New report fuels fears of decline of regional occupational programs

Jesus Lupian works on a framing project in a carpentry class at Silicon Valley Career Technical Education in San Jose. Credit: Neil HanshawA new report has raised concerns about the future of regional occupational programs that are geared to helping high school students explore career options and be prepared to enter the workforce after graduation.
The report, released this month by the California Department of Education, shows a 20 percent drop in the number of career technical high school teachers between 2011-12 and 2012-13. And only 38 percent of the state’s high school students took career tech courses in 2012-13, about 12 percent fewer students than the year before.
The decline “is staggering,” said Lloyd McCabe, author of the report and an education administrator for the education department’s Career Technical Education Leadership and Instructional Support Office. “You look at it and think it can’t be right. But I did the data twice.”
Shifting priorities
The decline reflects a shift in the state’s priorities away from traditional occupational classes such as auto shop or carpentry to career-oriented programs that put students on a college track. Some contend this shift is needed to ensure that students have as many options as possible when they graduate from high school. Others argue that the state has gone too far, overlooking students who are not college-bound and who need to be prepared to enter the work force or a short-term training program directly out of high school.
Career tech includes a broad range of courses from the basic high school automotive shop class to linked learning programs that combine rigorous college-prep academics with hands-on learning in a career “pathway,” such as health or business. State leaders are investing $250 million in one-time funds to develop linked learning programs and are providing dedicated funding to Partnership Academies, which rely on the linked learning approach by creating small learning communities at high schools that focus on an integrated career theme.
But the Regional Occupational Centers and Programs, which for 40 years have offered a wide range of career classes from cosmetology to engineering as part of the high school curriculum, no longer receive dedicated funding. Although many of those courses appeal to college-going students, these centers also serve high school students who want to explore well-paying careers such as dental hygienist or carpentry that do not require a four-year college degree.
The drop in career technical teachers and courses is occurring in these centers and in individual high school classes such as automotive shop, McCabe said. Regional Occupational Centers and Programs, which serve more than 400,000 students, can be located on a high school campus or a separate facility. Students typically take classes during their regular school day, although some centers offer courses after school.
The loss of dedicated funding “has accelerated the demise of career tech,” said Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Agriculture Teachers’ Association and a former State Board of Education member.
The regional occupational centers that supported the key courses have suffered cutbacks and are fading away, he said, citing the data in the new report as evidence. Currently 72 centers are open statewide, and two – Long Beach ROP and East Bay ROP in Oakland – have closed.
“What district is going to put students in the career tech pipeline if they see the structure is disappearing?” Aschwanden asked.
The pathway approach taken by Partnership Academies and linked learning programs is growing, however. Partnership Academies are one of the few state programs that will continue to receive dedicated annual funding of $21.4 million. In addition, 63 county offices of education and districts are piloting linked learning programs starting this school year.
Districts can also compete for a piece of the $250 million in one-time funds the state will provide during the next three years to create career pathways by building connections between high schools and local employers across the state.
On the other hand, the 72 Regional Occupational Centers have to compete with other district priorities.
‘Sea change’
Before the recession, the state allocated $486 million in dedicated funding to the centers. When the recession began, the state cut the allocation by 20 percent and allowed districts to use the money for any educational purpose. This year’s budget and the one the governor has proposed for next year essentially provide no funds for the centers, but districts who are currently funding a center or program are expected to continue to do so through 2014-15. The budget for this year and next also allocates a little more than $200 per high school student for career tech, but districts are free to spend the funds for other purposes.
Regional occupational centers and programs will remain viable if they provide courses that are key to local economic growth and maximize opportunities for students, said Hilary McLean, a spokesperson for the Linked Learning Alliance, a statewide coalition of education, industry and community organizations that advocate for linked learning programs. But if they don’t, she said, “they eventually will go by the wayside.”
There is a “sea change at work” on how to better prepare students for college and career, she said.
“We’re seeing a real interest in the linked learning approach that builds on career tech – integrates it with academics,” McLean said. “It’s better than the either-or approach – college prep track or isolated career tech track.”
But Aschwanden is concerned that students who want to pursue careers that do not require a four-year college degree will lose interest in school and drop out without the options offered through regional centers.
Many of the centers’ programs, such as aerospace engineering offered at SoCal Regional Occupational Center in Torrance, meet the linked learning criteria, but others such as SoCal’s cosmetology or welding programs do not because they do not include an integrated academic approach.
In Torrance, aerospace is a big industry and a district could support a linked learning career pathway in that industry, said Christine Hoffman, superintendent of SoCal ROC. “But not everybody wants to be an aerospace engineer,” she said. “Kids want to be welders, electricians, auto technicians, animators. A single high school cannot do all the things that a regional occupational center can and does provide.”
The loss of dedicated funding for the career centers and programs is part of the recent overhaul of the state’s complex school finance system aimed at giving school districts more control over how they use state funds. The theory behind the new Local Control Funding Formula law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, is that districts will support programs that are valued by their communities “based on the real-world problems they face,” Brown has said.
But Aschwanden isn’t so sure. He said some programs will survive, such as agricultural courses because they are science-based and the University of California has recognized them as meeting one of the “A-G” course requirements for entrance into the university system.
But, he added, if the past is any indication, districts will focus on what is tested. Although metrics showing how well high schools are preparing students for careers are supposed to be added to the Academic Performance Index in 2014-15, no one is clear on how that can be measured, he said. If career tech courses can’t be measured to contribute to a school or district’s API score, then districts are much less likely to support them, he said.
Districts have other compelling priorities, Hoffman said.
“All the new monies that the high schools are getting in the next three to five years are backfill for what they lost over the last eight years,” she said. “Whenever you get new monies, the first call will be on the negotiation table for salaries. That’s the reality of where the monies go.”
One of the problems with eliminating dedicated funding for the centers, advocates say, is that they typically involve large investments in facilities and equipment such as carpentry and auto shops or dental offices and beauty salons. If funds for the centers and programs disappear, the facilities and equipment will be sold, they say, and will be too expensive to rebuild in the future.
Hoffman said she is urging lawmakers to once again provide dedicated funding for these regional programs that she sees as crucial to local economies, and ultimately to the economic health of the state.
“By the time we realize what we have eliminated, it’s too late,” Hoffman said. “The facilities are gone, the equipment is gone, and we won’t have the funding to get them back.”
Susan Frey covers expanded learning time. Contact her. 

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