THE BLOG
01/10/2013 12:00 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2013

Making the Case for a New Vocational Education

By Gina Caneva

"I'm glad we got a microwave so we don't have to eat out again," my student told me after explaining that her family had eaten fast food for the last month. "Apartment didn't come with a stove."

"I wash my uniform in the sink," my volleyball player said after I asked why it was so dirty.

"Don't worry Ms. Caneva, it's not as bad as it looks," said the valedictorian as I dropped her off at her home that had four boarded up windows and a roof gaping with holes.

"All I want to do is take a shower, but the landlord won't put one in," another student told me when I taught her at her home, after she was paralyzed in a shooting.

These are just four stories of the many daily challenges, frustrations and tragedies that the children in Chicago Public Schools face because of the poverty into which they are born. Although many Chicago teachers fight for better lives for their students in the hopes of helping them climb out of poverty, often times, our students cannot simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In the deeply disadvantaged communities they live in, bootstraps aren't sold at the corner store.

I am an eight-year veteran high school English teacher in CPS, and I've taught on the South Side for my entire career. I have collected too many sad stories to write down. I have attended funerals for two of my students--one gunned down in the middle of a street, and another who died because there were no smoke detectors in his house. I have attended several more for students' family members. My heart has been broken and sewn back together over and over as a CPS teacher.

I have also attended countless professional development meetings at schools all across the district who argue that high expectations and teacher accountability can and will get our students into college. In these same schools, students bubble in scantron sheets in now dormant carpentry classrooms, auto mechanic shops, and culinary arts kitchens.

I am not one to downplay the importance of high expectations and teacher accountability; these are two vital components of turning our schools around. But research shows time and time again that students show the most success with early, sustainable, comprehensive reform beginning in the pre-kindergarten years and carrying on throughout their education. There has never been this type of reform in Chicago. In place of reform starting at the early education level, Chicago has prioritized college prep at the high school level, hoping that high school teachers can catch students up after years of disadvantage in and out of the classroom, having seen no consistent reform throughout their elementary years. That alone isn't enough.

The statistics show that our high schools are not preparing students for college because they are starting so far behind. Only eight percent of CPS ninth graders will graduate from a four-year college by the time they're in their mid-twenties, and 40 percent are dropping out before graduation, yet nearly all CPS high schools have the misnomer "College Preparatory" tacked onto the ends of their school names. Those numbers could certainly improve if we change the way we educate our kids starting from pre-kindergarten, but is that enough? I am convinced that we need better options than an all-or-nothing system that leaves kids with just two viable paths: drop-out, or top-performer.

In the process of prioritizing "college prep," our district has reorganized and in part dismantled classes that prepare kids for careers. While "Career and Technical Education" has been enhanced in a small handful of schools, it has been eliminated in many others. We need vocational education back--but we need a new, 21st century version. Vocational education of years past often forced struggling learners and minorities into vocational classes they did not necessarily want to take, without helping them improve skills in reading or math. There was good reason to get rid of that system. But there have to be better options for students who want to learn marketable skills while still in high school.

Many of my students are asking for culinary arts, web design, and nursing assistant classes by sophomore or junior year, to apply what they're learning to the real world. Why can't we offer students the choice of taking one or two vocational classes, along with core classes, to help them build their skills so they can make a strong college or career choice after graduation? Why can't we offer intensive, hands-on experiential learning opportunities that will legitimately prepare kids to succeed in careers? If we are to engage as many students as possible, encompassing all their interests and learning styles, we need to have a richer variety of educational opportunities available to them.

We cannot pin our hopes for students' success on college alone. As a student, am I more likely to run in a gang if I'm training to be an HVAC technician or a web designer during my senior year of high school, or if I am sitting in a class that I don't even need to graduate? To spend four years at an expensive university, getting into debt, when a solid career isn't even guaranteed at the end, is not an option for many of our students. I am not saying that kids living in poverty cannot make it in four-year, competitive colleges--I have taught amazing students who are succeeding in college. But eight percent is not enough.

With the Obama administration entering a second term, I hope to see job creation and high school preparedness for those jobs become a priority. At the local level, with new leadership in CPS, I hope to see two major overhauls that could make our district one to watch across the nation: comprehensive, sustainable educational reform beginning at pre-school and, equally important, revamped vocational education that prepares students for careers that can pull them out of poverty.

Gina Caneva is an English teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gina Caneva.