State

Vocational Programs in Peril

High school students from across Stanislaus County taught songs to toddlers, sold 5-in-1 blenders, investigated scenes and took apart drum brakes Wednesday.

The annual Occupational Olympics showcased the skills mastered by more than 700 vocational students competing in 23 hands-on events. But as school districts continue to cut spending drastically, officials are looking at laying off vocational teachers and trimming class sections.

Funding for one of the largest vocational education offerings — the Regional Occupational Program — has been reduced by 20 percent over the past two years, said Cindy Young, director of Yosemite ROP.

"Districts are having to make adjustments," Young said. "Students are getting skills from this program that are lifelong skills like responsibility. We're teaching students to learn and earn."

The Occupational Olympics, held at the Stanislaus County Fairground in Turlock, is also a chance for students to network with potential employers. Deborah Kidwell, a J.C. Penney manager and event judge, said she planned on hiring some of the teens who competed Wednesday.

Reducing or eliminating career technical education would be a mistake that would harm the community and economy, students and teachers agreed.

Employment opportunities teacher Karen Price said students connect with vocational classes and become more successful because of the lessons they learn and experience they gain.

Patterson High School senior Jessica Bryant, who competed in the auto technology and small engines events Wednesday, said auto shop classes fueled her interest in mechanics.

She said she hopes to become a mechanic or join the Marines after high school: "It's great for kids who want to become mechanics — they learn really what (mechanics) do and what they need to know."

Students Rubin Garcia and Christian Limas said such training benefits the community and economy.

Rubin and Christian, who competed in retail sales and general marketing Wednesday, said vocational classes prepare students for life after high school and make them more competitive — whether filing college or job applications.

"It gives people a better start," said Rubin, a Johan-sen High School junior.

After pitching the 5-in-1 blender to volunteer judges by highlighting how easy it is to clean and take when on the go, Christian placed first and Rubin came in third.

Christian, a Davis High School senior, already works at a clothing store, but said his vocational classes improved how he interacts with customers and gave him more confidence.

"I'm communicating better with others. I'm really shy," he said.

Both students plan to attend Modesto Junior College after high school.

"The (vocational) program almost encourages them or gives them a stronger taste for college," said Price, who teaches employment skills classes at six Modesto high schools.

Many students who were not college-bound end up attending MJC for a certificate or degree after finding a career in vocational classes.

"If you take away those classes, I don't know how they'll make that connection," she said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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