Mekiyah Rabbon flips through her lab book, each page of graphing paper cluttered with sketches of pirate ships. The 15-year-old freshman in Edison High School's introductory engineering design class then moves to her computer to draft a digital 3D-model of a boat. In the adjoining lab, where spare robot parts are scattered across tables, a $30,000 3D-printer is ready to cut out students' designs.
The class is one of several career technical education, or CTE, courses offered at the southwest Fresno high school, which in recent years entered into the world of "new" vocational education.
Courses with titles like advanced electronics and biomedicine draw even the school's youngest students into career-oriented pathways that promise education and training in real-world topics. Overall, 20% of Edison's students take career tech classes, Fresno Unified career education program manager Ellie Honardoost said.
CTE's mission to get students interested in careers early as a way to help them succeed academically and start on the path to a professional workplace isn't new.
But Valley schools are taking a renewed interest in the decades-old idea, which is proven to help students succeed in school.
National career education experts say programs that combine training with rigorous academics are the ones that work.
And with new career education models springing up across the state such as the Linked Learning movement many districts are embarking on new ways of teaching CTE.
Business leaders say more career-trained graduates also would be a boon for the economy: an aging trade workforce means jobs are going unfilled and could be taken by young candidates with the skills to succeed.
Champions of career education are clear on one point: the Valley needs more of it.
"Living here my whole life, I would say yes, we need it here," said Jim Yovino, Fresno County superintendent of schools. "We need to get away from this myth that these (jobs that involve working with your hands) are not honorable positions."
What programs work?
A successful career program should prepare students for advanced training and include challenging academic classes and counselors, national experts say.
But forget home economics and shop class. Instead, think green technology and industrial construction. Those are the classes students now take at some Valley schools, where administrators see new versions of traditional vocational classes as the answer to help youngsters paddle through the often-rocky waters of high school.
Designing those types of career programs has been Gene Bottoms' mission for more than 25 years.
Bottoms, vice president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, said classes should be organized around broad academic themes think college departments like business and communications. Students must take a set of several rigorous courses in the same topic, he added, and do real-world projects or internships.
Bottoms is the brains behind the High Schools That Work network a career program used in 30 states that is intended to help kids achieve and graduate from high school. His most recent program is in Gwinnett County, Ga., which is planning to start several high school career academies next fall. The program was created based on high-demand jobs in today's labor market, such as the health field. Every high school student will enroll in a career pathway, he said.
"You've got kids bored to death in high school, high failure rates," he said. "We need a different approach to learning, one that grabs their interest and (has) employment opportunities."
Some local schools have latched onto this idea, most notably Fresno Unified's Duncan Polytechnical High School and the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, a partnership of Fresno and Clovis districts.
Several Clovis high schools are also ahead of the pack, largely because of a $12.8 million state grant the district got in 2009 that helped pump up its career tech offerings. The district matched the money dollar-for-dollar, and less than five years later, has several high-tech career programs to show for it.
Take Buchanan High, where the school's $5.2 million green technology center gives teens space to build solar panels and other high-tech devices. Debbie Parra, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said alternative-energy concepts also are integrated into students' college prep classes.
"We try to focus the academics within that career path," she said, adding that students take math and English classes with topics related to their career training.
Career and academic benefits
Reedley High senior Saul Lopez is one of a few young men enrolled in his school's certified nursing assistant program.
The earnest 17-year-old, who wants to become an X-ray technician or phlebotomist, is known by his peers and teachers as a soft-spoken, thorough caregiver.
Saul is one of several Reedley teens who suits up in plum-colored scrubs and cares for the elderly at the Palm Village Retirement Community during school hours each week.
But his teacher, Anna Lane, says Saul wasn't nearly as inspired when she met him. He was known to skip class frequently, a pattern Lane discovered dated back to his junior year.
Lane, a licensed vocational nurse and Reedley High School teacher, said Saul reversed course when he started the CNA class.
Working with patients, Saul said, made him want to be in school.
"I just love the people," he said.
Although some believe that students are less likely to drop out when they have career tech options, there is little evidence that conclusively shows California high schoolers are more likely to graduate if they take career classes, said David Stern, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and a leading voice on CTE in California.
But there is proof that career education helps kids who do stay in school perform better, he said.
A 2011 study co-authored by Stern and two other Berkeley researchers shows students in career academies pathways that tie together a set of college-prep academic and vocational classes pass the California High School Exit Exam at slightly higher rates than their peers. Career education made the biggest difference for Hispanic students: passing rates for those students was 6% to 7% higher if they were academy enrollees.
Local research shows other academic benefits.
A seven-year study by The James Irvine Foundation shows community college-enrollment rates for CART students was significantly higher than for other students.
The report looked at CART students and those with similar demographics at other schools who don't enroll in CTE. CART students also enrolled at four-year universities at slightly higher rates, the paper shows.
CART, a project-based school for juniors and seniors, has become a model for districts because of its tough curriculum, dazzling facilities and laser-focus on science and math-related careers.
Bethany Garoupa, the school's dean of instruction, said she's not sure whether career education has an effect on graduation rates.
But, she said, parents often tell her their children, who were at risk of not graduating, "came to CART, saw the relevance and learning and started to get good grades here."
Linking to a new approach
In Duncan's engine technology class, a group of students tinker on an oil leak on the vice principal's car. The teens, wearing dark work shirts and safety glasses, look at ease as they crank up the cream-colored SUV and get a look at its underbelly.
The students mostly seniors spend three hours each day testing car batteries and doing minor repairs in Duncan's on-site auto shop. Several former students have gone on to auto industry careers, teacher Beau Sunahara said. Some get jobs right out of high school as oil changers or other low-level positions before working up through the ranks.
Duncan, where 95% of students graduate compared to the district average of 75%, has for decades been Fresno Unified's standout for stellar career programs. Back in the 1980s, all the district's career classes were centralized at Duncan, said Sally Fowler, career and college readiness administrator.
That slowly began to change in the 1990s, she said, when more county-funded classes sprang up in Fresno Unified high schools. McLane High has an on-campus bank, where a small group of students become certified bank tellers and learn about finance. Roosevelt is jump-starting a new video-production program, and other high schools offer courses in fashion and graphic design.
The changes reflect statewide shifts in career education. In California, state reports show, funding for CTE shrank at the same time student interest in career classes waned. That has left an opening for schools interested in a new approach.
Fresno Unified is planning to experiment with a career academy model called Linked Learning. Developed in 2008, dozens of districts across California are now using the framework, which ties together tough academic classes with career courses, counseling and internships. The program is intended to better prepare students for college and career success.
The district recently received a $250,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation to start planning career pathways at each of its high schools. Fowler envisions a model similar to the one in Gwinnett County, where every student is enrolled in a chosen career program.
"It would mean every student would have the opportunity to belong," she said.
Fowler notes there are holes in the district's current system ones she hopes Linked Learning will help fix.
One example: a student could take a career class at one school but might need to transfer across town to take additional classes in the same subject area. "Do we have enough pathways? No, not at all," she said, adding that the district is "25% of the way" to offering all high schoolers equal access to a robust program.
Another problem: not enough Fresno Unified teachers are trained to teach career classes, putting heavy loads on those who are qualified.
"We might have a 'successful' (career) pathway but we're killing our teachers behind it," she said.
Some say districts need to invest more in programs for kids with no plans for higher education. Why steer them toward the college track, they say, when they would rather go into the trades?
Fresno Unified Trustee Carol Mills said it comes down to schools being practical about students' futures.
"We should give all these students an option to do college if that's their choice, but I think we need to be realistic that not every child is going to go there after high school," she said. "We can't forget, we still need plumbers and electricians and auto mechanics, and these folks are making decent money without degrees."
In a broad sense, the argument over "old" vocational programs versus the new is about whether it's right to direct students toward manual labor instead of college. Advocates of Linked Learning say the program helps strike a balance by giving kids both options.
That's easier said than done, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Limited state and local funding is the most obvious limitation, he said.
"It's un-American to say certain kids are going to end up being plumbers and certain kids are going to be doctors," he said. "The only solution to that is it has to be both, but that ain't easy to do."
Skilled workforce an economic necessity
More skilled workers could be an economic bonanza for Fresno, say government and business leaders concerned about poverty in the Valley.
Getting career skills to more Fresnans is key to unlocking the city's high unemployment rates, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said.
"There are thousands of jobs that go unfilled each and every day, even though we have chronic, double-digit unemployment," she said. "When you talk to employers, they give you a long list of jobs they have available."
Local industry leaders say those skilled jobs like construction estimators will soon be in even higher demand.
"I think we're getting to the point where in the next 10 years it's going to be a huge issue," said Hilary Rauch, executive director of the Central California Builders Exchange. "A lot of the (construction workers) who have been in the industry for years are going to be retiring in the next five to 10 years."
That is part of the reason some districts are getting back into the career training game. Others say it's the reason they've stuck by their programs all along.
"There's been a stigma around vocational education, but we don't see it that way," Central Unified Superintendent Mike Berg said. "Not every child necessarily goes to college; every child needs to be career ready."
Central Unified is on the verge of unveiling plans for a career "incubator," a learning center created in partnership with businesses. Berg had few details to share but said the center will be built and ready to house programs ranging from culinary arts to sports medicine within two years.
"Right now (students) have to go to an adult education program to really apply what they've learned in K-12 education to some job skills," he said. "We're saying, why wouldn't we just embed the job training into the K-12 experience?"
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, firstname.lastname@example.org or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.