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Some Students Find Vocational Classes To Be a Better Fit

          Editor's note: The achievement gap between minority and Anglo students has vexed New Mexico for years. Today, the Journal continues its spotlight on the issue. For previous stories, on topics such as programs that are working and the many attempts to reform Rio Grande High School, visit and visit the ABQjournal.com Education Achievement Gap blog.

By Elaine D. Briseño
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

        Santa Fe High student Xavier Vigil never had big dreams of college, but he contemplated it from time to time.
        When his mom died in February, he stopped thinking about college altogether and followed her advice.
        "My mom told me to follow my dreams and to be happy in my life," he said. "Right now, I feel like college is not for me."
        That doesn't mean he plans to wander aimlessly after high school.
        Vigil is enrolled in his school's welding program, and he has discovered a knack for art. He makes metal sculptures, and credits the welding class with keeping him engaged in high school.
        "I feel like it's more beneficial to me to learn welding and go to college later," he said. "I would be really bored at school without this class. It makes me look forward to coming to school."
        Raul Rodgriquez,15, said it's his two auto courses that keep him coming to school. He works in his father's auto shop and has never been interested in anything but cars.
        Vigil and Rodriguez exemplify one point of view not touted by many educators these days: that having some students focus on a vocational track in high school, with no immediate plans for college, is OK.
        Santa Fe Public Schools acknowledges and encourages students who, like Vigil and Rodriguez, do not immediately want to go to college after high school.
        The district provides three tracks for high school students, depending on whether a student plans to: attend a "selective" college such as private institutions with stringent admission standards; attend a "major college (or) university" such as a state university; or pursue a technical career, community college or the military. Recommended courses vary, depending on which track a student chooses.
        The welding program, like the rest of the school, has a mostly Hispanic population. By providing career training, the program aims to keep students interested in high school so they don't drop out — one of a variety of approaches to chip away at the state's persistent achievement gap.
        According to the most recent state data, 63 percent of Hispanic students in New Mexico graduate, compared with 74.5 percent of Anglos.
        Welding teacher Al Trujillo said offering hands-on training is an important tool in keeping Hispanic students in school.
        "Here, they learn a skill and their education becomes more valuable to them," he said. "Without something like this, they may end up having a low-paying, low-skilled job."
        One longtime educator who has worked on Hispanic education issues acknowledges the value of vocational education as long as teachers don't have lower expectations for Hispanic students than Anglos.
        Moises Venegas,, founder of the Quinto Sol research group, said those expectations lead Hispanic students to take career paths toward lower-paying jobs than the professions Anglo students might seek.
        "I think it's not as hard-nosed as they used to do it, and it's more subtle," Venegas said. "They no longer say, 'You are not fit for college so you will take these types of courses.' But there are lower expectations for Hispanic students."
        College expectations
        At Santa Fe High, students who want to attend college are told they should take a language and science all four years, and they are told to take at least some AP courses. Those interested in a "selective college" are told all their courses should be AP.
        Students who are pursuing a career in the military or a tech college are told to take a "workplace readiness" course, but they are not encouraged to take any AP classes and they take fewer language and science classes.
        However, those are merely suggestions and students can take more rigorous classes if they choose.
        Albuquerque Public Schools does not offer separate tracks for its students. Everyone is expected to have a certain set of skills when they graduate, said Linda Sink, the district's chief academic officer.
        "It's old-fashioned to take a kid and prepare them not to go to college and take another and prepare them to go to college," she said. "We don't do that anymore."
        APS does offer career and technical courses at most high schools. For example, Atrisco Heritage has a strong focus on the law and public safety, while also offering a film and technology program. Valley has a culinary arts and food services program and computer-aided drafting courses, as well as more traditional programs like wood and metals. Also, there are several charter schools that offer career training.
        But, "We want every kid to have the ability to go to college when they graduate," Sink said. "No matter what path they choose, they should still have the credentials and skills to go to college. That's the goal."
        The state education department has a similar philosophy. This year, the state enacted more rigorous graduation requirements, saying all students must take four years of math and enroll in at least one AP or honors course or one class that allows them to earn college credit while in high school.
        The department believes that every student who graduates should be prepared to go to college or start a career, even if they choose to do something else, spokeswoman Beverly Friedman said.
        Many educators resist the term "vocational education," saying it is archaic.
        Now, schools use models that encourage students to choose a career path, offering hands-on learning alongside theory and textbook lessons, said Melissa Lomax, head of the state's career technical and workforce education bureau.
        These "career technical" fields, she said, act as a bridge for college but also prepare students to work.
        "Every student should have an expected skill set of abilities," she said. "There are certain expectations in every career field, but students would also need the same abilities as a college freshman."
        Lomax said the department encourages schools to focus on seven of 16 national career clusters that are relevant to the local economy: arts and entertainment; business services; communications and information; energy and environmental technologies; engineering, construction, manufacturing and agriculture; health and bio-sciences; and hospitality and tourism.
        Working on a career
        Trujillo calls Vigil one of his best welding students — good enough to pursue a career in art. But that talent was a surprise to Vigil.
        "When I was a freshman, nothing caught my attention," Vigil said. "Then I found this class. I didn't even realize I was artistic."
        Melecio Sanchez, 17, who just finished his junior year at Santa Fe High, has already received one welding certificate that allows him to work with heavy metals. He has a job with a welding company in Bernalillo and said he may attend college after he works and saves some money. He has several uncles who are welders.
        "I like it because you get to work with fire, and you learn how to build things," he said. "You will also make good money doing this."
        Next to Trujillo's shop is the auto mechanics program, taught by former math teacher Abigail Fox. Fox always had a love of cars and often helped her father fix them, but when she went to school, her dreams of an automotive career were quickly quashed.
        "I was smart, so I was put in the college-bound track," she said. "I couldn't take automotive. It was not thought of like it is now."
        Now, she said, automotive is not necessarily a place to put students who will never attend college or who are deemed not college material. Like those in the welding program, Fox's students can choose careers right after high school or go to college.
        For Rodriguez, he has known for a long time that working on cars is what makes him happy — not sitting in a college classroom.
        "I'm a very good artist," Rodriguez said. "I like painting the cars, and I like seeing the smile on people's faces when I fix their car. It's fun pulling out motors. I'm a real grease monkey on those days."

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