EXCHANGE: Peoria schools invested in vocational education

 
 
Posted6/15/2019 7:00 AM

PEORIA, Ill. -- Every school day every student in Pete Brown's auto body classroom walks past the Help Wanted ad he Scotch-taped at eye-level to the door frame.

"Experienced Automotive Painter," the headline reads. A rip in the newsprint cuts in half the capital "P'' in "Painter." It has been passed by a thousand times more than it has been read; its message absorbed by a fraction of the readers. But it's there for a reason and for anyone to see.

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"Dave's Auto Body is looking for the right person to fill a role as a journeyman painter at our state-of-the-art facility. Unparalleled benefits. Vacation and personal time. Health care. Retirement plan. Team bonuses."

And then this:

"The right candidate will earn $60,000 - $80,000 or more annually."

"I tell my students: 'Look at this! Come on! Why wouldn't you want to go into this,'" Brown said recently. "There are a lot of good jobs at a good living wage if you know what you like and you know where to look. That's what we are here for."

Trends in education run in cycles. Students from a generation or two ago were familiar with non-academic options like shop class, woodworking, automotive repair, home building, home economics and how to open a savings account, balance a checkbook and apply for a mortgage. Those classes faded from high school catalogs as college prep classes became the standard of success in public education.

Guess what? Turns out not every high school student in Peoria, or the whole United States for that matter, has his or her eyes set on college.

"Our focus on career pathways is one way we are Redefining Ready," writes Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat in her "Welcome to High School" address in the student handbook. While every student must graduate from high school ready for career an/or college, this may look very differently from one student to the next. The common denominator is Ready for Life."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

For some, ready for life means ready for a job. That's why the Peoria Public School district has developed opportunities for career-track students that can parlay high school diplomas into well-paying employment. Woodruff Career and Technical Center, formerly Woodruff High School, offers courses in construction trades, cosmetology, hair braiding, emergency medical services, medical services, auto body, culinary arts and food services, fire services and more. Students from all Peoria high schools are bused to Woodruff to attend career and technical classes every day.

Manual Academy, which will revert to being Manual High School next school year, offers emergency medical technician training and a manufacturing curriculum that includes welding and other vocational practices. The programs, originally available only to Manual students, will be opened up to all high school students in the district beginning in August. There were 125 students in the program this year.

"When you put time and energy into a single student you get a benefit you can't put a number on," said Michael Kuhn, the second-year principal at Woodruff. "It can be a life-changing experience. We're helping pull some students out of poverty and that is something different about what we do in this building. It all goes back to that little thing called a relationship between a student and a teacher. Once you build that relationship with the students, the students will do whatever you want. The discipline issues go down, the attendance issues go up, the graduation rates go up. There's data to back that up, that any student that has taken one career tech class, that their chances of graduating are higher than a student who hasn't taken one. You can look that up."

Tyrese Johnson and Denise Rivera are fresh graduates of Manual Academy and alumni of Andrew Rice's Manufacturing Pathway program. With Rice's help, they received paid internships at Caterpillar Inc., internships that led to paid employment. Johnson works in painting in Building LL in East Peoria where he is saving up money to attend the University of Nevada Las Vegas; Rivera is a building safety champion and has her eyes on a career at Caterpillar.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I would love to be a building supervisor one day," she said recently. "I've gotten a good start."

Rice understands the value of a student internship.

"In my class we give students the technical training, but the goal is to train them to be successful people and workers," Rice said. "(Tyrese and Denise) have done an amazing job, they've had a really good year. The internships confirm that you can't teach everything in a classroom."

Staff at Manual and Woodruff are focused on internships. Michael Brix had 15 seniors in his construction trades class at Woodruff this year. All 15 had internships at local businesses, including Philippi-Hagenbuch, Kreiling Roofing, M.R. Mason Contractor, Illinois American Water, Alcast Co. and PIPCO.

Students in the culinary program, superstars at the center with a state championship and an 11th place finish in a national competition, have worked at internships at OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center, UnityPoint Health-Methodist, the Peoria Civic Center and Avanti's restaurant. Barbers and cosmetologists have likewise found internships at local businesses that led to full-time employment.

"Within a caring and nurturing environment, the faculty and staff at WCTC will provide students with instruction in academic skills and needed support to foster not only successful completion of a high school diploma but also the development of self-reliance, responsibility and work related and interpersonal/life skills necessary to obtain full-time employment. We want our students to become healthy, productive citizens in our society," reads some of the promotional material for the Woodruff programs.

While the programs are too new for long-range data to be available, a snapshot of Woodruff activity shows evidence of success. In March there were two student interns in auto body, 15 in construction work-based learning, seven in cosmetology, three in hair braiding and 25 in health occupations for a total of 52. Twenty-seven students found paid employment in their fields: two in auto body, one in culinary, five in construction and 19 in health occupations. That included a new pathway for students from health occupations internships to paid employment at the Heddington Oaks senior facility in West Peoria.

"Instead of going off to college and racking up anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 of debt only to come back and say, 'You know, I really wanted to go into health occupations all along.'" Kuhn said. "So the student either has to go farther into debt or just give up and go work at a minimum wage job. To me, that's not success. We provide an opportunity to try something out that can lead to success. We look at what they call a regional skills gap. That means there is a job here but there's nobody skilled to do it. And if Woodruff can help get that individual skilled to enter the workforce, it's a win again for the student and for the employers, too, and a win for the community."

About 550 students started the school year enrolled in a Woodruff class. About 460 students ended the year there. Of those 460, almost 200 certificates and official credentials were earned in the different areas like soft skills, CPR, certified nursing assistants and fork lift operation. There were 52 students in internships and 13 more moving into paid employment.

"Our goal is to have programs that lead to internships, then to careers," Kuhn said.

For Kuhn and his staff, it is an ever evolving curriculum, always aimed at the ever-changing needs and interests of the student body.

For instance, would Woodruff ever consider a tattooing class?

"I'd never count it out," Kuhn said.

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Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, https://bit.ly/2JUIyMK

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Information from: Journal Star, http://pjstar.com

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