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Oakland Schools Go Back to the Future With Vo-Tech

Oakland has revitalized its vocational tech programs, recognizing that the "college-for-all" craze failed to train youth for well-paying, skilled-trades jobs.

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"I hope it'll help more people be more open-minded about the benefits of this type of work," Melendrez said, "and that it'll help more women — and young people in general — to have their eyes open to a field that could be right for them."

In the past couple of years, the Oakland school district has placed a greater emphasis on career technical education under its new "linked learning" initiative, also known as "wall-to-wall pathways." In linked learning, nearly every Oakland public high school student in the city must select an academic career path or academy — such as health, engineering, computer science, biotechnology, or architecture and design — by the 10th grade, with hopes that it will encourage more students to graduate and motivate them toward real world careers.

Linked learning coincides with a resurgence and re-emphasis on providing career technical education, mainly for white-collar jobs, but it has made some educators realize the importance of teaching kids about the so-called blue-collar fields as well, Sanchez said. And that change has been a significant one for many students since Oakland Unified, like many school districts nationwide, completely moved away from vo-tech education about 25 to 30 years ago.

Oakland and school districts around the country dismantled their vo-tech programs after studies found that students from certain racial and ethnic groups, particularly Latino and African-American young men, were being tracked into the skilled trades and construction jobs in high school, preordaining them to blue-collar work for the rest of their lives, instead of giving them the chance to pursue college and become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other white-collar professionals.

This educational tracking prompted a big push, nationally, to promote college for all by the mid-1990s. But today many educators believe that the college-for-all reforms went too far. "Instead of fixing the problem, they eliminated a viable option," Sanchez said. "They threw the baby out with the bath water."

Tadashi Nakadegawa, Oakland school district's director of facilities planning and management, said he still can recall the days when all of the district's five comprehensive high schools — Fremont, McClymonds, Oakland, Oakland Tech, and Skyline — had dedicated shop classrooms, including a wood shop, an auto shop or a metal shop, and other types of shops classrooms. When he started working at the district about 30 years ago, such classrooms existed, but they were hardly bustling. Participation was dwindling. They had very little instruction or classwork was going on in them, and within five to 10 years, all the remaining shop teachers had retired or been laid off.

By the late 1980s and 1990s, shop classrooms had nearly all been converted into other types of learning or support facilities. Fremont High was able to hold onto its shop program through its long-standing Architecture Academy, and Castlemont High rebuilt a Fab Lab in the past five years as part of its Sustainable Urban Design Academy, but other schools did away with such programs completely.

"The focus of the district shifted to college prep and away from shops or vocational education, and we were tasked with developing plans for alternative uses for the shops classrooms," Nakadegawa explained.

Former OUSD Superintendent Dennis Chaconas said he can still recall taking shop classes during high school in the summer to learn how to do work on his car. Chaconas had a long history at Oakland Unified. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was an OUSD student, and later, started his teaching career in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Oakland, then rising through the ranks to become a high school principal in the 1980s, and then district superintendent of schools from 2000 to 2003. He said that when he started as a teacher at Havenscourt Middle School in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a wood shop, metal shop, and car shop there.

But he said that throughout those years, "there was a huge gap in what students were learning and what they needed to go into the field. It was not at a level — to prepare you to enter the field. It was very basic. Technology was really changing, and what we learned, things like fixing a carburetor or fuel injection, was really low-level. It would not prepare a kid for working at a Ford dealership or something like that."

Also tracking was absolutely an issue, he said: In the '50s and '60s, you either were college prep or you were on a more traditional general-ed track. Later, as the district became increasingly diverse, "when you looked in the classes, all the kids who in the shop classes were African Americans or Latino, and all the kids in the academics are college prep or white or Asian, and that was a problem," Chaconas said.

Those inequities prompted him to commit to providing 21st century voc-ed classes that were devised to provide hands-on learning opportunities to kids, regardless of race or economic background, when he became principal at Oakland Tech in 1983. So, he started the Engineering and Health academies there, which were highly regarded precursors to the district's current push for wall-to-wall pathways. He also tried to reinstate more traditional vocational ed courses, as Oakland's superintendent of schools, that were more focused on actually getting kids working on construction sites, alongside journeymen, in carpentry and electricians and masonry, so students could learn those practical skills. But he said those ideas did not take off due to a number of factors, including a lack of qualified shop teachers and a slowing economy that led to less demand for those employees, he said.

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