transportation.

In Morse’s culinary-arts program, the class is the internship.

“This is where they get their internship,” Smith-Piatt says, “because it’s not that easy for the students to get anywhere else. At San Diego High and Garfield [two other schools with culinary programs], you can walk across the street to get an internship. But there are no businesses around here.”

Not only do Smith-Piatt’s students run the Hungry Tiger Cafe and provide food to the school’s staff, but they also cater district events and sports banquets and provide cooking demonstrations around the community. Smith-Piatt estimates the range time spent on an internship at somewhere between 15–50 hours per month (times eight months) per student.

At Mira Mesa High School, on the other hand, instructor Eric Fischer says internships aren’t available for the students in his engineering program; local companies save these opportunities for college students.

“Unfortunately, it’s not the perfect little cookie-cutter,” McDonnell says.

If I had to go back to the old way, I wouldn’t

Even with inconsistencies between programs, most have their perks — not only for students but for teachers, as well.

“The days of standing in front of a class to teach are over,” Vandiver says. “If I had to go back to teaching [the old way], I wouldn’t do it. I’d go back to nursing. That’s how much I love it. ”

Zarate agrees. While the hands-on work he now oversees requires more responsibility than the sit-and-learn system he gave up when his auto facility opened, it is, he says, “much more exciting.”

For Smith-Piatt, “The most important part to me is the real-world application. Instead of ‘Why are we doing fractions?,’ it’s, well, you can’t do a recipe without fractions.”

There’s also her $36,000 computerized combination steam/convection oven. “This is my baby,” she says. “There’s even a button for Peking duck. And at the end of the day, it cleans itself.”

For more on this article, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory

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This program livens up the high school curriculum for large numbers of San Diego kids who may not be college-bound -- a legitimate condition that was entirely ignored by the "high expectations" crowd for at least the last decade. Obviously, the workings are imperfect, as described here, but over time it can be improved and will benefit both students and local business and labor groups. It's the return of an old good idea after a long dry spell and the District needs to eliminate its present shortcomings and make it a showpiece.

Turning technical/vocational courses into graduation requirements for everyone is NOT a good idea, however, as those smart La Jollans and Scripps Ranchers realized last year. It's a mystery why the School District could not have figured that out on its own without sparking a middle class uprising and online petition to sink it.

Taking such an extreme step would have jeopardized the competitive admissions standing of college-bound San Diego public school students among their peers nationwide and ultimately it could have driven a lot of local families out of the public schools. It's possible the graduation requirement issue may return in future, as this may be yet another education "reform" fad similar to its "high expectations" predecessor -- ideas pushed in Sacramento and funded with private foundation and federal dollars in isolation from practical reality.

This is an excellent program for the large percentage of kids that wont go on to college. It provides training to ready these kids for a specific career. Unfortunately, not all school districts value this program. Sweetwater Union High District Trustees voted to issue pink slips to teachers in this program, thereby relegating it to possible elimination. This after the Districts Bond Program (prop o) spent tens of millions of dollars building classes specific to this education at numerous high schools.

Lack of vision, mis spending and ultimately lack of leadership will drastically impact kids in this program. Thank goodness the San Diego Unified district still sees value in it.

As I am not sure I want to get into another running dialog on where we are screwing up in our educational system. As a Mechanical Engineer, I see a lot of Mechanically Illiterate People in our growing electronic world. I include my own three boys to a certain extent, which I take on myself, but like school and universities, have said for eons about General education we need well rounded individuals.
Well we have gone to the extreme where our students never get to understand the feeling of having a tool in their hands, weather its a wrench or a spatchula (sp), needle and thread, a musical instrument or how knowlege and training in useful skills.
The connection of hand to mind is a powerful teaching tool not only to learn a career but to foster a bond or desire to delve deeper into a subject or idea, really to create. Tools develop the ability to problem solve through logical progression, weather its bolt-washer- nut or flour-egg-water.
We do ourselves and our students, a disservice by not providing, supporting and in some cases requiring basic classes in these skills in our Middle and High Schools.

"The connection of hand to mind" IS powerful and important and should be part of children's lives. But the instruction needs to be excellent and the materials and tools should be first-rate. A retired physician friend makes wooden boats and travels once a month from his home in Massachusetts to practice wood-working with a Vermont craftsman. The work is more deeply satisfying to him than anything from his previous professional life. That's the kind of experience our students deserve.

While I agree with your ideal, I will tell you two of the classes that affected my future the most were 6th Grade, combination of Home Econ/cooking, Wood Shop, Home Econ/sewing, Metal Shop and 9th Grade Industrial adventure, Metal, Wood shops, Automotives (rebuilt lawn mower engines) and Machine Drawing. These skills have never steered me wrong, I am an Engineer by trade but the basic skills and concepts are fundimental and transfer to life skills. Again well rounded individuals.

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