David Schapira

David Schapira

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For all the flak that our state’s education system has taken over the years (I’ve dealt some of it), we proudly lead the nation in an important segment: career and technical education.

What used to be referred to as vocational education, is now a far more robust system that prepares high school students, and some adults, for the careers of today and tomorrow.

In his last State of the Union address, President Obama called for education leaders across the nation to “make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job.” He went on to challenge the states to prepare students for the “high-tech economy.” We’re doing it.

Arizona is at the cutting edge of career and technical education. More than two decades ago, the Legislature actually did something right and created a legal infrastructure that allows school districts to join together to form Joint Technical Education Districts (JTEDs). These joint districts pool financial resources provided by the communities that make up their member districts to form state-of-the-art centralized campuses, like the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT) in Mesa.

What does that mean to many of today’s Arizona high school students? A kid who has dreams of being a certified nursing assistant, a chef, a cosmetologist, a radio technician, a pre-school teacher, a graphic designer or an auto mechanic, has the opportunity in this state to get those skills. There’s no cost to high school students, and most of these programs offer end-of-course certifications and credentials that make students immediately employable in the real world.

There are schools like EVIT in other parts of the country, but none of this size, scope and quality. Arizona JTEDs are part of an all-star team of career and technical schools in this country, and EVIT is the team’s MVP. That’s why EVIT got the attention of Time magazine’s Joe Klein. In a piece entitled “Learning That Works,” he cited EVIT and an agricultural program in Kayenta as shining examples of what modern career and technical education (done right) has to offer.

A popular and age-old misconception about these career-track programs is dispelled in the Time piece and flat-out rejected in the President’s speech. Schools like EVIT are no longer for “those kids.” Klein says that although the vocational schools of old may have been seen as dumping grounds for “the dumb kids or the supposed misfits who weren’t suited for classroom learning,” that paradigm is shattered today.

The graduation rate for EVIT students is 98.4 percent, much higher than state and national averages. Many EVIT graduates tout high school GPAs well over 4.0 and attend some of the most prestigious universities in the country. In fact, 2 in 3 EVIT students go on to college; in traditional Arizona high schools, the rate is only 1 in 3. The major difference between college-bound EVIT students and other high school students who never matriculated to a career and technical school: the EVIT grad starts adulthood with a marketable skill. Many use that skill to pay skyrocketing college costs.

Those students who pursue a career in their EVIT field of study often make it to the pinnacle of their professions: like the former fashion design student studying with couture experts at Pratt Institute in New York; or the former nursing student serving his community today as a practicing physician; or the former cosmetology student who owns her own business.

EVIT and other modern career and technical programs provide outlets to high school students who want a head start on practical skill-building that’s convertible into a job in today’s market.

The most common question I hear from adults seeing EVIT for the first time: Where was this when I was in school? Well, it’s here now, and we need to make sure every kid who wants to gets the chance to take advantage of it.

The President challenged the American education community to “redesign America’s high schools” to fit the needs of the 21st century. For once, Arizona is ahead of the curve.

• David Schapira is a former three-term legislator representing Tempe and south Scottsdale and former Senate Minority Leader. He’s now a member of the Tempe Union High School District Governing Board and an educational consultant for the East Valley Institute of Technology and other educational initiatives.

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