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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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He said that when the college-for-all movement started to flourish within K-12 education in the 1990s, traditional vo-tech shop classes finally got the ax. As graduation requirements increased, it decreased the number of electives, including shop classes, that students could take, he explained.

"But I've always thought it was important to help kids understand how the theoretical connects to the practical, as well as help kids, while still being college prep, get jobs, and learn a trade that could be a fallback, in case college didn't work out," he said.

In the past few years, there's been a growing backlash against the college-for-all hegemony that dominated K-12 education for the past couple of decades, as dropout rates have remained troublingly high, college tuition and debt have spiraled out of control, and many college graduates have struggled to find high-paying jobs, often ending up taking lower-paying jobs in food service, retail sales, and clerical work industries instead.

"There's a recognition now that college for all is not a great strategy for all students, and the data reflects that," said Danny Beesley, a technical expert on Fab Labs and vocational education as the founder of Oakland-based Idea Builder Labs, a company that has focused on developing and building Fab Labs in education. He helped to set up the first Fab Lab in the Oakland school district at Castlemont High five years ago, with Timothy Bremner, a teacher who created the school's Sustainable Urban Design Academy, which exposes kids to real world community projects in agriculture, environmental science, architecture, engineering, and design, about eight years ago.

"The college-for-all paradigm has been really been pushed for quite some time," Beesley said. "It's really been two decades almost that college for all has been the mantra, but if you look at the data for a lot of the school districts that really pushed that concept, 20 years of massive investment into that hasn't really moved the dial. You aren't actually sending more people to college by just by telling them to go to college."

By contrast, Bremner says that his academy's real-world approach toward teaching offers "a way to engage kids in learning around authentic community projects."

"It's fun, it's real, it's creative, it's innovative, and it has all the beauties of a hands-on project-based learning curriculum," he said of the Fab Lab. "It really teaches kids what I would consider a life skill. They learn how to use power tools, think like a builder, and have confidence around making something, which is a life skill. We're teaching what we all need to learn — to make repairs and think like a builder and be confident with those things — whether you go into design, architecture, engineering, or carpentry, or any one of the skilled trades."

Sanchez said that when he started his job as the district's Career Technical Education trades and apprenticeships director in 2015, some skilled-trades classes existed at a couple of high schools, but they weren't integrated with trades unions to have programming that not only teaches students the necessary skills but also guides them into careers. And although students at times found their way into careers in the trades, the district didn't have a tracking system or a formal way to introduce them to lucrative, blue-collar career pathways.

That has led to a shortage of skilled-trades workers statewide, nationwide, and in Oakland. Right now, the average age of an apprentice is 28, which means that people graduate from high school at 18 and they basically float around for 10 years until they find construction as a meaningful career, he said. Also, there's a concern that with more than 50 percent of the skilled-trades workforce nationwide due to retire in the next five to 10 years, "there won't be enough talent to fill that void, if we aren't lifting it up in the schools," he added.

But with the pre-apprenticeship programs at Skyline and Fremont and another that is in development at Castlemont High that the district is trying to find funding for, "careers in the skilled trades and advanced manufacturing are now starting to be recognized as viable options, and not as an afterthought," he said.

Tim White, Oakland school district's deputy chief of facilities planning and management, said what is also largely unknown to many is that the district has a "project labor agreement" with the local building trades unions that mandates that any construction agreement funded by the district's general obligation bonds in the last 10 to 15 years comes with a commitment by the unions and general contractors that the workforce be about 50 percent local. As a result, he said, there is potential for a built-in pipeline for Oakland students through pre-apprenticeships to get jobs working on those sites. But it has yet to fully materialize.

"So, although there are some good programs scattered across the district that have recently emerged under Emiliano [Sanchez], or have been established earlier by Timothy Bremner at Castlemont, we've struggled trying to make that linkage, and that's a still a huge unrealized resource," White said.

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