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Derek Davis has been teaching barbering for over 20 years. He has seen hairstyles—the old English, the Afro, the high-top fade—come and go, but one thing always seems to remain the same: people criticizing vocational education. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve heard it my whole life. ‘Put the quote low-performing students into vocational ed. They don’t learn anything,’” he says. “I just don’t think any of that is true.”

Neither, it seems, does the D.C. Board of Education. On March 7, the board all but approved a proposal to expand vocational education in the District. The plan requires schools to add more career academies, often called school-within-a-school programs, in high-growth job areas. “Every time we have a town hall meeting, parents mention vocational education,” Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said at the meeting. “Not [enough] vocational education has damaged our school system.”

At Howard D. Woodson Senior High School in Deanwood, where Davis teaches haircutting, the business academy is in place and a new tourism academy is scheduled to open next year. If the board rubber-stamps the new vocational-education initiative at its next meeting in April—and if there’s sufficient funding—the school will also add an agricultural academy. Classes would include horticulture and marine science—and expand the barbering program into an academy with classes in cosmetology within the next few years.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Davis’ classroom is filled with almost a dozen students practicing their hairstyling techniques. Rashard Campbell, 18, stands behind a barber’s chair and speaks loudly over the sounds of the clippers. “It’s hard when you do your first haircut. You get real nervous,” he says. “But then you do your second, third haircut, and you get more comfortable. It’s not really that hard.”

According to Campbell, most of his academic experiences at Woodson have not been overly challenging, either. He took his last math class, Algebra 2, last year in the 11th grade, and he takes no science or foreign-language classes. He’s currently taking two sections of barbering, an English course, a writing course, and world geography. “High school is not hard,” he says.

Erich Martel, a Woodrow Wilson High School social-studies teacher, agrees with Campbell that D.C. high-school curricula are easy. And he believes that more vocational education will only exacerbate the problem. Over the past two years, Martel has actively opposed the career-academy initiative, writing letters to the Board of Education and penning an op-ed on the subject in the Northwest Current. For Martel and other advocacy groups, the issue is not money—funding for the new programs is largely coming from a $4.2 million Carl D. Perkins federal vocational-education grant—but focus. Career-academy courses will account for about half of the students’ time, reducing the amount of time some of the weakest-performing students will spend on academics, according to Martel. “These students have failed basic math and reading,” he says. “One needs to know aspects of geometry and algebra even to be a plumber or an electrician.”

Woodson’s test scores are in the basement—and in some areas, they are sinking even lower. Only 13 percent of Woodson students scored above Basic on the reading portion of the Stanford Achievement Test last year, a 17 percentage-point plummet from the previous year. The school has also been tagged as failing under the No Child Left Behind Act for the past two years. If the school continues its downward academic spiral, the Board of Education could force it to fire staff.

And Martel argues that the career-academy classes fail even at their basic vocational mission. Woodson, for instance, will begin offering Introduction to Hospitality and Introduction to Tourism Careers next year. “Those are pseudo-courses,” Martel says. “Where is the actual job training, the hands-on skills in that sort of class?”

Woodson Principal Aona Jefferson argues that vocational classes, even introductory ones, will help students who struggle academically after they graduate. “Some students’ abilities are much more geared to career options,” she says. Vocational classes “will give them a skill that brings an income.”

Plus, she believes that the new career academies will help with overall academic achievement. “Sure, they’ll be learning math in those vocational courses,” she says. “[They’ll have to know] in a barbershop, how many chairs can you fit into the room? They’ll also have to know the size of [scissor] blades.”

After four years of teaching barbering at Woodson, Davis is also convinced that his class is an asset to the school’s students. He comes from a long line of barbers—his grandfather used to cut hair in North Carolina, sitting his clients on a wagon wheel laid horizontally across a garbage can—and he believes that the career is a good way to make a living. “I sent my daughter to college on this,” Davis says, flashing a toothy smile above his well-trimmed goatee. “Thank God for trades.”

Davis strides over to his desk, his black barbering coat flapping behind him, and pulls out the waiting list for his program, a large salt-and-pepper notebook. He flips through the pages of neatly scrawled names to show off the number of interested teens. “There are 50, 60 kids who want to get in,” he says. “Their parents know that this is a good education.”

Davis contends that his program, one of the more established vocational programs at the school, is rigorous. To be admitted into Woodson’s barbering program, students need to pass an entrance exam, have a 2.0 grade-point average, and go through an interview process. After students complete the program, almost all of them take—and pass—the District’s barbering licensing exam. The test requires students to demonstrate their barbering chops—students have to correctly taper curly and straight hair—and includes a written portion and short-answer questions. (How many strokes are required to shave a beard? Answer: 14.)

In the course book, Milady’s Standard Textbook of Professional Barber-Styling, Davis points to the term “brachial plexus,” which is the name for a group of nerves in the neck. “Look at these big words,” he says. “This is not easy material to learn.”

Many of Davis’ barbering program grads go on to work in barbershops or learn other trades. Some attend college, earning associate’s degrees in hairstyling or barbering. Davis says one of his students now studies engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University—and continues to cut hair on the side. “I hear they call him ‘the Man’ ’cause he is making such good money,” Davis says.

But the most important feature of career training for Davis is that it keeps students in school. Davis recently had a special-education student who read at a third-grade level and was thinking of dropping out. “This was an alternative for him. Not everyone can sit in a chair and take notes from the board,” he says. “If that student had not gotten his license, what would have been his other options?”

Davis answers his own question: “As opposed to working for CVS and McDonald’s and making minimum wage, this is a real way to make money,” he says. “It’s not necessarily a growing field, but it’s not something that is going away, either. You’ll find plenty of barbershops in this city that need a good barber.”

Rashard Campbell, for instance, worked at a barbershop in Southeast last summer making as much as $70 a day. “If you don’t mind standing up for a long time, you like being with people—this is good money,” he says.

Campbell hopes to ace his barber-certification exam this summer and then get a chair in a shop for a little while. But did the program prepare him for a career? Campbell is not sure he’ll stick with it. “I don’t know,” he says. “I want to become an electrician.”CP