January 25, 2013 12:08:47 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
The weather is pleasant today, almost spring-like, and the metal bay door is thrown open wide, spilling sunlight and fresh air into West Lowndes High School's masonry and brick-building class.
This is a planning period for Joseph Fowler, but his students are still milling around, some chatting, but most vying for Fowler's attention, reluctant to leave.
"I'll get to you in just a minute," he says to one student. "I promise, I'll talk to you today," he says to another.
A young man stops to watch Fowler demonstrate a multi-purpose ladder, which has locking hinges allowing it to contort in a variety of ways, from the standard telescoping ladder to an inverted "V" or even an "M" shape.
"I've never seen one of those," the student murmurs, transfixed.
Fowler has only taught at West Lowndes for two years, but he is a passionate advocate for vocational education, not only because he teaches it but also because as a graduate of the Lamar County School of Technology in Alabama, he is one of its success stories.
Sophomores Lamar Jamison and Collin Robinson, both 16, sit at a picnic table they recently helped build and listen, rapt, as Fowler talks about how he took his high school diploma and went to Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he was recruited straight from the classroom by Hunt Refining.
Ultimately, Fowler decided his calling lay in teaching -- a choice which brings home considerably less pay but higher personal satisfaction.
"I know where they're at, because that's where I was," he says. "They're good kids."
But the odds are stacked against them.
More than 30 percent of West Lowndes High School students fail to graduate. Many are being raised in single-parent households, with 74 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch.
In a tough economy, where even college graduates are having a difficult time finding jobs, the gap between poverty and a comfortable, middle-class life is widening, with fewer and fewer guarantees.
That's why Fowler, along with an increasing number of education experts, believes vocational education may be a viable alternative to a four-year college -- and the ticket to a better life.
Last year, the Lowndes County School District began exploring the creation of a centralized vocational education center they hope will improve the odds for their most vulnerable students.
But questions remain.
Is a standalone county vo-tech school really necessary? Will it attract enough students to be worth the proposed $15 million price tag? What will it look like? And how will it be funded?
Proposals and success stories
It is October 2012, and the district's board of trustees is silent, their faces inscrutable as they listen to Joey Henderson, of JBHM Architects, make a presentation of successful vo-tech centers in cities such as Pass Christian on the Gulf Coast.
A survey of 1,048 Caledonia, New Hope and West Lowndes seventh, eighth and ninth-graders indicates nearly 1,000 would be willing to take classes at such a school. Most are interested in agri-science, allied health, automotive collision repair and auto mechanics.
The three county high schools each offer two vocational classes apiece, but although students are allowed to travel between campuses to pursue their interests, the logistics -- with each school roughly 20 miles apart -- are such that no students currently do so.
In addition to masonry, West Lowndes also offers business fundamentals like accounting and bookkeeping. Caledonia offers health science technology and building trades, and New Hope offers automotive service technology and engineering/robotics, along with cooperative education, a work-study program.
Henderson proposes a centrally-located school situated on eight to 10 acres near the intersection of Military Road and Highway 82 or Lehmberg Road and Highway 50. It will require a 66,500-square-foot building to double the current course offerings and nearly 80,000 square feet to offer a 14-course program.
But in addition to the standard fare, students could take things like pathology, phlebotomy and forensic science.
"This is not the vo-tech your daddy had," Henderson tells the board.
In many communities, it's no longer vo-tech at all, at least not in name. Gone are the dusty, dimly-lit, workshop-type environments that once dominated. Vocational education is undergoing a renaissance in the United States, being replaced by career-technical education centers (CTEs) -- sleek, architectural wonders designed to appeal to today's tech-savvy youth.
McKellar Technology Center, located at Columbus High School, boasts 454 students attending nine classes: automotive collision repair, health sciences, automotive service, digital media, architecture and drafting, early childhood education, culinary arts, marketing and law and public safety.
But they have the advantage of being only a few steps away from the main building, eliminating transportation issues, counselor Laurie Davis admits.
She's proud of McKellar's success, but as the mother of a New Hope sophomore, she's keeping a close eye on the county's plans.
Her daughter, Rachel Hood, is interested in health care, but at New Hope her only options are automotive service technology, engineering/robotics and cooperative education. Even if her mother allowed her to drive to Caledonia, she would lose an hour of class time on the road.
At McKellar, students job shadow, giving them the chance to figure out not only what they want to do, but also what they don't. Davis cites one student who wanted to be a doctor. During a trip to the Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle emergency room, she passed out at the sight of blood -- and changed her mind about her chosen career path.
"Our kids (at McKellar) have such an advantage, and my own daughter won't get that," Davis says. "I feel real excited and positive about what the county is trying to do. I'm glad to see they're looking to the future and being progressive."
Programs in nearby counties have proven successful. In Starkville, Millsaps Career and Technology Center serves more than 750 students a year from the city and Oktibbeha County. Several years ago, the Starkville City School District began requiring high school students to take a three- to four-week career exploration course at Millsaps, rotating between six of the 10 classes offered in automotive service technology, building construction technology, health sciences, marketing and economics, business management, teacher academy, agricultural science, horticulture, computer graphics and information technology.
In Alabama, the new $25.3 million Tuscaloosa Career & Technology Academy is slated to open in August, replacing the current, 43-year-old Tuscaloosa Center for Technology and predicted to serve the county's needs for the next 50 years.
Needs and naysayers
If you want to see a successful education model, look to Germany, says Charlie Jackson, interim principal at West Lowndes High School and a proponent of the centralized career-technology school.
By their freshman year, between 40 and 70 percent of German students are streamlined toward a combination classroom-workplace learning program, where they spend three to four days per week in paid apprenticeships in more than 350 occupations. More than 80 percent of those students find jobs within six months of graduating, compared with 48 percent of U.S. students, states Harvard University's 2011 "Pathways to Prosperity" report.
"I think vocational education is a very big key to the future of this school," Jackson says. "The vocational program is an extremely good idea and a real need in our area."
But would county students attend a standalone school?
Approximately 160 students currently attend the county's vo-tech classes, says career technology director Percy Lee.
He thinks a centralized school would draw more students into the program and would be "the best thing to ever happen to Lowndes County."
"If you had one vocational center, all these classes would be bursting at the seams," Lee says.
But Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, is skeptical. He served on the county school board from 1989 to 1999, when the standalone vocational complex at West Lowndes High School was closed.
It was unable to maintain enough students to be viable, he says. And he believes if students had to take a bus to another school, there would be a stigma.
"Does Lowndes County need it? Yes," Chism says. "Will they get on that bus and go to it? Experience tells me no. Can we afford to invest in something that's going to cost that much money and have them not show up? No."
Superintendent Lynn Wright has made a standalone vo-tech school a priority since his election to the board, and despite the naysayers, he says he hasn't given up hope of it becoming a reality within the next two years.
"We need to do something," Wright says. "A lot of these kids could be productive members of society if they could earn a skill. All of Lowndes County would benefit from that. We have some good jobs in Lowndes County going to (outsiders)."
The students in Fowler's class say they would like to attend a school where they could explore more career options and be among other students like themselves.
Jamison and Robinson both enjoy masonry, saying it is their favorite class, but both sheepishly admit that, given the chance, they might have taken something different.
Jamison loves cars and wanted to go to New Hope to study auto mechanics. He's also interested in health sciences, electrical work and construction. Recently, he spoke to a mortician at Carter Funeral Home and was surprised to hear how well the funeral industry is doing. Now, he's interested in it as well.
Robinson is also interested in auto mechanics, and he thinks it would be beneficial to meet students from other schools and see the things they are doing.
In a small computer lab adjacent to the classroom, between hammering out the basics of hand tools and power tools, Fowler also teaches students how to write resumes and communicate effectively with employers. He takes those who are interested on tours of East Mississippi Community College and local industries.
Though he only has 13 students, the program is slowly growing, and he believes it will grow even more if the proposed school is built.
"In my opinion, it would really put Lowndes County on the map," he says, his eyes almost as bright as his students' as he thinks about the possibilities.
He pauses, looking around the classroom where he works to shape not just young minds but successful futures. It's almost time for his next class, and he still has to talk with all the students he promised earlier that he would see.
"A student said one day, 'Mr. Fowler, I feel like I can build something now. This is my favorite class," Fowler says, grinning. "You don't hear that a lot. It really makes your day."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.