The Nation's Pulse

Fair Trades

Urban poor need vocational education not Maya Angelou novels.

By 10.7.10

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The talk turned to the urban poor. In particular, how they might be liberated from the ill effects of an unnatural meritocracy. All agreed that education was key. Higher education: more, better, costlier. As for how to the save the education system, our progressive, urbane guests were not so sure.

Besides, this was a party. Who wants to be ants at a picnic? Better to talk about how the nonprofit where one works has established new, progressive programs for poor, inner-city students -- arts programs, mainly.

Here is where my desire to get along with my fiancée's friends is trumped by my compulsion to set the world straight, and I open my big mouth.

Sure, you can take one or two kids from each inner-city school and put them in some feel-good arts programs. Then, when they graduate high school, they can try to find work making origami and sidewalk murals for AT&T and Chrysler.

That is, if they graduate. In St. Louis' public schools, only half of students do.

My solution, received with the usual jeers and yawns of approval, was a miracle of understatement: poor teens need to learn a trade, and to hell with everything else. Okay, not everything else. They still need to learn the three Rs, and perhaps a bit of history. But in this one case, at least, we should not be ashamed to emulate the European education system. In Poland, where I lived for a time, about 26 percent of students went to college preparatory schools. That seemed about right to me. Another 68 percent went to trade or vocational high schools where they might learn anything from hairstyling to teaching, music to plumbing. Unlike their suburban American counterparts, who, at 18, begin four years of partying, sleeping in and sleeping around, many of these Poles were busy beginning their adult work lives.

Here in St. Louis, of the 13 public high schools, there are but two even marginally dedicated to vocational training, and both were mandated by the courts. On the other hand, there are many schools dedicated to performance art, the legal profession, and college prep. One example is Metro Academic & Classical High School, "a school with the tradition of nurturing and developing the college bound, self-motivated student." So how many students from Metro (or any of the public schools) graduate from college? The spokesman for St. Louis Public Schools had no idea. Needless to say, if the numbers were good, the district would be shouting them from the rooftops, not pretending they didn't exist.

BUT OUR URBAN school boards remain convinced that the only way to end urban poverty is for inner-city students to go on to a liberal arts college. Instead of putting a slide rule or a soldering iron in his hand, the teacher hands him a Maya Angelou novel. No wonder he drops out sophomore year. Who could blame him?

How much better if the St. Louis Public Schools followed the example of rural school districts and offered more vocational programs where you learned how to repair a carburetor, or, like the students across town at the Construction Careers Center, how to build an eco-friendly house. CCC is the first charter high school for construction in the nation. Because the city board of education has little interest in vocational schooling, CCC was instead founded by the Associated General Contractors of St. Louis and the local construction industry. When students graduate, many enter a building trades apprenticeship program.

What's more, CCC scored the fourth highest of the 13 St. Louis public high schools in advanced math, outperforming all regular high schools and four magnet schools. The website says 98 percent of graduating students are either working or attending college. About 30 percent enter the construction industry.

City educators, however, consider vocational education akin to admitting defeat. They still hold on to the idea that every student should go to college, and don't seem to mind that only six percent of low-income students earn a Bachelor's degree by the time they are twenty-four. Even if you are one of the lucky six percent, who's to say your expensive bachelor's degree will help you get the job you will need to pay off your massive student loan debt? (Average salary for a college-educated reporter: $31,000. Average salary for a plumber: $50,000.)

You would think with all the quasi-socialists on urban school boards, members would be more worker friendly. In my day, socialists used to hold scholars in contempt, while glorifying the proletariat.

I never thought I'd say this, but I miss those days. 

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.