For all this, though, tremendous challenges remain. Statewide, there is a shortage of trained vocational instructors and, despite the governor's enthusiasm and the bevy of bills being considered, not enough money in the pipeline. School standards need to be revamped so that students (and teachers) are judged on reaching milestones in career education, as well as academic achievement.
Locally, Jackson and his team must strike the right balance between centrally organizing LAUSD's fragmented vocational operations and not suffocating them inside the bureaucracy.
The district may also need to allow for more flexible hiring rules to attract people with strong business backgrounds to its faculty -- something that may not sit well with the teachers' union. Jon Lauritzen, the biggest advocate for career education on the school board, could be a key to making this happen. "Everybody says Jon is a tool of the union," notes his chief of staff, Ed Burke. But he says that Lauritzen has opposed the union in the past and is determined to "lead the way" on this.
More, too, needs to be done to involve local businesses. "I don't think we've reached out" nearly enough, Jackson acknowledges.
And all of this must be moved on quickly. At present, about 45,000 LAUSD high school students are on a career-education path. That's far too few in a district with more than 207,000 high school students and a dropout rate that hovers between 33% and 50% (depending on who's doing the counting).
It won't be cheap to get there. Jackson estimates that largely because of equipment needs, a vocational class costs 20% more, on average, than a regular course. But it's an investment that has to be made.
A couple of weeks ago, after I wrote about L.A.'s disappearing middle class, a number of readers contacted me and suggested that vocational education could be a valuable tool to help stem this alarming trend. I agree.
The question, in the end, is whether LAUSD is up to the job.
Before I left the skills center, I stopped for a few minutes and watched a couple of dozen students clad in yellow hard hats training to be power-line workers. This is one of the center's showcase courses -- and rightly so.
Graduates earn $70,000 or more out of the gate. The occupation takes brawn and brains -- the strength and stamina to clamber up a giant pole and dangle in the air, and the ability to problem-solve (by using Ohm's law, geometry and algebra).
As a Southern California Edison manager helped guide one student heavenward, I got the feeling that this was a metaphor for something. But what?
Has LAUSD finally figured out a way for students to reach new heights? Or will all this turn out to be pie in the sky?
Rick Wartzman is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.