Gone is the time when Los Angeles high schools routinely offered a wide array of vocational options--the era of wood shop, metal shop, auto shop and drafting.
These days, it is feast or famine for manual arts students in the nation's second-largest school district.
They may encounter high-tech instruction on state-of-the-art machinery, geared to the demands of employers of the future. They may wind up stuck in overcrowded classes, saddled with obsolete equipment.
Or they may land at a school with no vocational courses at all.
Far from the political rhetoric of Washington, where Congress is debating the future of vocational ed, urban districts such as Los Angeles Unified are struggling to bridge the chasm between high school and productive lives for the "50% in the middle"--students not bound for college but likely to earn a high school diploma.
The results of that effort have been uneven, reflecting the whip-saw history of funding and philosophies that has shaped vocational education in this country during the past decade. In the mid-1980s, as demands on school budgets increased, academics took precedence over vocational training. Then, the pendulum swung back as "school-to-work transition" became the mantra of education reformers, unleashing a new wave of high-tech options that promised to lift vocational preparation from its status as education also-ran.
Now, with vocational ed at a critical juncture, proposed federal budget changes threaten to cut the lifeline for innovative programs designed to usher in the new era.
Graphic arts teacher Hursey Fortenberry's print shop at Los Angeles' University High is a living symbol of the decline of traditional vocational education, with its outdated computers and printing presses.
Downstairs and out the door, more signs of deterioration await: A former auto shop is now defined by rusting engines and shuttered garage doors; a fully equipped wood shop, abandoned mid-project, is half-filled with surplus desks and chairs instead of students.
Fortenberry's faltering graphics program is the sole survivor of more than a dozen vocational education classes once offered at the West Los Angeles high school--courses that disappeared as enrollment dropped and funding dried up, leaving students not bound for college with few opportunities to acquire job skills.
"I don't know how we can say we're preparing these kids for their futures," said Fortenberry, leaning an ink-stained sleeve against a drafting table.
Similar situations exist at about half of Los Angeles' 50 senior highs, some of which no longer offer any vocational courses.
But other schools look more like Monroe High in the San Fernando Valley, which offers students a smorgasbord of job-preparation choices, including culinary arts taught in a gleaming commercial kitchen, child care learned in a school-based preschool, and aircraft mechanics practiced on real planes at a nearby airport.
Sometimes known as "career academies," other times as "tech prep," programs such as Monroe's epitomize the new wave in high school vocational training that aims to knit job preparation into all aspects of a student's education.
At Monroe, counselors channel entering sophomores with poor middle school grades to so-called career tracks, where they spend two hours a day in technical courses and the rest of the day in academic courses that include assignments tailored to their specialties. For culinary arts students, an English essay involves describing a blender; a math assignment converts pecks to quarts; a science experiment concentrates on gases produced in cooking.
The contrast between the two schools epitomizes the status of vocational education today. Like a gawky teen-ager with no firm handle on its future prospects, it waffles between the new and the old, the proven and the experimental.
Education and labor experts fear that vocational training, as a program in transition, will fare badly in the competitive arena recently approved by the House of Representatives and favored by the Senate.
Their proposed vocational spending bill lumps more than 100 youth and adult job-training projects together, trims funding by up to 25% and gives governors--and private employers--more control over how that money is spent.
Backers say the consolidation will create a more cohesive system of job training, ending overlap and cutting administrative costs. But opponents worry that the funding flexibility will allow governors to funnel the $1 billion previously spent on high school courses to glaring needs such as adult job training or dropout recovery programs.
"Will they end up targeting the problems of troubled youth after they've already dropped out of school, instead of trying to prevent that from happening?" asked Daisy Stewart, an education professor at Virginia Tech and president-elect of the American Vocational Assn. "Either way we'll be looking at less money--trying to do the same amount of things with less."