by Julia Steiny
Students are milling around the small fleet of vehicles in the parking lot of Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical School (BVTS).
Lacking professional uniforms, they clearly weren't the dental assistants expected to go out to speak to middle-schoolers about oral hygiene. If they were construction students they'd have tool belts. The Heating and Air Conditioning students are scheduled to assess the air quality at a local elementary school, but that's not today.
No, muses Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, the long-standing Superintendent of BVTS, shrugging. He's not sure which program these kids belong to or where they are going. But he smiles with a tinge of triumph and asserts that wherever they're going, they'll get workplace experience.
Annually, BVTS students complete 600 to 800 projects out in their communities. Some do one-off projects like building a boat ramp for a local Parks and Rec. Others fill on-going internships at 30 different sites — hospitals, restaurants, and other real-world, adult workplaces. "These are learning labs outside of campus. The vans make it possible."
Well, sort of. The vans themselves were made possible by BVTS's courageous leap away from the traditional high-school schedule. Without flexible time, no need for vans.
All BVTS students alternate between a week of academics and a week devoted to their technical education. So, for the week of tech, no one budges when the bell rings because they'll keep on learning their craft or applying it.
Adult work doesn't take place in 50-minute Carnegie units. Real work — fixing cars, framing houses — can't be stuffed into academic periods, between math and social studies. The one week on and off schedule solves the maddening problem of liberating vocational work from suffocation by the 6 or 7-period schedule, left over from the Stone Age.
(The antiquated schedule is a pain not only for voc ed, but also for students taking college classes in "dual enrollment programs," and kids pursuing increasingly popular independent studies called "extended learning opportunities." When, in a traditional school day, is there time to run off and take a college class or learn farming techniques on a farm?)
Fitzgerald says, "Before the days of high-stakes tests, the old rule for voc education was 50 percent in shop, 25 percent in related theory and 25 percent in academics."
Well, the days of offering academics lite to any student are over. BVTS' students must meet industry standards in their technical field and achieve high academic expectations. On the MCAS math test, 92 percent of the BVTS students are proficient. State average is 78 percent. Not bad for voc students.
Six common-planning areas provide meeting space so tech and academic teachers can ensure that students' work experiences use and build on their academics, and vice versa.
Work is not only off-site. Fitzgerald says, "The whole building is a teaching lab."
Students in the dental program make mouth guards for their sports teams. The on-site Three Seasons Restaurant, run by culinary students, made $90,000 last year. (Which offsets the costs of things like those vans.) The graphics and printing students make the restaurant's menus, as well as doing commercial jobs for clients who have patience with the time it takes to get the work right.
Fitzgerald's criteria for evaluating the value of a potential work experience are:
1. The opportunity for rich learning
2. Assurance of safety
3. Assurance that students won't be displacing workers in that industry.
Fitzgerald cautions, "When Public Works wants us to paint the white line in a road, after about a mile it's no longer a learning experience but a prison project. We're always trying to get a balance of work experience and learning, without taking advantage of the kids."
So sometimes the school says no.
For example, the culinary program generated a lot of waste, specifically saturated fats. A teacher-led team of students figured out how to turn that liability into liquid hand soap. You can buy it at the school store. Johnson and Johnson, the big corporation, saw an opportunity and wanted to market the soap. After much thought, the staff felt that designing a production system would be fabulous experience. But once done, the grind of producing the soap in bulk would resemble that second mile on the white line.
Any kind of commercial design tends to take whatever time it takes. During tech week, they have much-needed flexibility.
Actually many of Massachusetts' other vocational schools also use the one-week on, one off schedule. They are considered the best technical schools in the nation. It's possible they have better kids, teachers, buildings, curricula.
Or it's possible their schedule gives students a more integrated picture of a work landscape where technical mastery depends heavily on academic skills. BVTS' students go to higher education in droves. Those who don't are desirable entry-level workers.
Radical educational creativity is not possible until schools loosen their vice grip on the lockstep traditional schedule. It's just a matter of time.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.