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Degree of Uncertainty : Educators Grapple With Best Way to Prepare Kids for Future

CHANGING FORTUNES. The Valley Economy in Transition


If the experts are correct, half of the children in Karen Schain's sixth-grade class at Valerio Street Elementary School in Van Nuys are on their way to careers as well-paid technicians and managers.

The rest--now eager, curious 11- and 12-year-olds--face a life of work as minimum-wage clerks when they graduate from high school in the year 2001.

As jobs change, warn economists and educators, so must job training. Public schools, once seen as the uniquely American way to instill uniform culture and academic training, are increasingly being judged on their ability to train large numbers of kids for a future that may not include college.

"At the present, we are not preparing our kids for the kind of society we are going to live in," said elementary school principal Carole Kennedy, a board member of the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals. "In most school districts, that's not happening."

Based on his own study, James Catterall, a professor of education at UCLA, predicts that in six years more than half of the jobs will be in areas typically requiring only a high school education. And although only 25% of available jobs are likely to require a college degree, about 35% of students will have a diploma from a four-year institution.

The statistics fuel a growing debate over college preparation, vocational education and how schools can best prepare students for a future workplace that is uncertain and changing, particularly in Southern California.

"The worst thing in the world is you could have a child who decides not to go to college, but who has no knowledge and no skill in any other area," Schain said. She added that "99.9% of the teachers in this district are trying desperately hard to get these kids ready."

Earlier this month, Schain's sixth-graders sat in their portable classroom, surrounded by brightly colored placards with aphorisms such as, "In his dreams, even the smallest kitten can be a tiger!" and thought aloud about what they want to be when they grow up.

Karo, 11, wants to be an engineer because he likes working on his family's computer. Amalia, 10, wants to be a teacher. Georgiana, 11, wants to be the first female President. And Luis, 12, wants to be an astronomer.

"I like to study the planets," Luis said. "They have a lot of moons and some of the moons have radiation and craters."

In the meantime, they wait for their few minutes on the classroom's one computer (which is more than some classes have, Schain said) and talk about careers in terms of choosing academic paths and exploring the prerequisites of various jobs.

In a bid to keep kids on track, the Los Angeles Unified School District is pushing more work-based learning programs, according to Jim Konantz, the director of career development for the district.

One model used is a federal Department of Labor report that concluded three years ago that schools need to do a better job. "More than half our young people leave school without the knowledge or foundation required to find and hold a good job," according to the report by the Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills titled "What Work Requires of Schools." According to the report, "young people will pay a very high price. They face the bleak prospects of dead-end work interrupted only by periods of unemployment."

To become competent workers, the study concluded, students need the ability to identify, organize, plan and allocate resources; the ability to work with others; to be able to acquire and use information; to understand, monitor, improve and correct social, organizational and technological systems, and the ability to work with different kinds of technology.

Translating those goals into the classroom involves more work-based learning programs, according to Konantz. The idea is that in addition to learning good work habits and interpersonal skills, students can learn practical applications of their classroom work and then bring their real-world experience back to the classroom.

An example is the Youth Service Academy, in which 600 of LAUSD's most at-risk students participated, Konantz said. The school day was lengthened, curriculum was changed to reflect work skills, and students got real jobs in city departments after class.

After one semester at work, students improved their grades, Konantz said, from 225 grades of A to 400. Failing marks fell from 200 to 100, then virtually disappeared.

Another example, according to Konantz, is the creation at 25 high schools of career-cluster programs, or high school majors, such as math, business, engineering, languages, child development, travel-tourism and humanities. Each career cluster offers revamped vocational-type training in which students learn basic skills like writing and math in the context of learning about the chosen career.

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