From today's West County Times.
Posted on Mon, Sep. 27, 2004
Vocational pre-apprenticeship builds teenagers' confidence
By Jackie Burrell
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
RICHMOND - The smell of fresh sawdust and the whine of buzz saws fill
the air at Richmond's Kennedy High School. This may be wood shop, but
it's no make-your-mom-a-breadboard class.
Teacher Mary Gaddis rolls up her plaid work shirt's sleeves and waves
her students over to the butcher-block workstations for a lesson on
bevel, miter and rip cuts.
"Yo, yo, yo, listen up!" she hollers, as students gather around.
By the time she's done with these kids, they will be ready to enter
professional apprenticeships -- or to fix their own homes. With help
from Richmond's building-trade unions, Kennedy High's run-down wood
shop has been reincarnated as a training ground for tomorrow's
contractors, carpenters and plumbers. The unions set up the equipment,
but it is Gaddis, a longtime adult education teacher, who brings
drywall, plumbing and carpentry to life.
This pre-apprenticeship class is part of a new vocational education
movement, which pulls businesses, communities and schools into
large-scale partnerships, all aimed at preparing students for life
beyond the diploma.
Rather than tracking kids into college prep or traditional trade
skills, this hybrid approach, used in Richmond's wood shop, Mt.
Diablo's biotechnology classes, Antioch's health classes and Alameda's
food-service classes, is light years beyond the home ec and shop
courses of yore. In the John Swett district, business and labor
agencies funded the high school's six career academies, which are
training students in everything from refinery pipefitting to water
"It takes what was vocational education, integrates it with academics
and raises the bar," said Louise Barbee, program coordinator for the
Contra Costa Office of Education. "It breaks down the walls of the
school and makes it real, gets kids face-to-face with people in the
Those connections can infuse classrooms with energy and equipment,
said Barbee. Contra Costa's Business and Education Collaborative
represents high-tech, health services and other local industries,
which offer expertise and supplies to local schools.
In July, collaborative partners Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, BioRad,
John Muir Medical Center and the Joint Genome Institute helped support
a countywide summer biotech camp for teens.
A similar industry-school partnership pairs Oakland International
Airport with high school students in food services courses. Castlemont
High School teens have operated a coffee cart in Terminal 1 since
1996. Alameda high school students joined the espresso trade in
Terminal 2 just last year, getting a crash course in business plans
and health permits in the process.
The training goes far beyond froth and beans, said Alameda voc-ed
teacher Mark McKee. This "real world lesson" includes bookkeeping and
"They get paid, they get credits, and they get connections with the
world of work," he said.
At Richmond's Kennedy High, the woodshop is bustling for the first
time in years. Contra Costa's Building and Construction Trade Council,
Electricians' Local 302, Plumbers' Local 159 and the Carpenters' Local
152 were instrumental in getting the program up and running, said
county Supervisor John Gioia.
But the program sprang from the idea that students who might be
interested in trade apprenticeships lacked the basic skills, including
math and English, to pass the necessary exam.
"We want to hand them off like a baton, with the math skills to be a
plumber or electrician," said Gioia. "We're teaching them a lifelong
career, as opposed to just getting a job."
Lumber is neatly stacked in one corner at Kennedy High, and work
stations offer hands-on lessons in framing, plumbing, carpentry and
electric work. Still to come: skills in masonry, reading blueprints
and working with concrete.
"We're talking with the tin knockers -- the sheet metal workers --
about a sheet metal apprenticeship," said Gaddis. "By the end of the
semester, we'll build a mock-up of a house with a crawl space."
"We've done measuring, tools. She gave us a safety test so no one cuts
off their fingers," senior Dorian Spain said, halfway through a
carpentry lesson on Monday. "It's better than doing Spanish. You learn
Dorian and sophomore Talaysia Creer were cutting a 2-by-4 into
sections, using a coping saw for a curved cut, a hand saw for the rip
cut and a power saw for a tidy miter cut. Dorian dragged a pencil
along the side of a world history textbook, drawing a straight line
"You get to do a real job out there and you get paid a lot. And, you
can be fixing stuff in your own house," said classmate Marvin Boozer,
By spring, a Hobbit-size house will sit under these soaring ceilings.
And Gaddis, "Miss G" to her students, plans to help them build
playhouses for local preschools and benches to replace the dilapidated
ones in the high school's quad.
Principal Julio Franco and the trade unions are keeping careful watch
on the program, hoping for a new generation of skilled tradesmen.
"If we succeed, this is going to be a mecca," said Franco, casting an
eye toward the defunct machine shop next door.
Reach Jackie Burrell at 925-977-8568 or jburrell@...