Educating Kids For Their Lives

Several years ago, I was talking to a teacher about how many West Virginia schools handle vocational education. It’s almost an afterthought for many public school officials. Students who sign up for it are thought of as “the kids in the basement.”

My friend asked how much I earn in a year. That was none of his business, I told him. “Well,” he continued, “I’ll bet it’s not as much as one of my former students, who graduated last spring, makes.”

He told me.

My mouth dropped open.

By now, his ex-student, still in her 20s, is probably well into six figures. She’s a welder.

And that’s one problem with how we look at vocational education. The “she” part, I mean. As gender-enlightened as most of us would like to be, we subconsciously stereotype many jobs as for men only. It turns out, by the way, that there’s a certain type of welding women do better than men. No one is certain why.

Lots of high school students, male and female, would rather be tearing down an engine or wiring a house than doing so-called “white collar” work. In some ways, I have no trouble understanding that. It’s been a long time since I worried that I’d said the wrong thing to a spark plug.

Yet the bias continues to be a part of public education. You know: We need to concentrate our efforts and resources on the college-bound kids, not the auto body or refrigeration students. I challenge anyone to dispute that, honestly, with me.

All this is leading up to what may be a historic event: West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee and I agree on something.

Last week, Lee discussed the upcoming special session of the West Virginia Legislature with MetroNews. Lawmakers will be holding a special session within the next couple of months, with the goal of enacting meaningful improvements in public schools.

Lee suggested the legislators should devote some energy to both vocational education and middle school students. “That’s where a lot of kids are losing interest,” he commented.

He’s absolutely right.

One way of keeping some middle school students engaged is offering them at least a start in vocational education. Some schools in our area already do that.

Everyone ought to.

Think about it: If you’re 13 years old, enjoy carpentry and think it’d be a great career, how interested would you be in four more years of school revolving around English literature, advance biology, trigonometry, etc.?

Why, you might ask yourself, are these people getting me ready for a college I don’t want to attend instead of helping learn something that fits me?

The catch — you knew this was coming — is that it’s a whole lot cheaper to teach English literature than to buy the equipment needed for many vocational courses. That’s a problem. I suspect it’s a large part of the reason many school officials begin to sweat when the vocational director says she has a request.

But Lee is right on target. Better vocational education, starting earlier, is something we need to talk about in West Virginia — for multiple reasons.

Otherwise, we’re going to continue to graduate a lot of kids with little or no education for their lives, or, worse, watch them drop out.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.


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