Future Work Forces:Vocational Training Returns to Oakland Schools

By Julia Park Tracey---

Part one in an occasional series on the restoration of vocational education

Students in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) can experience and learn about skilled trades again. 

Vocational classes, which were once ubiquitous in high and middle schools, are coming back to three high schools in Oakland, providing students the chance to learn about electricity, construction, welding and more.

When Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were in high school, students had the option to take classes in wood, metal or auto shops, or other hands-on vocational learning. But as technology increased in education, and academic testing became the focus for teachers, such classes disappeared from many schools’ curricula. In addition, such non-academic classes were often the repository for kids who teachers or counselors deemed as “not college material” – a tracking system that inordinately affected lower income and minority students. Shops were gutted or closed, and it seemed that manual skills went the way of the slate and the analog clock in public education.

High school students who aren’t interested in four-year college, or who don’t want the massive debt that seems to accompany a university education, can again get that old-school trades training in Oakland schools, according to Emiliano Sanchez, director of career technical trades and apprenticeships at OUSD.

“My job has been to integrate and lift up the skilled trades, and build manual technology back into the core,” he said. Sanchez, formerly principal at Fremont High School (FHS) in Oakland, became director of career technical trades and apprenticeships at OUSD three years ago.

At that time, FHS had the only shop classes remaining in OUSD, as part of the Architecture Academy Pathways program. (FHS has other Pathways academy programs that include a social justice/law and a media track. Students focus on electives in those tracks as the core of their high school experience.) The Architecture Academy includes construction and engineering, exposing its students to all facets of the building trades. (Click here to see the tiny house that FHS Architecture Academy students are building.) FHS, through its Architecture Academy, incorporated classes that develop manual skills in a series of construction courses.

With recent grant funding from the California Apprenticeship Initiative Program funded through the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, “We are now taking the program to the next level with the plan to solidify a pre-apprenticeship program,” according to Sanchez.

“With the support of the grant, we have taken back a shop class at Skyline High School. With the funding from the grant, [Skyline] will offer five construction courses. This would not have been possible if not for this funding.” Skyline’s classes are slated for the 2018-19 school year, Sanchez said.

Meanwhile, Castlemont High School currently has a dual-enrollment program with Laney College, where students can learn the skilled trades. Montero Middle School is the sole middle school in the district with an active shop class, with five classes of students per day. Fremont High School is the hub, said Sanchez, and he hopes to continue to radiate outward to other schools as the need arises.

“The goal is to continue to build the infrastructure at a few more sites that can support Pathways, to build in skilled trades [high school] courses in the ‘Pathways’ program of study, and thereby bring back courses that will give students a rich and relevant course series that prepares them for careers in construction/skilled trades,” according to Sanchez.

Classes are balanced by gender, ethnicity and academic standing; students rank their choices in which academy or program they prefer. They are not tested for aptitude, but rather given a choice.

“Because there was a history [of academic vs. vocational tracking], we make sure we are very intentional in placing students,” Sanchez explained. There are nearly 200 students in the Architect Academy at Fremont High School; 40 to 45 percent of the participants are female.

FHS’s student body is predominantly low income, 45 percent Latino and 30 percent African American, with other ethnicities completing the cohort. “Everyone there has the opportunity to go” to the Architect Academy and learn the skilled trades through classes and apprenticeships, Sanchez said.

The hard sell, as Sanchez described it, is in convincing counselors and parents that the manual trades are lucrative and creative careers for students. Building awareness has been one of his goals; since shops were gutted, equipment sold off, and a generation of students have passed through schools without access to shop class, the current crop of teachers and counselors need convincing that a non-academic path is equally valid.

Sanchez puts on skilled trades fairs and brings in guest speakers, including women and ethnically diverse representatives from the trades. And, as always, “Funding is a major issue.” Sanchez was grateful for the grant from the California Apprenticeship Initiative Program, which replaced costly shop equipment and machinery for Skyline’s new program.

The availability of summer internships is one of the shining successes of the reinvented programming. Students have worked at BART as apprentice electricians and at the Children’s Hospital campus as apprentice construction workers. Students get real-life hands-on experience over several weeks in summer to see how such careers feel. Although Sanchez has been working for three years to pull this program together, “We are just getting started,” he said.

Jason Gumataotao, an organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and a member of the oversight board of 2014's Measure N, is pleased at the progress made at the high school level. (Measure N was a parcel tax passed by the voters in November 2014 to benefit OUSD vocational and career education, among other programs.)

"It really is a great way to help our scholars understand there are many options when they leave high school. There are a number of fields or industries that kids can go into" that are open to them through high school vocational training and apprenticeships.

Gumataotao echoed Sanchez's hope to raise awareness among teachers and administrators: "We also have to educate our educators,” he said.

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Check out these videos showing OUSD students in action:
OUSD’s Skilled Trades fair: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vChcdkWPABQ

BART summer internship program: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5ChebjJt4w&t=7s

Children’s Hospital apprenticeship: http://www.ktvu.com/news/185104267-video

Next story: A look at how girls and women are taking to the new vocational education offerings

Julia Park Tracey is a freelance writer and editor, and Bay Area native.