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A quick clue to how often the plumbing gets broken in the cosmetology lab at Queens Vocational and Technical High School is that the teenage boy on his back working on a sink isn’t getting teased–or even noticed–by a roomful of high school girls.

Principal Steve Serber proudly explains that the building trades students do most of the electrical and plumbing work on the school. “It’s a very old building,” he laughs ruefully, “so there’s quite a bit for them to do.”

Despite the building’s condition, Queens Vocational is an inviting place. Serber has run the 1,200-student school for the past 17 years, and he knows everyone’s first name. The kids greet him amiably and respectfully. Though a security guard checks IDs at the front desk, there are no metal detectors; the vocational schools tend to be safer than most neighborhood high schools, and Queens Vocational is no exception.

In the senior electrical shop, one boy runs up to describe his project: a device that makes a sound, silent to humans, that repels bugs. “I made it up. I figured it out myself,” he says more than once. But although he’s produced pages of penciled diagrams, there’s one last hurdle he can’t solve. “It’s really, really hard,” he says, shaking his head with the pride and resignation of a math Ph.D. stuck on a particularly knotty equation.

In contrast to the inventor’s enthusiasm, many of the girls in the cosmetology lab seem to be already looking to other careers. One student says she wants to be a psychiatrist. “This,” she says, gesturing with a wave of her hand to the mostly Latina students practicing on a sea of life-sized Barbie heads, “is something to fall back on.”

A quick clue to how often the plumbing gets broken in the cosmetology lab at Queens Vocational and Technical High School is that the teenage boy on his back working on a sink isn’t getting teased-or even noticed-by a roomful of high school girls.

Principal Steve Serber proudly explains that the building trades students do most of the electrical and plumbing work on the school. “It’s a very old building,” he laughs ruefully, “so there’s quite a bit for them to do.”

Despite the building’s condition, Queens Vocational is an inviting place. Serber has run the 1,200-student school for the past 17 years, and he knows everyone’s first name. The kids greet him amiably and respectfully. Though a security guard checks IDs at the front desk, there are no metal detectors; the vocational schools tend to be safer than most neighborhood high schools, and Queens Vocational is no exception.

In the senior electrical shop, one boy runs up to describe his project: a device that makes a sound, silent to humans, that repels bugs. “I made it up. I figured it out myself,” he says more than once. But although he’s produced pages of penciled diagrams, there’s one last hurdle he can’t solve. “It’s really, really hard,” he says, shaking his head with the pride and resignation of a math Ph.D. stuck on a particularly knotty equation.

In contrast to the inventor’s enthusiasm, many of the girls in the cosmetology lab seem to be already looking to other careers. One student says she wants to be a psychiatrist. “This,” she says, gesturing with a wave of her hand to the mostly Latina students practicing on a sea of life-sized Barbie heads, “is something to fall back on.”

A few years ago, such a plan would have been almost a dream; she wouldn’t have gotten an education from Queens Vocational that would have prepared her for college. Now, she might have a chance. During the past two decades, the 21 high schools in New York’s vocational education system have neither prepared kids adequately for college nor, in many cases, for a job. That’s supposed to change. Thanks to a national trend toward linking schools to the workplace and the recent decision to require all students in New York State to pass the state Regents exams, the Board of Education is finally paying some attention to the vocational system.

But well-intentioned efforts to bring vocational students up to the academic standards of college-bound peers may be overshadowing another–and for some kids more realistic–imperative: preparing them to get good jobs.

The shabby buildings that house the voc ed schools bear witness to the city’s history of indifference. Frank Carucci, the United Federation of Teachers’ vice president for vocational/technical high schools, calls conditions at vocational schools “much worse” than at the city’s other high schools: “It’s almost like they’re saying these are second-rate kids.”

A UFT lawsuit filed in January 1994 documented some of the most serious problems. At George Westinghouse High School–just a few blocks from the Board of Ed’s headquarters in downtown Brooklyn–the 1,800 students used stairways warped by ripped-up treads and uneven risers. Transit Technical High School’s crumbling facade, which was also mentioned in the suit, dropped 200 square feet of brick onto the sidewalk below in February 1998. By some miracle, the kids who usually play basketball in that spot weren’t there that day.

Last year, after a court order forced the Board to repair the decaying school buildings, most of the dangerous structural deficiencies were fixed. But despite a few rounds of renovations, other problems remain. “They replaced doors, lights. But they didn’t replace any of the boards. The floors are in really bad shape. The graphic shop has a big leak in the roof,” says one veteran teacher at Staten Island’s Ralph McKee High School, who requested anonymity.

Schools still lack basic amenities. In Queens Vocational’s electrical shop, many of the outlets don’t work, and the cosmetology lab lacks adequate ventilating fans. The school doesn’t even have a gymnasium, so kids have gym class outside all winter. “You would never see that kind of thing at Bronx High School of Science,” Carucci comments.

The long-running neglect of vocational schools stems partly, of course, from the powerlessness of the 27,200 kids they teach. Not only do vocational schools overwhelmingly serve poor students, but since the 1970s, budget cuts, changes in education theory and the ascendance of the information economy have turned the system into a kind of detention room for kids with academic or behavioral problems.

Today, some kids do go on from these schools into technical colleges and even four-year programs, but junior high guidance counselors don’t generally steer their best pupils into voc ed. “We get the kids no one else wants,” says Michael Graff, who teaches social studies at Westinghouse, a school with particularly poor recruitment. “There are kids in electronics who read at third or fourth grade levels. Over 1,000 of our kids come in with terrible attendance records. So the school gets worse and worse.”

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There is no one model for a vocational high school in New York. Some, like Queens’ Aviation High School or Brooklyn’s Automotive High School, specialize in a particular field. Others, including Queens Vocational and Ralph McKee, offer a sampling of professions–the system’s mix includes electrician, beautician, plumber, electronics repair, secretary, carpenter, engineer, computer technician.

What the schools have in common is a mission to prepare students for the working world and a hard time getting the resources to do the job right. The city will not disclose budget numbers, but the UFT maintains that vocational high schools’ share of Board of Ed money is much smaller now than it was in the 1960s and early ’70s.

The results are easy to see. The underfunding of voc ed has been a disaster for the most expensive vocational programs, which are also the ones that prepare students to enter more lucrative job markets. “I came here to do nursing, but then I found out they got rid of it,” says one Queens cosmetology student, meticulously laminating mannequin hair in place with several sticky layers of gel.

Cosmetology programs survive because they’re cheap; neither the techniques nor the equipment change much, and in many downmarket salons even the styles evolve slowly. Queens Vocational is one of five New York City vocational high schools with a cosmetology program, while only two, the Bronx’s Grace Dodge and Jane Addams, offer nursing majors.

Queens students lose more than an option: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average beautician’s annual salary is less than $16,000, while a registered nurse makes more than $36,000. It’s easier to find a job in nursing, too; the New York State Department of Labor shows nearly seven times as many new jobs for nurses and nurses’ aides in New York City as there are for cosmetologists.

Likewise, although the city’s demand for plumbers exceeds supply, there are only three plumbing programs in the city, and one is scheduled to close next year. Many of the other programs that endure are crippled by poor equipment. Everyone involved in the voc ed system seems to have an anecdote about fashion design classes using sewing machines from circa 1963. At some auto mechanic programs, Carucci says, students are working on “parts that aren’t even in cars anymore.”

“In many of these shops, they’re training kids to be tradesmen in 1950, not 1999,” says Graff. “In the building trades, for instance, they use computers now. We aren’t using computers in the woodworking shop. A child who graduates from this school has no skills to get a job.”

For data processing and the like, companies are more than willing to donate their old computers to schools–Queens Vocational has old machines with 386 megahertz chips for the business lab and slightly better 486es for computer programming classes. But, Serber notes, “Their old is newer than our new.” And so students are always learning on equipment that is already obsolete in the business world.

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But voc ed is being dragged into the next millennium. The Board of Ed has already begun to phase in the new Regents standards, which will require all students in the class of 2005 to pass exams in U.S. History and Government, English, Math, Global Studies, and Science in order to graduate, with no exceptions. Add in the requirements to learn a trade, and voc ed students have gone from a courseload light on academics to one that Steve Feldman, head of the Board of Education’s School-to-Career Office, says is harder than that of any other high school in New York City.

At Queens Vocational, for example, that kid under the sink–and anyone else studying to be a plumber–must take three full years of plumbing, four years of English and social studies, and three years of math and science. These students are in classes for at least seven periods a day, not counting lunch. “The kids are overwhelmed,” Feldman says.

Unbearably tough or not, the Regents requirements fit right into a national movement with a catchy name, School-to-Work. The movement started in the late 1980s out of concerns about the competitiveness of the U.S. workforce and a growing perception that all students need an education that combines academics with work preparation. Supporters run the gamut from liberals like Robert Reich and Hillary Clinton to much of corporate America; vocal detractors include back-to-basics conservatives like former Secretary of Education Lynne Cheney.

“The workplace of the 21st century demands a different set of skills. We’re out of the industrial age,” says Tom Pendleton, executive director of New York City’s School-to-Work Alliance, a consortium of schools, businesses, labor unions and government. “We’re in the information age. Students have to be prepared to be lifelong learners. They need interpersonal skills, critical thinking.”

The phrase “School-to-Work” entered the national vocabulary in 1994, when Congress passed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. That law has funded a five-year grant of about $2.5 million a year for New York City. Some of that money has gone to the vocational schools–establishing Feldman’s office in 1997, for instance, put one department in charge of voc ed and has helped centralize reform efforts. Last fall the Board of Ed also okayed a $2 million, two-year staff development project for the vocational high school system.

The work is being done by Civic Strategies, a Boston-based nonprofit school reform organization that has been implementing the School-to-Work philosophy in urban and poor communities around the nation. In New York, the group is tackling teacher training and new curricula, as well as making sure kids get more counseling. Not surprisingly, students often end up in vocational schools with little idea of what they actually want to do later in life. (Asked why she chose to study cosmetology, one Queens Vocational senior says with a shrug, “I had to decide something.”)

For the technical part of the equation, Civic Strategies is bringing companies and skilled tradespeople into the schools to upgrade vocational training, which, Executive Director Bill Bloomfield agrees, “is not up to the standard that industry is demanding.” And some schools have found their own ways to stay current. At the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, for instance, many of the teachers work in print shops on weekends.

Other schools have connected with the major employers in their fields: Aviation High School takes advantage of the two airports in Queens by working closely with airlines, and executives from the Metropolitan Transit Authority serve on Transit Tech’s advisory board and review its curriculum. The Board of Ed itself has also roped in corporate executives, including some from Con Edison, Bank of New York and Salomon Smith Barney, as consultants on vocational school reform.

Many companies that work with the voc ed public schools–either out of conscience or for PR–aren’t likely to hire their graduates, however. “Even those of us who are good corporate citizens, concerned about these schools, are so far away from actually hiring vocational students,” admits Gary Hattem, managing director of the Community Development Group at Bankers Trust, who works with the Board of Education on voc ed.

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Since September, Transit Tech’s staff has been working with Civic Strategies to integrate math and advanced literacy into the vocational curriculum. Principal Jesse Lazarus says, “I don’t think you can separate the academic and vocational anymore. In our vocational classes, students are now doing top-flight research and writing up reports.” In January, Lazarus says, nearly 80 percent of the Transit Tech students who took the English Regents exam passed.

Not every school is doing so well. At Westinghouse, half of the junior class of 705 students didn’t even show up to take the required Global Studies Regents in January. Only 38 students passed–less than 5 percent. It’s not atypical. “We never do better than 20 percent,” says teacher Michael Graff.

Transit Tech’s success with the vocational curriculum is also more exception than rule. Faced with such daunting problems, voc ed schools’ very reason for being–teaching work skills that lead to jobs-is being undermined by their second-class status. Even the School-to-Career Office is a limited resource, since it has wide-ranging responsibility to prepare all students, from kindergarten to the end of high school, for college and work-that’s the futures of one million children.

And although the five-year federal grant has helped fund badly needed teacher training and curriculum development in many vocational high schools, its language specifically excludes using the money for equipment and materials. Two years ago, the UFT pressured the Board of Education to increase funding for voc ed, arguing that the schools were much more expensive to run than those that solely teach academic subjects. That pressure yielded what Feldman acknowledges was only a “small increase in funding.”

The trouble with getting funding out of the Board of Ed is particularly worrisome considering that the federal School-to-Work grant runs out next year and the Civic Strategies funding lasts for just two years. “When that consultancy is finished,” Carucci says, “will there be money to implement all those ideas? If not, it’s all for naught.”

Part of the problem might be that the reformers don’t think too often about preparing students to go out and find an employer. Ask Tom Pendleton if research exists on whether New York City’s vocational education programs lead to jobs, and he says reprovingly, “That’s old thinking.” When Bloomfield and other School-to-Work types mention measuring “outcomes,” they always turn out to mean academic test scores, never post-graduation employment rates or earnings. The Board of Ed doesn’t keep these statistics for voc ed either.

“There’s a good reason they don’t keep track,” says Joan Fitzgerald, an associate professor of urban policy and management at New School University who has studied Chicago’s vocational high schools extensively. “There’s not much evidence that these schools really do what they’re supposed to do.”

The schizoid state of New York’s voc ed schools can in part be traced to that great American pathology: class anxiety. It isn’t considered acceptable to train kids for occupations that aren’t middle class, never mind that most of the trades offered by the vocational schools are on the state Department of Labor’s list of jobs in demand.

Despite the school’s shortcomings, Queens Vocational grad Robert Vega was able to use his education and contacts from his favorite teacher to land a job as an electrician with a private contractor. Now a teacher at Queens himself, Vega still earns extra money doing electrical work over the summers. “I was like, college? I said I just want to work,” he remembers. “I enjoy the trade. Nowadays they’re pushing college, but it’s not for everyone.” He says a number of his students have gone off to higher education, only to return after a few months, looking for work.

“It’s the American Dream now–parents want their kids to go to college, become doctors and lawyers,” Carucci says. “But if they knew how much plumbers and electricians make!” Indeed, the average salary for non-self-employed plumbers is a little more than $30,000; for electricians, it’s slightly higher. After years on the job, many in the skilled building trades make as much as $70,000; some even reach six figures.

Middle-class guilt doesn’t always make good policy. There is much to be said for well-rounded education, but trying to make everyone into the model Harvard freshman, at the expense of teaching marketable skills, might doom many kids to failure. On the other hand, the tradition of tracking students into dismal shop classes, then ignoring them altogether, has clearly been just as bad.

For better or worse, the arrival of the Regents is tilting the balance away from the voc in voc ed. The pressure on the system’s administrators to have enough students pass the exams is intense, and many principals have used the “extra” money negotiated by the UFT a few years ago to upgrade their academics. The stakes are even higher for the kids: Unless they pass the Regents, they will not graduate. Ex-students may not be able to get a job without good vocational training, but they are going to have an even tougher time if they lack a high school diploma.

“It’s such a hard one,” says Adria Steinberg, program director of Boston-based Jobs for the Future and author of Real Learning, Real Work: School-to-Work as High School Reform. “For some percentage of kids, [the Regents] is really going to improve their education. But there’s still the question of what happens to those kids who are never going to pass the Regents.”

Finding a balance isn’t easy, but Steinberg has done it. As an administrator in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, public schools, she ran a program in which students were working in a Polaroid plant. They learned technical skills and also kept journals and published a newsletter about the experience. In humanities/social studies class, they had discussions about the issues their labor raised–from the environmental responsibilities of manufacturing companies to the meaning and purpose of work itself.

In another such program, in cooperation with Lesley College, Cambridge high school students began training to be teachers using journals, class discussions with their peers and books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Teaching is certainly a marketable skill: Though it might be news to Silicon Alley, New York City needs nearly three times as many teachers as computer programmers. Although many of New York’s schools are working hard to modernize and upgrade, the vocational system has yet to embrace anything so ambitious.

For now, students will have to roll with the Regents and keep working on outdated equipment. A block away from Queens Vocational, a bus shelter ad for Stanley Kaplan reads: “It’s your future.” Surely it’s unintended irony that a McDonald’s sits only a few yards away. For the kids who take this route to high school every day, the joke isn’t very funny.

Liza Featherstone is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.