South L.A. youth find a lot to like in job training programs


David Starr Jordan High School in Watts is one of many schools in the Los
Angeles Unified School District increasing its offerings of career classes.
These students take a nurse aid class, which started in September 2008.
Erick Hernandez, a senior at David Starr Jordan High School, leaned over a plastic mannequin and breathed two long, controlled breaths into its mouth. Then, he stood up, straightened his arms and, with both his hands on its chest, gave it several short pumps.

Hernandez was practicing CPR in his first-period nurse aid class, the first hands-on health-career training class offered at the high school in Watts. “It’s a great class. I’m glad they have it now, even though I wish they would have had it earlier,” said Hernandez. “I want to get as much preparation as I can because I want to be in the medical field in the future.”

The class represents a new wave of job training courses for young people not bound for college. Three years ago, computer and woodshop classes were the only options for students at Jordan. Since then, the school in South Los Angeles has added four more career and technical education course options, including nurse’s aide, animation, video production and stage design. Jordan also plans to offer next school year a new computer gaming and a forensic science classes, said Michelle Drayton, the school’s district-assigned career and technical education (CTE) advisor. Supported by increased state and federal support, school-to-work job training programs at high schools throughout South Los Angeles have equipped these campuses with what educators believe is an antidote to low academic achievement and soaring dropout rates. Job training classes, combined with academics, give young people options for both the workplace and college, unlike the old vocational education model of the 1970s.

In rolling out these programs, however, significant problems remain. A lack of major businesses and industry sectors in Watts means that Jordan High School, and other schools in South Los Angeles, has few local resources from which to draw for financial and professional support for its career programs. Drayton said Watts has no department stores or theaters and is limited to mostly mom-and-pop stores. Taking students on field trips or connecting them with internships is difficult because transportation becomes expensive.

“Everything is on the other side of the freeway,” Drayton said, referring to the 110, or Harbor Freeway.

These obstacles aren’t likely to go away any time soon, but South Los Angeles high school administrators and advisors also see school-to-work options growing in their schools and communities because of the new state programs aggressively spending more money to shore up these programs increasingly popular among students.

The CTE comeback

Jordan High students learn about first aid in their nurse responder class.

Jordan High School, located next to a Watts housing project, used to have “a plethora of career classes” about three decades ago, as did most other public schools, said Drayton, Jordan’s career and technical adviser. But that was before the nation started placing a sharper focus on academics and college preparation in the 1980s and 1990s, leading many schools to eliminate most of their CTE classes, formerly known as vocational education. Now those classes are making a comeback, said Isabel Vazquez, Los Angeles Unified School District’s director of career and technical programs. The 21st century incarnation of the old vocational ed model now includes academics alongside job training, giving students more options.

“With the reduction, or sometimes virtually the elimination, of career and technical education, the assumption was that all students would be prepared for college,” Vazquez said. “But from my standpoint, all the students that are leaving school are not being prepared for college or for anything else… We’ve been redirecting the conversation so that the schools prepared students for both college and work.”

Government is a big part of that conversation. The federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, a reauthorization of the original act of 1998, refocused national efforts on career and technical education in secondary schools. The Perkins act increased accountability for states and local programs receiving federal funding, requiring them to set up achievement targets on how to implement and improve career-based training for students. The federal legislation also established new academic standards for CTE classes in high schools, merging stronger academics into career training. At Crenshaw High School, for example, a new small-learning academy specializing in social justice and law, providing a blend of academics and job training, will be joined by several others in the next year or two as part of the school’s efforts to bolster its school-to-work initiatives.

The resurgence of these programs is also supported by the state, considered a national leader in school-to-work programs. In November 2006, voters passed Proposition 1D, an education bill allocating $500 million in state funds for career and technical facilities and equipment for new classes in secondary and postsecondary schools. Another California bill in 2006, Assembly Bill 2448, increased the required level of high school students served by Regional Occupational Programs (ROP), or the state’s main source for providing job training courses to high schools with teachers’ salaries paid for by the state.

“By 2011, we have to serve 90 percent high school students… In the past, we have served 50 percent,” said Vazquez, who estimated that the district has raised its percentage to between 62 and 64 percent.

The growth in classes has largely been supported by state funding, even as LAUSD’s direct financial contribution shrinks. The job training programs supported directly by district funds has declined 27 percent in the last two years, but programs and classes offered on high school campuses through aggressive state-supported regional occupation programs has nearly tripled in the past eight years, from 970 classes in 2000 to 2,657 in 2008, according to the Regional Occupational Program Center operating under the auspices of the Los Angeles school district. The need, educators say, has never been more dire.

Video production students at Jordan High School get hands-on experience
with the camera and practice their interviewing skills.

The need

Michelle Drayton stood before about 30 high school students in a video production class and told the students the kind of money they can earn in the industry.

“It’s not an $8-an-hour job. The lowest job amount you can make in the industry, I would say, would be $15, $16, $17 and hour,” she said. “And you go up from there. Some start at $20, some start at $25 dollars an hour. Some start at $50 an hour. But you have to have the skill to be able to go into the industry and say, ‘I want to apply for this job.’”

Drayton later explained that talking about money is the way to really hook the students. “As I speak to them and interact with them, they tell me they don’t believe they’ll be alive, they won’t live to see 21… because they’ve seen so many of their family members and friends die because of gang activity, gunfire, gang wars, all kinds of criminal activity,” she said. “We need to provide a way for them to be able to see a way out of a no-way, dead-end situation because many of these kids don’t see a way out of this.”

Career and technical classes help the students become more interested in going to school, Drayton said, especially those who might not plan on attending college.

“We, as a district and as a nation, have to understand that it’s wonderful to want every child to college, but not every child is going to go to college,” she added. “So, we need to provide them with marketable skills, so when they do leave high school… they will have a marketable skill to sustain themselves.”

These programs also are often viewed as a dropout deterrent. Eighty-one percent of high school dropouts in a survey said classes that teach more opportunities for real-world learning would help keep students in school, according to the “Silent Epidemic,” a 2006 report produced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In recent years, South Los Angeles public high school dropout rates have generally ranged from about 20 to more than 50 percent—Jefferson High School had a 58 percent dropout rate in the 2006-2007 school year, according to the district’s most recent statistics. This is much higher than for public high schools in areas with more middle- and upper-middle-class residents live, such as the west side of San Fernando Valley that had dropout rates as low as less than 5 percent.

Students plan and analyze projects as part of Jordan High School's video
production class. Career classes today have a stronger academic focus.

While Jordan High School’s dropout rate of 21 percent in the 2005-2006 school year is not as high as some other schools in its area South Los Angeles that year, it is still considered one of the lower-performing schools in the district. Like other South Los Angeles public high schools, it earned a ranking of one out of 10 in academic performance levels, placing it in the lowest 10 percent of all public high schools in the state when compared to statistically similar schools. The career programs are still so new that there’s little definitive evidence that they actually serve their intended purpose, but educators say these ramped up versions of the 20th century vocational education models should ultimately work.

Overcoming the obstacles

A significant drag on these early efforts is the absence of a vibrant business community. South LA is a largely residential area with few employment opportunities, according to a 2004 report by the Los Angeles County Development Corp. The report, which analyzed South Los Angeles communities using 2000 Census data, showed that the region only accounted for 2.45 percent of the county’s employment base in 2003. With less access to the type of industry and professionals needed in their communities, South Los Angeles high schools have worked to find outside sources of support, such as local universities, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Unite-L.A., a organization that assists schools in connecting with work-based learning opportunities. Jordan High School, for example, is planning to utilize USC students and professors to help teach concepts of computer gaming in a class Drayton said will most likely start in January.

Sometimes the problems are homegrown. Fremont High School assistant principal Marilyn Gavin said many students at her schools have to retake academic classes, which makes it difficult for them to take career-based elective classes. The year-round school has a population of about 5,000 students and earned a low ranking on state academic performance measures, according to its most recent district school report. The school also struggles with limited space for career classes, Gavin said.

Space is indeed an issue. Last year, for example, the high school offered about 16 career and technical training classes, a number that suggests a plentiful curriculum but was actually only achieved by adding multiple periods of the same class subjects over two semesters. By comparison, other comparable high schools in the district offered between 20 to 55 classes by similarly offering multiple offerings of the same class.

Despite their challenges, Fremont, like other South Los Angeles high schools, has taken advantage of available state and federal grants to offer fuller offerings of school-to-work career training. The school has added a filmmaking class, reinstated a cosmetology class it had before and recently won approval for a complement of new business classes.

Other South Los Angeles high schools, such as Manual Arts High School, are moving at a faster clip. This year alone, the school has added five classes, including medical emergency responder, a chef assistant and video production.

Drayton at Jordan High School describes these changes as great progress for her school and others in South Los Angeles. “We’re kind of right in the middle of that upswing,” she said. “We haven’t gotten to the top of the hill yet, but we’re chugging a lot on that little train… We still have a long way to go, but I think that we’re on the right track.”