Changing family structure, economic shifts and a growing number of minority students are requiring career and technical educators to make more and more adjustments to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse group of students.
Confirming what has seemed obvious for at least the past decade, a 1997 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) study notes that "the structure of families is shifting away from two biological parent families" and that the percentages of children from minority backgrounds and who have difficulty speaking English is on the rise. The report points out that black and Hispanic children are more likely to come from low-income families, a factor that is associated with "poor school outcomes."
Minority students are projected to make up an increasing share of public education students in the coming decades, with the southern and western United States experiencing a sharp increase in Hispanic and Asian students. Between 2000 and 2020, NCES projects 61 percent more Hispanic children and 73 percent more Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaskan Native children between the ages of 14 and 17--but 10 percent fewer white children in that age group.
While there has been an overall decline in the number of students participating in career and technical education, this has not been the case for minorities and students with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education's recent report, "Vocational Education in the United States: Toward the Year 2000."
Between 1982 and 1994, the report reads, "the percentage of black, non-Hispanic students and Asian/Pacific Islander students concentrating in vocational education stayed about the same over this period, and the concentration rate of students with disabilities increased. The increase in participation of students with disabilities is consistent with the emphasis of the 1990 Perkins Act on serving students with special needs."
The numbers suggest a clear need for career and technical educators to be even more prepared to teach a wide variety of students.
Brenda Nixon has seen her business classes shift from predominantly white to mostly black in just 10 years or so. The Oklahoma City teacher, director of client services at Metro Tech, also notes a growing number of Hispanic students and a surprising jump in the number who want to earn a general equivalency diploma (GED).
"Over the last four years, we have received 20 or more calls a week from those wanting to study to take their GED,' says Nixon. Most of the teenagers who want to take the test are black, and most of the girls have children. Nixon believes those statistics are notable because both employers and welfare offices are requiring a GED minimum for employment or public assistance.
Nixon says Metro Tech also is experiencing a growing need for Individual Educational Plans (IEPs), which are required by the federal law that funds programs for students with special needs, including learning disabilities.
As a result, Metro Tech teachers have begun to change the way they work with the increasing number of special needs students who are not prepared academically, doing things like reading tests to students, putting fewer questions on a page, offering more multiple-choice tests and altering the curriculum as needed.
"If students' reading comprehension is below eighth grade, they may struggle with understanding [the curriculum]," says Nixon. "Our economy and family life in an urban area like Oklahoma City doesn't provide an atmosphere conducive for learning."
Additionally, the school is making more accommodations for the increasing number of students with physical disabilities. "More and more people are understanding their legal rights, and in the last three years we've seen an increasing demand," notes Nixon. The school has employed an interpreter for a deaf student studying welding, purchased equipment to enlarge a monitor for a visually impaired student in computer training, and allowed a student using a wheelchair to have an assistant with him at all times.
While Metro Tech is making progress in these areas, educators are starting to feel the pinch, according to a recent faculty survey. "Vocational teachers [tend to] come from industry," says Nixon. "They are not prepared to work with such diverse students."
Metro Tech is planning in-service training to assist teachers who had asked for help handling disruptive behavior, student depression, relationship blues and grief.
And it will implement a pre-vocational program for students to help them succeed academically. Students who apply to the school take a pre-test to determine their basic skill level. Those scoring below the fifth-grade level get more intensive training and may also receive assistance at a special educational center. Students between a fifth-grade and eighth-grade level get remedial help over a shorter period.
Serving teen parents
Those who want a taste of the rainbow classroom of the future should come on down to the Garland Independent School District (GISD) in Texas, suggests Career and Technical Education director Philip Gilbreath. Composed of 13 middle schools, six regular high schools, an evening high school, an alternative center and a cooperative behavior center for special education students, the district bounds one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the country.
Given its proximity to Mexico, Texas is one of the states expected to experience the greatest of demographic shifts in the 21st century. Consider the ethnic breakdown of career and technical education students in the GISD:
* 52.1 percent white
* 24.6 percent Hispanic
* 16 percent black
* 6.6 percent Asian/Pacific Islanders
* .8 percent Native American
In addition, about 12.4 percent of the GISD career and technical education students are classified as "special education."
While ethnic diversity will continue to be an issue for GISD, the rise in the "at-risk" student population--particularly pregnant teens and young parents--is the most significant change Gilbreath has witnessed in recent years.
"More and more young people today are faced with adult responsibilities at an earlier age," he says. "More students are participating in [career tech] programs while fulfilling those obligations and commitments."
That means the district has had to offer parenting courses through the career tech department by tapping several federal loan programs, says Gayle Millican, grant facilitator and head of the district's parenting programs.
Four years ago, the school district received funding to open an infant care center to meet the needs of teenage mothers who were eager to return to school after their babies were born. While the community had ample day care, most centers don't accept babies younger than two months old. A specially equipped bus picks up the mothers and babies, the babies are dropped off at the licensed infant center and the mothers are transported to the appropriate high school.
In addition to the infant care center, which is licensed for 12 infants, the school district sponsors--again through the career tech department--prenatal and child development courses to help teenage mothers understand parenting responsibilities. The district also provides a classroom mothers can attend with their babies until they can return to their home campuses. About 400 mothers are enrolled.
"We knew that a lot of school-age students were having babies, but we never saw them in school," says Millican. "We estimated that we had about 20 to 40 pregnancies a year, but it's more like 125."
The program seems to be helping to preserve a group at high risk of dropping out of school. Last year the school board recognized that none of its dropouts left school because of pregnancy. In addition, the school district has "recovered" mothers who had dropped out, helping about 50 a year to complete their diplomas.
Career counseling for all
Mary Bruno, director of applied technical and community education for Volusia County Schools in central Florida, says her teachers must be prepared to serve primarily white, black and Hispanic students, many of whom come from low-income families.
"We are a county driven by the service industry, with a lot of hospitality jobs. The tourist industry is big. That keeps wages for the majority of the population at a fairly low rate," she says.
To ensure its students are prepared for the workplace, the county places a heavy emphasis on career planning and counseling for all students. The county's Career Connection program is an integral part of the school system from kindergarten on. High school freshmen explore careers, then choose a career cluster on which to base their high school plan. A counselor reviews the plan with each student yearly. Students often change their minds, but that's OK, says Bruno. The purpose is for students to have some idea what they want to do--even if they plan to pursue a four-year degree.
"We encourage students to participate regardless of whether they want to go to college or directly into the workforce," she says. "We have a lot of partnerships with community colleges to expose students to different careers," she says.
Because the county and the state have a large Hispanic and migrant population, career-related materials sent home to parents are written in both Spanish and English. The county also tries to provide career skills tests in Spanish.
"This has been to ensure that language won't be a barrier," says Bruno.
Skill: The great equalizer
While the U.S. population will continue to diversify, one overarching rule appears clear: the current and future workplace will require workers ready with the technical and communication skills to compete in a global economy. Forward-thinking career and technical programs are adjusting to ensure that all students, no matter their background, are prepared to take their place in the workforce of the future.
One of the major obstacles for career and technical education remains persuading students and the community at large that a four-year degree is not the only way to a good-paying career, says Volusia County's Bruno. Career and technical educators say that belief may be even stronger among minorities, who may see the bachelor's degree as the only key to prosperity.
Bruno tells about a disadvantaged student who graduated from a Volusia County career academy that's centered on communications and multimedia technologies. He learned how to design Web pages, network computers and troubleshoot problems, so the county was glad to hire him as a teaching assistant. After he gave a community presentation about the academy, he was recruited by a representative from a local company who was in the audience. The teenager found himself earning a starting salary of $54,000 a year and managing six people. The company promised to pay for his college education and networking certification.
The booming economy and a desperate need among U.S. employers for skilled workers should be the driving forces pushing schools to prepare today's students, regardless of their background, says Bruno. The reality is that the student population--and the future workforce--is bound to become more and more heterogeneous, and career and technical educators must do what they can to level the playing field.
"Employers want to make sure we're giving students the technical skills and a firm academic background," she says. "They don't really care what your SAT score is, but they are interested if you can read, write and compute."
Phaedra Brotherton is an Arlington, Va.-based freelance writer specializing in career, management and workplace Issues.