By Vernon A. Williams
Real challenges demand real solutions. We are on the dawn of another long, hot summer and for most school-age children, boundless down time. Meanwhile, we bemoan youth unemployment and, much worse, their lack of marketable skills.
Two things. First, Forbes magazine is on the money in its recent article decrying the inadequacy of focus on vocational education in our schools. Secondly, the emphasis should include consideration of broadening the approach from a program offered to specific groups to almost every child required to take at least one semester of career skills curriculum.
The center should deviate from the traditional school schedule and offer instruction throughout the summer to facilitate the needs and interest of students unable to attend during the school year because of athletics, logistics or academics – whether exceptional or lacking.
We are remiss to cry out that “these kids can’t do anything” without providing them a clear path of closing the skills gap. Besides learning to actually do something, career technical education helps students put learning into real world context. It also offers the opportunity for students to learn work ethic, individual initiative and teamwork.
One of the distractions to this logic in the minds of too many is the false proposition that the higher academic achieving students should be limited to the college preparatory process. The unfortunate perception of students who attend vocational school is that they are the ones identified as incapable of succeeding in pursuit of higher education. That flawed concept ignores the fact that most, if not all, vocational programs include a strong academic component.
How can a thinking person negate the relationship of chemistry, math, English, science, history and other academics to computer programming and repair, mechanical engineering, architectural drafting, carpentry, auto repair and body, law enforcement, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), welding, culinary arts, cosmetology, fashion design, Radio-TV, cosmetology and myriad developing areas of career technical education?
One of the reasons educators don’t sufficiently embrace the concept is because of their lack of familiarity with these inextricable ties between academics and career skills. Because of that ignorance, they minimize or negate innumerable benefits of career technology. In the end, the biggest losers are the children.
If this sounds personal, it’s because it is. In my junior year at Gary Roosevelt High School, an article in the Gary Post-Tribune told of a new school opening the next year on the city’s east side. With classes designed for students to attend half of the school day, it was exciting to me the moment I read that one of the courses offered was Radio and Television.
I was inspired by popular Calumet Region air personalities like Dr. Rock, Al Bell and J-J the Deejay – the line-up on fabled WMPP; along with Vivian Carter who held down the late-night show on WJOB, Chicago personalities included Herb Kent “The Cool Gent” and one of the iconic Gary-Chicago Metropolitan Area radio voices of all time, Jim “Ragman” Raggs.
Arguably, the king of Gary area air radio “cool” was mellow baritone Jesse Coopwood of WWCA – who gave me my first on-air experience during my sophomore year of high school when he allowed me to host a 15-minute weekly program dubbed “Soul Heaven.” From that point on, it was a wrap. I was all in. Broadcasting was a part of my future.
So when I went into my counselor’s office to express my desire to enroll at the inaugural year of the Gary Area Career Center, it caught me totally off guard when he shook his head saying, “No, I wouldn’t advise that. That’s not for you.” Responding to my puzzlement, he continued to explain that, “Vocational school is for kids who can’t cut it in college.”
Though I’m sure he meant it as a compliment, I was anything but flattered. How could a student interested in the field not benefit from a head start in Radio and Television?
To his dismay, I ignored the counselor and enrolled in Broadcasting at the Gary Area Career Center – taught by former WLS-TV sports reporter Ernie Nims. Not only was the class inspirational and educational, but critical to my future. Nims took me to Indiana University in Bloomington to introduce me to everyone in Radio-Television – including department chair Richard Yoakum.
It was my first time visiting a college campus and a game changer. That following fall became my freshman semester at I.U. where I earned a Journalism degree and worked in the field of communications ever since – the outcome of career technical education. I was one of many. There are too many similar or better vocational school success stories to mention.
Career technology education is no panacea, but where is the argument against it being a solid, sustained influencer in marketability and career decisions for young people – particularly when courses are clearly aligned with market demand and trending technology.
As a bonus, students enrolled in career-technical education typically have better attendance, improved overall academic performance, fewer disciplinary issues, enhanced problem-solving skills, and better adaptation to the post-secondary education environment. Even if training differs from eventual career pursuits, skills and professionalism garnered last a lifetime.
Educators, parents, employers, the faith-based community and activists should team to vigorously push for expansion of career technical education opportunities. School boards, administrators and teachers must expand knowledge of career-technical education knowledge and perspectives – then, strongly encourage children identify to their passion and pursue their dreams.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].