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Beyond wood shop: the new tech ed

As nor'easterly winds whip a tidal swell up into the Bay River's blackwater creeks, seven fishermen clamber into the Miss PCHS, fire her diesel, and steer the 33-foot shrimp trawler out toward broad and murky Pamlico Sound.

The crew uses winches and "lazy-lines" to drop the balloon-shaped net's maw into the stirring waters. Against a noisy cloud of gulls and terns, up come green-tail and winter shrimp, along with hundreds of tiny pinfish, hogchokers, and lizardfish. The crew endure jellyfish stings to dig for the shrimp hidden in the catch: 12 pounds in all.

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Scions of a long-building educational movement, these new salts - students at Pamlico County High School - put the "gone fishing" sign up every afternoon as part of a concerted effort to get them ready for work right out of high school.

"Fishing is something different than a normal job, and I love it," says junior Ryan Cuthrell, whose skinny frame juts out of a pair of orange oilskins. "You never know what's going to happen out here." Today's burgeoning class of teenage tradesmen don't hang out in shop class much anymore. Instead, they're plying the waters off Bayboro, standing by in Los Angeles emergency rooms, or rebuilding aircraft engines near New York's LaGuardia Airport.

"This country continues to operate on a premise from the '60s that 75 percent of the population needs to have a four-year degree to gain profitable employment," says Kathy Carroll, director of the new Caldwell Career High School in Hudson, N.C. "What they don't realize is that the career forecast has changed for the 21st century - and that we're now looking at 65 to 70 percent of careers not requiring that general four-year degree."

Seeing the possibility of good paychecks and less college debt, more and more high school students seek out public high schools that preach the practical, not the preppy. In addition, these hands-on schools hold their attention: One-third fewer students quit today's vocational-technical high schools compared with regular high schools, says a recent study by the Manpower Research Development Corp.

In fact, the gradual acceptance that less formal schooling may mean more real education for many students is one of the most radical - and effective - high school reforms today, says Myron Lieberman, director of the conservative Education Policy Institute in Washington. "For example, if a student could go to work at 16 instead of staying in school until they're 18, then people would start evaluating what's the value of staying in school compared to value of going to work earlier," Mr. Lieberman says. "They'd find in more cases that going to work earlier would be better. All we think of now is piling on more and more years of formal education."

Across the country, a number of schools are at the cusp of a 30-year trend toward career-minded high schools, which in many cases are chartered independently within larger institutions.

Though they score high on the SATs, many of the 300 students at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem aren't exactly thinking about college. Most of the ballerinas at this public high school will in fact go right into dance companies once they pirouette across the stage at graduation.

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At the Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet in Los Angeles, 80 percent of the students come from poor Hispanic families and do much of their schoolwork in hospitals and clinics. The school was rated as one of the best in the country this year based on the number of advanced placement tests taken. "Many of our parents are very realistic and want their children to have the option of starting work right out of high school - and many do," says Janis Berges, the assistant principal at Francisco Bravo.

There are other examples: Los Angeles has new schools that cater to those interested in law and zoology, with in-depth apprenticeships as key parts of the curriculum. Meanwhile, a school outside LaGuardia Airport in New York is teaching a new generation of airplane mechanics.

At the Caldwell Career High School in Hudson, 110 high school students take intensive courses in furnituremaking and industrial engineering. Here, they're developing not air-conditioning repairmen, but electro-mechanical engineers, says Ms. Carroll, the director.

Interestingly, it was business leaders who came begging for more help from the local high schools, she says. The healthcare industry especially is starting to pluck high school graduates right out of their gowns, with hospital apprenticeships available at high schools from Raleigh, N.C., to San Diego.

Still, although career-style high schools often stress traditional academics, many continue to be "dumping grounds" for marginalized students, critics say.

"I don't see many vocational-style schools doing that well academically," says Jay Mathews, author of "Class Struggle: What's wrong (and right) with America's best high schools."

Since the 1970s, many educators have fought against "shop"-style programs, saying that it's implied that some students in those classes aren't capable of higher thinking. Yet such intellectual segregation between advanced classes and the "vocational track" still is widespread, says Mr. Mathews.

But teacher Bruce Morris, who captains the Miss PCHS, says some students simply learn best by doing. As they fish, Ryan, Josh Stembridge, and the rest of the crew help the government test new devices to reduce numbers of accidentally killed fish.

Despite its popularity, the marine-occupations program was almost sunk last September, when the school-owned Miss PCHS was impaled on a piling by hurricane Floyd.

"But our principal came to us and said, 'Well, I guess this is the year when you learn about boat repair and the insurance industry,' " says Mr. Morris. "It was the first year the class didn't go fishing - but the boat sure looks as good as new."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society