Shop class may soon have a mini-revival in Oregon.
Up to 21 Oregon high schools will have new or expanded “career and technical education” classes this fall — from carpentry to digital design, engineering to sports medicine — thanks to start-up grant funds the legislature approved last year.
Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who originated the bill, told the Labor Press he’s been bothered by the disappearance of shop classes from Oregon high schools over the last two decades. The programs, which used to be known as vocational education, introduce young people to skilled trades and offer a real-world application of math and science learning.
Avakian, who graduated from Aloha High School in 1979, said public schools back then had what would today be considered pre-apprenticeship training programs.
“At my middle school, Mountain View Middle School in Beaverton, we built a house every year and sold it,” Avakian said. “It was a real house that a family could live in. And the auto shop … the doors opened every morning and people from the community brought their cars in to be worked on. It was a real apprenticeship-type training system, and we let it slip through our fingers.”
Tom Thompson, an expert on career and technical education at the Oregon Department of Education, says programs like that have dropped by about a third just in the last decade. Ten years ago there were about 80 high school automotive programs in Oregon; now there are 40. And only 12 Oregon high schools today offer classes in construction.
So in 2011, Avakian asked state legislators for $4 million in grant funds to revitalize high school career and technical education. None opposed the idea, and roughly half the legislature signed on as co-sponsors. They approved $2 million.
Word went out that the start-up money would be available to school districts which committed to continue the programs, especially those which partnered with business, labor and community groups. Avakian and Oregon Superintendent of Education Susan Castillo appointed a 25-person committee to evaluate grant applications, and school districts lined up to apply for the funds.
In April, the committee judged 43 grant proposals, totaling $11 million in requests. In the end they divided the available $2 million among eight proposals. The largest grant — $435,290 — goes to a program in Linn County that will partner with union training centers.
Known as the Linn County Regional Trades Academy, that program will combine an existing welding and construction program at Lebanon High School with the machine tool and automotive program at South Albany High School and the carpentry program at West Albany High School — plus the use of instructors and equipment at the IBEW-NECA Central Electrical Training Center in Tangent, Laborers Training Center in Corvallis, and Linn-Benton Community College.
Linn County Regional Trades Academy will be a two-year program for juniors and seniors — and a major shift from the idea of shop class as a one-off elective. Each day, participating students will attend their first four classes as normal, then be bussed to trades academy classes for the last three hours of the day. In Year One, students in cohorts of 20 to 25 will spend half the year rotating through three-week introductions to six different trades — electrical, carpentry, automotive, welding, building construction, and machine technology. Each student will then pick one trade for more advanced training in the second half of the year. Those returning for Year Two will continue to develop their skills in internship or pre-apprenticeship programs, or do hands-on work in weatherization, home building, or renovation projects with Lebanon Habitat For Humanity. There’s even a plan for students to use welding and carpentry to construct classroom tables, which would be sold to the district at a lower cost than they could obtain elsewhere. On completion, successful participants will earn community college credits, and be considered good candidates for apprenticeship programs.
Each of the three schools is committed to recruiting two cohort groups; if not enough students sign up, participation will be opened up to nearby Crescent Valley High School and Corvallis High School. National Frozen Foods and Oregon Freeze Dry are also taking part in the academy, and so are Linn-Benton Community College the Albany and Lebanon chambers of commerce.
“These classes really are the arts,” Avakian says. “You’re learning how to create, to imagine, and to me those are the things that build well-rounded human beings.”
Oregon Building Trades Council executive secretary John Mohlis called the grants a first step.
“If the governor is really serious about education reform, and we think that he is, then getting shop classes back in the high schools needs to be part of the conversation,” Mohlis said.
Avakian said he plans to return to the Legislature in 2013 to ask for more – $10 million.