ZERO period at Palmdale High School begins at 6:30 a.m., an hour before the regular school day. It is optional, and for much of the year, students who have chosen this particular form of self-punishment arrive in near darkness, with hesitant strips of pink cloud beginning to glow in a cobalt sky.
So it is slightly surprising to walk into Steve Wilson's class at 6:35 a.m. and find 32 students not only present and awake but also barely able to contain their enthusiasm over the start of another school day.
"Once you come to the class and you know what you're going to be doing, you want to get up in the morning," said Rosa Bermeo, a bright-eyed 11th-grader with wavy brown hair who is dressed, as are most of her classmates, in a yellow sports shirt stamped with the class logo.
The class is sports medicine, and it is offered by Palmdale's Health Careers Academy, a 15-year-old school-within-a-school that has become a model of what a successful career education program can be. Students in the academy learn such real-world skills as giving injections and reading X-rays and also take college-prep math, English and science with a medical focus.
In Wilson's class, students don't learn just from textbooks. They practice clinical techniques, often using student athletes who limp in with various minor strains, pulls and bruises.
This morning, in a back room, juniors Veronica Buenrostro and Mirtha Ramirez are icing and massaging soccer player Davey Ramos' sore knees.
"Ow!" Davey says, wincing as ice meets flesh.
The academy isn't for everybody, and some students wash out by their junior year. But those who stick it out seem to share a joy in learning that often eludes their peers.
"It makes you want to be better," Rosa said. "It makes you want to strive to be the best you can be."
YOU don't always hear talk like that in big public high schools like Palmdale, which serves a largely poor, predominantly Latino student body on a low-slung campus in the Antelope Valley. That is why programs like this are being watched in education circles and being copied by school districts all over the country.
Once, this sort of learning had a different name: vocational education. But by the 1990s, it had been largely discredited for selecting students by race and class and discouraging them from higher education.
Today, under new names -- career technical education, multiple pathways -- it is one of the nation's hottest educational trends, part of the movement toward small learning communities focused on particular subjects.
There are now high school programs in California focusing on film production, finance, technology, agriculture, construction, culinary arts, law and public safety, performing arts and auto repair, among other career paths.
What sets the new programs apart from old-fashioned vocational education is an insistence on rigorous academic content that will prepare students for higher education.
"We want to help all students get to the same destination, and that is graduating from high school prepared and inspired to go on to both college and career -- not one or the other," said Gary Hoachlander, president of ConnectEd, a nonprofit organization founded last year by the James Irvine Foundation to encourage career education in California.
There are those, including state Sen. Mark Wyland, who disagree with this approach and believe in something closer to old-fashioned vocational education.
"We as a society do not sufficiently respect people who have interests in doing things that are not academic," said Wyland, a Republican from Escondido, who has made career education a focus of his political career.
The new wave of vocational education has a host of prominent boosters, however, including unions, business groups and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the product of an Austrian high school that trained students for jobs in retail sales. Their hope is that career-oriented education can help keep potential dropouts in school by motivating students who might otherwise see little link between classwork and the real world.
Research suggests that any effect on the dropout rate is likely to be minor. "The more rigorous studies suggest there is no effect," the National Assessment of Vocational Education reported in 2004. But there is strong evidence that students who attend career-oriented high schools wind up earning more money when they enter the workforce. And it seems hard to deny that, at the least, the best career programs provide exciting alternatives to the standard academic path.
"The whole idea is, if you put something through their hands, they remember it a whole lot better than if you just tell them about it," said Mike Hanlon, who co-founded the Health Careers Academy at Palmdale High with his wife, Sandy, a former respiratory therapist. Both are planning to retire at the end of this school year.