The future of vo-tech

Challenging curricula with an emphasis on math and real-world projects are totally changing the definition of vo-tech.

The old stereotype of vocational high schools as the repository of low-achieving students is going by the wayside as the nation's vo-tech schools beef up their academics, reports Delaware Online.

Vocational high schools are integrating academic and work-related education. According to the Harvard Education Letter, students are taking more college-prep classes.

"We're changing our environment," said Dianne Sole, superintendent of Polytech School District. "All of our students at Polytech are in a college-prep curriculum. In other words, they take the most rigorous courses.

"If a student comes in and has not met the standards in math, we will double-dose that student with two classes of math. We say we use time as a variable and learning as a constant."

In Delaware, Sussex Tech is known for its academic reputation. But this hasn't always been the case.

During the 1980s, standardized test scores at Sussex were in the lowest quartile in the state; enrollment was down and teachers were laid off. The school wasn't meeting anyone's needs.

School leaders changed the curriculum and opened a full-time technical high school with block scheduling. Students take eight courses in four 85-minute periods a day, with classes rotating on an even/odd-day schedule. Today, about 600 students apply to the school yearly – and about 340 are accepted.

"There is a focus on integrating curriculum, which means the academic teachers try to use examples and problems from the students' technical career interests," Superintendent Pat Savini said. "The technical teachers also stress state standards – math, science, reading and writing.

"Our point is it goes both ways," he said. "It's a dual expectation: Make problems relevant. Stress high standards."

Other schools are integrating academics with a hands-on approach to learning. Students at Polytech High School built a nature area using computer-aided drafting classes and working on simulations of the finished design.

"You can't have a one-size-fits-all approach," said Paul Herdman, president of the Rodel Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving Delaware's public education. "Investment in vocational education is important because technical classes can ignite an interest in some students who otherwise might go through school disengaged."