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New York City
April 2002

Vocational Schools Face New Challenges
By Marylena Mantas

A team of students from Samuel Gompers Vocational and Technical High School in the South Bronx recently ventured down to Columbia University to take part in the annual FIRST Robotics NY Competition, which brought together more than 1,000 students from around the city, country and the United Kingdom to build the best robot. The team ranked 19th in this year’s competition, which was the third time the school participated.

“I want my children to compete with everyone and everything,” said Samuel Gompers’ Principal Marianne Hawthorne. “We are moving our students to meet the challenges of new standards and we are achieving.”

The robotics competition came at a time when several principals of the city’s 14 vocational-technical high schools are voicing concerns related to the new academic standards issued by the New York State Department of Education in 1998, which require that all students in public high schools pass five Regents exams to graduate. Vocational students also have to pass a sequence of courses designed to give them proficiencey in a trade.

“One of the issues for vocational schools is where to find the time—if a student needs help to pass the exams—to provide them with the extra help. Finding the time during the school day is a challenge keenly felt in vocational schools,” said Mark Moskowitz, Principal of Transit Tech HS in Brooklyn, explaining that the new academic requirements often do not allow students to fulfill their occupational sequence.

Other principals expressed concerns that the new standards do not place the same emphasis on vocational education, as they do on academics.

“The NYSDE and partly the NYCBOE, while they pay lip service to the importance of multiple intelligences have put every kid in the track for a four year college and have forgotten that there are viable skills that give students the ability to succeed and to earn a good living,” said Charles Bonnici, Principal of Fashion Industries HS in Manhattan. “No credit is given to that. No one really cares that kids have these other talents.”

Concern has also been raised over a lack of resources provided to the schools to help meet the new standards.

“I love the raising of the standards…I think everyone should reach a certain standard and above, but give me the resources to support that,” said Hawthorne.

Concerns intensified this academic year because the passing grade on the Regents was raised to 65, compared to the 55 required over the past years. For some vocational-technical schools this increase often leads to more students requiring additional academic support, which takes the focus away from their vocational classes.

“The state’s message is to eliminate anything that does not prepare kids to pass Regents exams,” said Frank Carucci, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) VP for vocational-technical high schools and a passionate defender of vocational education.

Approximately 1,500 students attend Transit Tech. Upon graduating, some students enter the work force in entry-level positions related to their occupational sequences, while others enroll in two or four year colleges.

“We have a dual appeal,” said Moskowitz. “Students are able to come here and major in an area...They are able to develop in-depth skills and knowledge in a given area, while having the ability to obtain the same quality of academic programs as in traditional academic high schools.”

Boasting an attendance rate of about 90 percent, Moskowitz added, “Students want to be here and their parents want them to be here…This is a school where students come by choice. They apply to be here. They know where they want to be. They value the opportunities offered to them here. Going to school every day is their job and they do it.”

According to Bonnici, the occupational sequences also have a direct impact on a student’s overall performance.

“When students come to Fashion they have a focus, an idea of what they want to do in their future. When they first come there is a motivation to do well because they are in interested in an occupation,” said Bonnici. “We offer more than one pathway and we recognize that all kids will not go on to a four year college.”

To maintain the focus on occupational sequences, while providing their students with adequate academic support to pass the Regents, the schools have launched various initiatives. At Transit Tech all 9th grade students receive a 15 period week of block math or science instruction. In addition, the school has instituted math and writing workshops, while Fashion Industries uses Title I funds to create after- school academic programs. Aviation HS has become a de facto five year program to cram in both academic and professional training that can lead to federal certification to work in the aviation industry.

“We have tried to motivate the learning for those kids in Fashion Design by saying that we will give you all the services we can to graduate with a Regents diploma,” said Bonnici.

According to Carucci, to meet the new demands most vocational-technical schools have also developed an integrative curriculum that “contextually teaches academics through trade… This is not the solution we should have been looking for. We do not have a way of accommodating kids into this banner of higher standards…Vocational schools give kids options. They get all they get if they went to Stuyvesant [specialized high school], but the goal of our vocational schools is to also give the skills and knowledge to specialize in an area of interest.”

Fashion Industries, according to Bonnici, works very hard to help students pass the Regents on their first attempt to minimize the effect of the new standards on their occupational sequences.

“I don’t have much of an argument with the Regents requirement. The basic five Regents give kids the opportunity to explore different areas and they stress critical thinking, which is necessary for occupations,” said Bonnici, adding that his concern lies with what happens after the students pass the Regents and then they say that what they really wanted was to take more occupational education courses.

“Traditionally we were designed for students who had different skills,” said Bonnici. “The students who fall behind academically and who need vocational education even more get less of it.”

“The fact of the matter is that the majority of vocational education graduates do go on to college and most of them are able to work their way through school with the high paying skills that we’ve been able to teach them. But, we also have an obligation to equip the students who do not go on to higher education with the ability to earn a good, middle-class living in a trade. So, in either case we can’t lose the focus on occupational subject matter,” said Carucci.#


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