Some D.C. parents are in high dudgeon over too much high-tech education.

With two sons in D.C. public schools, Jerald Woody Sr. should have been thrilled when he heard the pitch for a so-called technology high school at a community meeting earlier this year. Mayor Anthony A. Williams had been talking about the idea ever since he took office, but school and city officials were finally there to flesh out the details. The school, planned for the building that was once McKinley Tech, at 2nd and T Streets NE, would provide its 800 students with a “state-of-the-art” education and prepare them for “jobs of the 21st century,” according to a mayoral aide.

Woody had heard the spiel before. Like most public-school parents, he’d heard all about the importance of computers in classrooms. He’d heard the golden promises—jobs! money! stability!—about computer training for school-aged youth.

Woody thinks it amounts to little more than the latest educational fad, complete with its own buzzwords—like when educators promised that Ebonics would provide African-American students with a better education.

“When people say ‘technology,’ I say, ‘What kind of technology are you talking about?’” asks Woody. “And then I say, ‘Here we go again.’”

As far as Woody is concerned, the tech-ed schemes are little more than vague notions of planting kids in front of computer screens to peck out a few lessons on the keyboard or grandiose ideas of getting the most modern equipment—without any sense of how it really helps students. D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) officials are still working on many of the details for the school, which is scheduled to open in September 2002. In the meantime, Woody and other parents worry that the proposals include few plans on how to connect tech lessons to basic, solid education, let alone how to prepare kids for jobs once they get out of school.

Woody’s not the only one who’s underwhelmed with tech-ed proposals. DCPS officials introduced a tech-oriented magnet program in January, originally planned for the Paul Junior High building. After the Paul principal objected, they shifted the program to Backus Middle School. The sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students there staged a walkout in protest, and the education innovators finally had to put the idea on hold.

Woody’s idea of technical education mainly shuns hyperlinks and interactivity and focuses instead on, say, hammers and nails. What the system really needs, he says, is to funnel some of that tech-ed money into revamping traditional vocational-education programs—like auto mechanics and construction trades—that can get a kid a job right away. And he’s formed a distinctly un-cutting-edge committee, the Vocational Education Committee of the Parents and Community for “Action” Association Inc., to push for new money to fund classes in everything from cosmetology to woodworking.

“For all that money to go to computers is ridiculous,” says Woody. “We can get kids employed faster in vocational areas than in technical programs….They think of [parents] as not being competent enough to read through the rhetoric.”

Before he was a concerned parent, Woody was a young man who wanted to join the military. School officials at Cardozo High, where Woody attended classes in the late ’60s, made most of his career decisions for him, pushing him into vocational-education classes. So Woody spent many of his afternoons under the hood of one of his teachers’ cars—a Chevy Malibu or a Ford Galaxie, maybe—changing oil or replacing spark plugs in the garage at the rear of his school. “Everyone just tinkered around, really,” says Woody.

Woody slogged through vocational education when it was openly stigmatized as a dumping ground for students who didn’t have a chance of going to college. And, Woody says, his voc-ed classes didn’t prepare him for much: Materials and equipment were outdated, and teachers lacked the training to guide students. Most of what he learned in high school he taught himself, he says.

“I figured out what I needed to know, and I just went to it,” says Woody. When the military wouldn’t take him because of his high blood pressure, Woody got additional training in auto mechanics after graduation. Today, he works as a training specialist in fleet services for the D.C. Department of Public Works.

Vocational education hasn’t improved much since Woody’s 1967 graduation. In 1992, the D.C. Board of Education and a now-defunct nonprofit called the Committee on Strategies to Reduce Chronic Poverty commissioned a group of consultants to take a critical look at vocational education and suggest changes. The prognosis wasn’t good.

The report, titled Linking Learning With Earning, found that vocational programs didn’t provide students with adequate training in their specific fields. “Instead of putting students into effective vocational-education tracks, [DCPS officials] put them into something that was practically useless,” says Marc Bendick Jr., the lead consultant on the report. “Graduates were not prepared to work in two ways: There were no academics, and there was a poor quality of vocational education.” Unsurprisingly, many students dropped out of the programs before they even graduated.

Bendick made a series of recommendations that called for improving both academics and vocational training—and integrating them. He also encouraged more and better teacher training and student apprenticeships.

The critical report prompted some positive movement, like a partnership with the University of the District of Columbia that allows voc-ed students to receive college credit for high school classes. But changing leadership in a school system plagued by problems in nearly every department has meant that vocational education hasn’t gotten the overhaul it needs, says Bendick. Schools officials have struggled to find a new image for vocational education. “All you have to do is look at the number of times it’s changed names over the years—that’s a sign of the stigma,” says Mary Levy, attorney for the activist group Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools.

None of this is news to schools officials. Cynthia Bell, director of the Division of Career and Technical Education—as it’s now called—says that school officials have made some progress but continue to struggle. Last month, they inaugurated a task force of DCPS officials, parents, and community members to come up with ways to revive the division for the 10,000 students who take at least some voc-ed classes each year.

In the last few years, voc ed has also had to play catch-up with advances in technology—pricey changes rarely covered by a budget made up of $10.3 million in DCPS money and another $4.3 million in federal funds. “Five years ago, vocational education became more technical education,” says Searetha Smith, associate superintendent for academic services. “You’re not any longer looking at vocational education. You’re looking at how business and technology applies to careers.”

And, says Bendick, most jobs require some sort of postsecondary or technology training: “It’s just one big fiction that going through vocational education in a D.C. high school is going to lead you to a good job after graduation, partly because D.C. schools are not doing a good job, but mostly because the level of training you need is higher than high school.”

Woody and his band of parents are willing to take the chance. It’s not that they dislike computers. It’s just that a focus on academics and high technology produces a gap that swallows up students not particularly interested in either, they say. “The young people who are graduating from [DCPS] high schools, they can’t even read a tape measure,” says David VanWilliams, president of a general-contracting company that specializes in carpentry, called North Star Builders Inc., and a member of Woody’s group. “I have talked to other contractors who complain about their ability to find good help and good workers….All of this major construction happens in D.C., but so many youth are not taking part in it.”

In this age of the high-tech celebrity, Woody’s is a pretty square point of view. But that’s OK with Woody, and it’s OK with some of his fellow parental activists, too. “Sometimes when I attend these education-of-the-future seminars, I want to put my kids in home schooling,” says Cathy Reilly, who has a son at Wilson High and heads a parent and teacher group called Senior High Alliance of Principals, Parents, and Educators. “I want them to get the basics. I don’t want it to get all glitzy. I want sound educational practices.” CP