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Anthis Career Center student Tucker Reynolds listens as Fort Wayne Fire Department instructors talk about the experience students will go through during a flashover simulation in February. Career and technical education programs are much advanced from the model schools used to offer.

Right issue, wrong approach

Ask almost any Indiana politician what the state should do in the next four years and you’ll likely hear a nostalgic appeal for the old high school shop class, often accompanied by the observation that “not everybody needs to go to college.”

“I never thought less of some of my best friends who were on the industrial arts track and graduated and went to work at Cummins, and I went down to Hanover College. It was just – to each his own,” Mike Pence, Republican candidate for governor, said in an interview. “We’ve lost that celebration of whatever future you want, your high school is going to work to help you start that future – right away.”

Pence certainly is not alone in his views. Legislative and school board candidates are just as eager to lament a shortage of workers and the need to send students straight from high school to the workplace.

Their interest in filling the skills gap is admirable, but their knowledge of Indiana schools is lacking. They’ve mistaken the clamor for more college degrees and the complaints of employers as evidence that our high schools are failing. In fact, what the high schools are doing in career and technical education is some of the most promising work in education. If it doesn’t look like shop class, it’s because those aren’t the skills 21st century jobs demand.

Larry Gerardot, principal of Anthis Career Center in the Fort Wayne Community Schools district, oversees a school with almost 850 students enrolled in real-world education, not the “everybody makes a birdhouse” model of the last century. Anthis has programs arranged in clusters, including public safety, health science, information technology, architecture and construction, agriculture and more. Students are enrolled there from every public high school in Allen County, plus students from Whitley County, from private and parochial schools and from home schools.

Gerardot is quick to dispel the myth that career and technical education students aren’t college-bound, noting that more than 50 percent go on to college and post higher completion rates than students overall. Those who don’t are likely earning business and industry certifications requiring study every bit as rigorous as some university programs. There are career and tech students who intend to apply to dental school, as well as students without a clear career path. Close communication with employers ensures the training is rigorous and relevant, and students become quickly engaged when they are given real work and treated as adults.

Gerardot would like to see the tenor of the discussion changed.

“When we speak about these things, we need to speak as enthusiastically of the student who chooses to go into a five-year journeyman electrician program as we do of the student who chooses college,” he said. “I can guarantee you that the electrician will keep on learning throughout a career. The field will demand it.”

Ron Flickinger, a retired Fort Wayne educator with years of experience in career and technical education, puts it succinctly: “It boils down to an understanding that the human animal is infinitely diverse from the inside out and in terms of earning a living in a free-market culture, we should use the educational system to assist kids to find their specific place in it and respect their choices – not create college-bound winners and vocationally trained losers,” he said. “If we could also stop ‘schooling’ kids and organize schools so that kids are there to actually learn things, it might help.”

If politicians want to promote career and technical education, Gerardot suggests the first step should be to become acquainted with the programs in local schools, which – along with core academic requirements – begin with basic career courses in individual high schools and lead to “capstone” programs at the career center, where students spend three hours each day. Maintaining funding for the programs is important, as is the need to ensure curriculum mandates don’t make it impossible for students to leave traditional high school classrooms to participate.

The candidates are on the right track, but they need to discover what career and technical education looks like today. Needed job skills have changed since the 1950s, and career and technical programs have changed along with them.