|The Return of Shop to City Schools|
|By Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer|
For many years the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council has argued for the return of “career technical education” through industrial arts shop classes to the City’s Unified School District. Retired Secretary-Treasurer Stan Smith, Sr. and the Construction Employers Association even collaborated some years ago to assemble a construction career educational program or “pathway” and present it to the District. Despite some professions of enthusiasm for the program, the District never adopted it.We in the trades have our own reasons for wanting “career tech” and shop back in the schools. The old recruitment system of a generation and more ago in which workers shepherded their sons or other relatives into the trades while imparting knowledge to them is largely gone, and good riddance. As effective as it was in producing a capable workforce on a limited scale, it functioned whether intentionally or not to exclude much of the country of whatever race or gender from our ranks. Even in those regions of the country where our numbers remained constant – and in most regions they decreased – the non-union sector grew, and to grow it drew on the talent we had excluded.
At roughly the same time as the old system was fading away, an important component to any new system was unfortunately also fading away. The schools stopped preparing students for our work. Many counselors even stopped telling them about us. The San Francisco Unified School District gradually closed almost all its shops. To my knowledge there remains only one, the woodshop at Presidio Middle School. We want the shops back so that the schools send us more and more of the capable candidates our apprenticeships and our work require.
We are not alone in wanting this, however. Many parents and caregivers of students – especially from less privileged neighborhoods – have told me that they want shops back in the schools. Some have spoken of necessary alternatives to college. Others have looked at shops as a way to reignite students’ interest in school. A well-designed shop class could do that. It could not just acquaint students with its ties to mathematics and the sciences. It could point toward possibilities in the arts, which arise in one degree or another from craftsmanship. Through discussions of its materials – wood, metal, rubber, plastic – it could point toward history classes, and through the materials those classes could draw the student into study of the Industrial Revolution, colonialism, conquest of native peoples, systems of government, and on and on. The shop class could even give practical lessons in English; imagine, for example, an exercise in which a student is handed an incomplete specification for some required task and to complete it is made to write an RFI. On finishing the shop class a student should have some idea of how to answer the question, “What use is x in my life?” – and we could substitute for x any of the litany of usually detested classes.
What is more, some have suggested lately that many young male students in particular learn better when study has a physically active component – and who would not identify them as a population of particular concern in the plague of violence on our streets? Many parents and caregivers see the potential of a well-designed shop class to draw them back into or deeper into learning.
There are three requirements for the return of shop classes to the San Francisco Unified School District: Space, equipment, and instructors. Obstacles stand in the way of fulfilling all three.
At a meeting a few weeks ago the principal of Lincoln High School told me that shop spaces are being eliminated in upcoming construction there in favor of science labs. Everyone is in favor of new and upgraded science labs, but it is more than unfortunate to see shop space eliminated in their favor with no prospect of replacement. It’s my understanding that this is going on throughout the District. Even John O’Connell, which fed generations of students into the trades, no longer has spaces for shops. As a result of this elimination of spaces, the return of shop classes will be far more expensive than it should have been and far more difficult to achieve.
Expense is likewise an obstacle to equipping shops. Drill presses, band and table saws, welding machines, oxyacetylene torches, metal and wood lathes – these things all cost, and they must be supplied with a constant flow of drill bits, saw blades, bottles of gas, welding rods or wire, materials, and so on, and the District eternally cries poor. Partnerships with business may help with occasional donations of equipment. Even the best-planned construction jobs sometimes are left with excess material after completion of a phase or process, and donations of this material would also help. Inevitably, though, the District would take on some expense itself, and it is certain not to agree to this without some guarantee of additional funding.
The expense of hiring new instructors will also be an issue. Beyond this, at the Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade (K through 12) level instructors must be certified to teach by the state. The best source of shop instructors will be the ranks of those who have spent most of their lives doing the work they will teach. Few if any of them will already have acquired teaching credentials. A teacher’s wages in most cases being lower than those of a working union tradesperson, most candidates for shop instructor will have left the field either because of injury or because they have reached a certain age, vested in a retirement plan, and decided that they no longer want to endure the physical rigors of field work. In the former instance they are likely to want to replace an income as quickly as possible; in the latter they are not likely to want to spend the years necessary to obtain a teaching credential. In both instances, then, a requirement of full credentialing is an obstacle.
The District has discussed attempting to address these obstacles in some degree through a partnership with City College. It is proposing to send students to the college’s Evans Campus for introductory classes in construction. At last word, City College itself hadn’t yet been approached with this proposal. For its part, the College is trying to plan for this possibility and to seek funding, even in the absence of a request from the District. High school students are permitted to study in junior college classes. The Evans Campus has shop space and equipment. Its instructors are not required to be credentialed for K through 12 education, and at least at last word can teach their particular skills without a credential if they can provide proof of appropriate training and experience.
But this is a very imperfect solution. The Evans Campus is not very close to any high school. Any student leaving a high school class to go study at the Evans Campus will be adding substantial time to his or her day. The ride on Muni might pass more than a few distractions. For some students, there may be a very justifiable hesitation to go into what they see as someone else’s turf. How well will a student’s attendance survive a semester, a year, two years of these challenges? Contrast this with the simplicity of walking down a corridor, up or down a couple of flights of stairs, or across a courtyard to a shop class. Contrast a long and dicey ride across town after the school day to be followed by another long and dicey ride at an even later hour with a simple trip home.
It may be all too easy for the District to fulfill its state career tech requirements in general by avoiding industrial arts altogether. Business, health care, arts, media, entertainment – these are among the “applied arts” listed in recent legislation. With the possible exception of media, these applied arts can cost less to teach than industrial arts, with its attendant shop classes. But to ignore industrial arts and those shop classes is to cut students off from a genuine and lucrative career with us, and unlike many another career we are not likely to go away.
Five bills on career technical education in high schools are before the California State Legislature now.
Senate Bill 13, introduced by Senator Wyland and coauthored by Senators Cogdill, Denham, Dutton, Harman, Hollingsworth, Maldonado, and Wiggins and by Assembly members Bass, Cook, Fuller, Garrick, Horton, Jeffries, Maze, Smyth, and Strickland, would require school districts seeking construction funding under last year’s bond measure to answer in their applications certain questions about how they are providing for the career technical of their students.
Senate Bill 672, introduced by Senator Torlakson, would require a student to pass two courses in career technical education before graduating. Thanks to legislation already in place, this mandate would have to be funded by the state. The bill applies to all students. Under its old name, “vocational education,” career technical education acquired a bad reputation through tracking of students based not on their genuine interests or aptitudes, but all too often on the basis of race, ethnicity, language, or economic status. This tracking was in no way a function of the educational material, but of the biases of educators and administrators. We should then have no hesitation about the return of the material, provided we are insulated against the bias, and the extension of the requirement of career technical education to all students should provide this insulation.
Assembly Bill 400, introduced by Assembly Member Nuñez, primarily establishes and gives instruction on implementing an Academic Performance Index. The proposed index includes career and technical education.
Assembly Bill 1586, introduced by Assembly Member DeSaulnier, would require the Trustees of the California State University System and urge the Regents of the University of California to include an admissions requirement of two years of “applied arts.” This would help overcome opposition to shop classes by parents who feel that they are of no value to their college-bound children.
Assembly Bill 1414, introduced by Assembly Member Hancock, would establish additional state funding for career technical education, starting in the first year with $250 million and rising to $1 billion in the fourth year, with rises thereafter at the rate of inflation. This funding stream would help us make our case to the San Francisco Unified School District.
As of a conversation I had in late July with Jay Hansen, Legislative Director for the California State Building and Construction Trades Council, he expected Senate Bill 13 and Assembly Bill 400 to pass the legislature soon and arrive on the Governor’s desk. The Governor got his start as a bricklayer and has spoken out repeatedly on the virtues of career technical education. This leads us to hope that he will sign the bills without hesitation.
Mr. Hansen sees the other bills as on a two-year track. Among them, The Senate has passed Senate Bill 672 and it has moved to the Assembly, where it is on hold in the Assembly Education Committee. The Senate and the Assembly should enter negotiations on the bill later this year.
In the meantime, the Council will continue to advocate before the District for the return of shop classes. We are carrying that advocacy elsewhere. I and others have raised the issue with City politicians. Rick Walton and I have brought it even before the employment committee of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. We are laying the foundations here. If the state legislation succeeds, and with some additional help in the matter of teacher credentialing, we will be ready to erect new shop classes for City schools on them.
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