The administration at Westfield Vocational Technical High School is getting a lot of attention. In an age of high-stakes testing, pay-for-performance teaching wages, and data-driven success, Westfield Vocational Technical High School is getting a zero. And they couldn’t be more pleased. So pleased, the local ABC affiliate is hot on the scene to get their reaction.
After all, a zero drop-out percent rate is a newsworthy event.
During the 2013-2014 school year, Westfield (@wvths) surpassed the vision of what technical school could attain, garnering an amazing 0% drop-out rate. Fortunately, they have some positive numbers to show as well – a remarkable 92.7% graduation rate, with many of the students going directly into jobs.
In a recent video case study of the school by IT’S ABOUT TIME® (IAT), Principal Stefan Czaporowski explains, “We’re basically trying to create workers here. We want students who will be prepared for career or college and we do have that going on. Last year, out of our graduating glass, 55% went on to college and 45% went to work.”
This school, located in the heart of southern Massachusetts, gives students hands-on experience in everything from how to change a tire to the basics of flying a plane. And, upon graduation, they have the skills to immediately enter the workforce in a variety of high-paying jobs. “Our students graduate from this program with over 1000 hours of one-the-job training, working at different manufacturing companies in not only western Massachusetts but northern Connecticut,” says Assistant Principal Kevin Daley.
Of course, behind every great program, and every successful statistic, there are hard-working teachers, dedicated students, and highly effective and engaging curriculum. Westfield’s curriculum of choice that helped them to reach heights of success, garnering news media attention, is project-based Engineering the Future by IAT. As reported by MindShift’s KQED last year, research using IAT’s curriculum found that, when it comes to teaching STEM in a way that truly resonates with kids and breaks down barriers of learning between boys and girls of various socioeconomic backgrounds, project-based curriculum makes a huge difference (Can Project-Based Learning Close Gaps in Science Education? by Infei Chen).
Pointing Students Into High-Growth Success
But the updated concept of vocational education is spreading far beyond the boundaries of the East Coast. Global magazine Monocle recently produced an enlightening feature on vocational schools for the Entrepreneurs weekly podcast. According to Monocle, eight hours to the west of Westfield, another high school is a making waves with their own vocational innovation. In Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, teacher Tim Liller is taking the idea of shop class into the 21st Century by incorporating high-level engineering, design, and fabrication. Today, his students are cutting rubber as a step for designing renewable energy wind turbines.
“It’s tough to find a good job when you’ve just graduated from high school,” Liller explains. “Kids can gain the knowledge here, and if they’re interested in it, they can probably find a job doing it because they already have some base knowledge of how things work.”
This year, the Beaver Creek administration team is pushing education in an area where they know students can find successful jobs after high school: renewable energy. The Solar Energy Foundation recently released a report that showed this industry created over 30,000 new jobs last year, at a growth of almost 22%. (“Solar Industry Creating Jobs Nearly 20 Times Faster Than U.S. Economy.”) As students learn the basics of building motors, capturing light with photovoltaic cells, and wind turbine design, they are being prepared to succeed in one of the most promising areas of the workforce.
Guidance counselor Angela Manno explains that this new version of vocational education is more than just “shop class.” It’s a way for a younger generation to learn trade skills that are often lost in the big push for every student to attend a 4-year college.
“All of your tradesman – your contractors, electricians, pipe-fitters, welders – they’re all a bit older,” Manno says. “And, in my generation, there were very few people trained to be tradesmen. It was all college, college, college. Now, I work here, and I see a switch in what is actually needed in the industry.”
The Spread of “New Shop”: A Global Pandemic of Economic Promise
Both the Westfield and Beaver Falls programs represent a new breed of education, one that combines vocational and technical education with project-based STEM instruction. And, this concept is spreading. Career-based and STEM-rich programs like these are popping up all over the country, and the buzz is becoming a roar. High-tech shop classes like these are finding their way around the world, with participating schools from California to Rwanda.
Since 2008, Vocational Education and Training programs (TVET) have been growing in high-needs areas like Rwanda and Jakarta, providing education that can lead to employment. These programs have been so successful that governments have been increasing funding and spending to improve these facilities. By 2017, the Rwanda Ministry of Education alone has a goal for 60% of all students to be participating in a TVET program. (S. Asaba & T. Lwanyaga, “Rwanda: Why Demand for Vocational Education is On the Increase,” All Africa). In addition, the Ministry of Education in Jakarta is slated to build 200 vocational schools in 2015.
This type of emphasis on vocational schools and on-the-job technical training is happening increasingly all around the world, hinting that the dawn of a new STEM-era is upon us.
The 21st Century Paradigm of Experience vs. Education
So, what’s the impetus for this sudden worldwide push towards a new standard of vocational education? Simple economics.
In a recent NPR piece (Economists Say Millennials Should Consider Careers in Trades) journalist Chris Arnold (@Chris_ArnoldNPR) highlighted common statistics showing that 4-year college graduates make more money than those with just a high school diploma – on average. The problem is, the current economy makes it very difficult to afford a $40,000 per year college tuition loan, and has no guarantee of work upon completion.
In “New Shop” classes like the ones at Westfield and Beaver Falls, students attain important work experience (Westfield students log over 1,000 hours of on-the-job training working at different manufacturing companies), which is often more valuable than static information. In a recent report from High Fliers Research, their findings showed that college graduates with no corresponding work experience, “have little chance of finding a job.” Students enrolled in these forward-thinking vocational educational programs may be able to find work quicker than their college counterparts, in addition to learning high-needs skills in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These are findings the world can’t afford to ignore.
“New Shop” Puts Student-Driven STEM to Work
The success of STEM-based and high-tech vocational programs is exciting to see in action. But, what’s more inspiring is how students are responding to their educational opportunities. One Westfield High School teacher explains, “Many kids say, “If I had to go to [a traditional] high school, I wouldn’t be going to school at all. This is what’s keeping me in school, coming to this place.””
But, earning that hallowed 0% dropout rate is just the beginning. To the students, the program is about making their lives, and the rest of the world, just a little bit better. One Westfield student explains it best:
“We are the future. We will be the building blocks of this nation. If we don’t know how to solve our own problems, how can we develop this nation into something new?”
“New Shop” class and engaging, problem-based curriculum, is the perfect place to start.
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