Bruce Maiman: From shop class to Career Pathways

Published: Tuesday, May. 27, 2014 - 12:00 am

Learn a trade or go to college?

It’s what Elk Grove Unified School District Superintendent Steven Ladd calls “educational schizophrenia – that pendulum swinging back and forth where ‘everybody’s gotta go to college’ and then for five years ‘everybody’s gotta go to work.’ 

One solution, as we tour his district: California Career Pathways, or Linked Learning. The idea: Strengthen existing high school career tech programs by mixing strong academics with workplace experience so graduates have a choice: enough real-world skills in high-need and high-growth economic sectors that make them instantly hirable, but with solid academics that qualify them for college.

Shawn Frye represents the model. He entered the Culinary Arts Academy at Cosumnes Oaks High School as a sophomore to “learn how to make things for my family.” Now, as he and a team of student cooks prepared a delicious lunch for Ladd and me, he talked about techniques, pairings, presentation and subtle tricks that make something bland into something spectacular.

He probably could get hired as a line cook tomorrow. Instead, in June, the graduating senior begins study at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., considered one of the nation’s finest training grounds for aspiring chefs.

“I want to own my own restaurant with someone working the management side while I’m working the kitchen,” he said.

Community partnerships are invaluable. The University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health; Kaiser Permanente, and the California Health Profession Consortium combined to help tailor Valley High’s Health Tech Academy into the nation’s first high school offering Community Health Worker certification.

“The goal,” academy coordinator John Buckmaster told me, “is to help students understand prevention so well that they’re leaving this place as community health workers.”

“These kids are getting certified by the people who would actually hire them,” Ladd added.

Back at the Cosumnes kitchen, Craig Roberts is an ideal faculty member: He owned a restaurant for 15 years. He’s overseeing a class of special ed kids.

“Eighteen weeks ago, they couldn’t hold a knife,” he said. “Today, they’re making pies we’ll sell to support our own program. We’re actually profitable.”

I bought one. Tasty!

Similarly, students at Cosumnes’ Architectural Design and Engineering Academy apply what they’ve learned about building trades, engineering and design concepts to sell what they design and build, from backyard sheds to “solar suitcases,” portable solar energy units now being used in 18 different third-world countries where electricity is scarce.

So while the Legislature has allocated $250 million to expand these high school tech programs and link them with the business community, project-based class assignments provide instruction, profit and even a sense of human purpose.

Shop class has come a long way.

There are other practical benefits. Now finishing her junior year as an engineering student at Sac State, Elizabeth Schneider couldn’t sing enough praises about how well Cosumnes’ Architectural Design and Engineering Academy program prepared her. She didn’t have to.

Students take an average of five years and eight months to get a four-year degree at a public institution, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But Elizabeth didn’t have to take classes that had limited enrollment or that were unavailable in a given semester.

“My foundation was so good I was exempted from some of my college courses, making it easier for me to graduate on time,” she said.

Calculate that financially, and the value of Linked Learning increases almost exponentially.

The crown jewel on the Cosumnes campus is the “rHouse,” or Resource House. Built by students and professional contractors and completed last November, it is completely eco-friendly and self-sufficient, crafted with materials either donated or purchased at cost.

As students point out its award-winning features, one senior, Cassidy Goldman, recalled, “I wanted to become a child advocate. Sophomore year I hit the academy and now, working with my hands is what I want to do.”

The graduating senior plans to major in construction management and engineering at Chico State, which has the best hiring rate for college grads in that field.

You wonder if Cassidy would’ve gone through college to become a child advocate, never learning until later in life – perhaps too late – that her true calling was working with her hands. It illustrates another little-considered value of such remodeled academy programs: allowing students to discover sooner what they don’t want to do.

Linked Learning is a long way from full flower but deserves more nurturing from us – taxpayers, educators and business partners. It doesn’t guarantee every student will be a light-bulb genius, but it lights a promising path away from the protracted paradigms of 20th-century education to better prepare our children to take their place in the economies of this century. It might even return California to its role as a national leader in public education.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at

Read more articles by Bruce Maiman

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