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From Motors to Modems

Vocational education classes are moving away from an emphasis on manufacturing to computer-oriented topics. A program at Dorsey High has attracted a wide range of students.

January 21, 1998|DOUG SMITH | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

In a computer lab at Dorsey High School, about 20 students click at terminals, learning the nuts and bolts of what may be their future jobs.

One reads a lesson headed: "What is a topology?"

A classmate beside him--two or three steps ahead--works at the question: "How much area can be covered by a simple star topology?"

No, they are not preparing to be gardeners. The topology in their lesson last week concerned the properties of geometric forms, a concept in building the computer networks that keep information zipping in the modern office.

These are the shop students of the 21st century.

Those who complete the four-semester course will be ready to take an examination for certification as a network manager, a credential that commands entry-level salaries of up to $30,000 a year in the nation's fastest-growing occupational field--computer sciences.

Their class, sponsored by a commercial supplier of computer networking devices, represents the only form of vocational training that has thrived in high schools through the decades of rapid change in education and the nation's economy.

As the era of the blue-collar workhorse wanes, the wrench-clanging, motor-whirring shop class--designed to teach manual skills to the non-college-bound--is becoming a thing of the past.

Over a 12-year period starting in 1983, while high school enrollment increased nearly 22%, the number of vocational education classes in Los Angeles County schools dropped from 16,622 to 11,113, according to the County Office of Education.

The number of classes in industrial and manufacturing arts, the staple vocational education of years past, has dropped 43%.

Even sharper declines have hit the person-to-person vocational fields of health and consumer and home economics.

Vocational training has partly been the victim of educational reform and the back-to-basics movement, said Pat Whitman, consultant in charge of career development and vocational education for the county office.

The perception that such classes lack academic rigor has discouraged the development of new teachers critical to continue them.

"We have so few programs at the university level to train people to be vocational teachers, we're having a difficult time," Whitman said. "When we lose a teacher, the program generally dies. I think it's really a disservice."

But Whitman sees some sign of hope in the growth of computer training classes.

*

Riding a crest of interest in computers as educational tools, and stimulated by the rapid spread of computer technology into all avenues of economic life, high schools in Los Angeles County have more than doubled the number of classes in computer sciences.

Generally, however, the trend hasn't followed a specific plan.

"If the computer lab is run by the language arts or science or math departments, it will have a very academic, theoretical point of view," Whitman said. "But if you go to a computer lab operated by a business teacher, you will see a vocational class."

The class at Dorsey, in contrast, stands at the vanguard of a comprehensive program to rapidly start up 150 classes specifically to train students for employment in computer networking.

The curriculum, which schools can obtain from the Internet, was developed and donated by Cisco Systems, the country's largest supplier of networking equipment such as routers and servers. The classes are being organized by Technology for Learning, a public-private collaboration to introduce computer technology into all of the county's 81 school districts and better train teachers to use it.

Technology for Learning, operating under the County Office of Education, has formed 15 technology consortiums of administrators, teachers and parents. Each has set aside a computer lab and a teacher to become a networking academy.

Using a "train-the-trainer" model, Cisco put the 15 teachers through a two-week session covering the first semester of the certification course, which if taken at a commercial institution would cost about $2,000.

Those teachers will now go back to their regions and begin training other teachers as well as students. "Within the next couple of months, we will have 10 more networking academies in each of the 15 regions," said James Lanich, executive director of Technology for Learning.

The teachers will later return to the class themselves to learn the second semester curriculum as another wave of students enters the program.

The goal is to train at least 1,500 students annually, Lanich said. Besides being trained for future jobs, the students will also help to build and maintain the new computer networks being installed with increasing frequency in their schools.

San Jose-based Cisco has not only philanthropic motives but self-interest behind its $18-million investment in the curriculum and training; it plans to hire many of the students who complete its course, said Sue Mangiapane, a former teacher who coordinates the program throughout Southern California, where nine counties are participating.

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