Schools of Thought
Should voters buy into the Regional Technical Academy plan?
A classroom at the Center for Technology, Essex, is awash with the blustery roar of professional hairdryers. Standing beside the rows of disembodied plastic heads are two dozen aspiring cosmetologists, each girl intent on shaping her model's hair into a stylish 'do. Next door, automotive technology students are tinkering with the metallic skeleton of a sleek roadster. When they're done assembling the kit car, it'll be sold to buy a new kit for next semester's class.
Yet another room emits the yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread. Inside, culinary-arts students clad in white aprons and chef hats slide loaves of cheese-filled French bread from the oven. On a typical school day, they prepare about 350 meals for people in the community, their work supervised by regional professional chefs. And at the end of the hall, 10th graders are building a miniature replica of the Titanic as it looked when oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck in 1985. The accurately scaled model will feature a motorized ship that hits an iceberg, breaks apart and sinks to the bottom of a huge fish tank.
Technology education, or tech ed, has advanced light years since the days when "shop" students built birdhouses and other useless doodads. Here at the Center for Technology, students are assembling and debugging mainframe computers and creating Web pages with 3-D animation. They're taking dental X-rays and medical transcription, tending bees, rebuilding $35,000 SUVs, and designing and constructing houses. In the process, they're earning college credits, preparing to sit for state-certification exams and securing high-paying, full-time jobs in Vermont upon graduation.
Now, there's an ambitious proposal to consolidate this tech center and the Burlington Technical Center into one large, centralized tech academy. The state-of-the-art facility, to be built in Essex Junction, would be called the Regional Technical Academy (RTA) and would draw as many as 1200 full-time students from high schools in Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties. This new school would grant its own diplomas and channel students into an even wider selection of highly specialized career paths.
The RTA plan was launched in 1998, when the Legislature funded a three-year, $450,000 pilot project to improve technical education in Vermont. An independent planning committee comprised of local school board members, educators, regional employers and other community members put together the proposal, with significant financial backing from the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.
On March 2, residents from 26 towns in northwest Vermont will vote on whether to create a new school district and governing board for the RTA. If the measure is approved, construction could begin as early as next January, with the new school opening its doors in September 2005.
But is a new tech center necessary? Though this plan has been in the works for five years, it's only recently begun to generate widespread debate.
The Chamber of Commerce recently launched a vigorous media campaign to convince voters of the benefits of building the RTA. According to the Chamber's website, Vermont is experiencing an acute shortage of skilled workers, a trend that's expected to worsen over the next decade. Vermont's high-tech companies are spending millions of dollars each year to recruit skilled employees from out of state because they can't always find enough of them locally.
No one denies that tech-ed programs are hugely successful and popular among parents and students alike. Roughly three in 10 Vermont juniors and seniors now attend one. Still, not everyone believes that the best way to reinvent public education in Vermont is to put all the state's eggs in one basket. If this school is built, opponents point out, it will be the most expensive education-construction project in Vermont history. The RTA price tag has ballooned from $42 million in October 2001 to $58 million today, and could rise to as high as $72 million by the time it's completed.
"I am a tremendous proponent of technical education. I think it's absolutely wonderful," says Jim Ticehurst, chairman of the Winooski School Board, which voted recently to oppose the RTA. "But we're talking about a lot of money here. We've got to slow this boat down."
Another vocal opponent, Chris LeBaron, a former member of the Bellows Free Academy-Fairfax school board, has grave doubts about what this new academy would do to small communities and their high schools. Creating a new school district, he says, will only divert millions of dollars away from existing districts at a time when all public schools are struggling financially and the Legislature is trying to scale back the educational bureaucracy.
The proposal "doesn't talk about school choice other than our kids choosing to go to them," LeBaron says. Proponents "like school choice," he contends, "but only if it all comes to them and the truckloads of money follow."
But it isn't just the loss of students and money that opponents fear. "This school is the center of our community," says Scott Lang, principal of Bellows Free Academy-Fairfax, the town's K-12 public school. "Town Meeting, Boy Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous, you name it. Anything that happens in town happens here."
According to current estimates, his school could lose about 100 of its 350 or so students if the RTA opens. And that, Lang says, would likely result in program cuts and staff reductions, if not the eventual closure of the school. As a result, the BFA-Fairfax school board voted recently to oppose the RTA plan, as did the school board at Mount Mansfield Union High School in Jericho.
Proponents of a new, centralized tech academy argue that it's the wave of the future and would put Vermont students on a level playing field with other high school students around the country. Kathy Finck is director of the Center for Technology, Essex and has been involved in the RTA planning process. Finck is the equivalent of a principal, with a notable difference: She doesn't have to contend with the same kind of disciplinary problems that typically occur in a more conventional high school.
"The students we get are very focused and very clear about what they want to do," Finck explains. "And there's a huge movement to integrate academics with technical education and to break the perception that only students who are not going to college are participating in technical education."
Finck points out that about 40 percent of her students go on for a postsecondary education, and even more spend two or three years earning money before applying to college.
"It would be foolish of me to say it isn't a concern of small schools about how many students would find this a popular or attractive model," Finck admits. But she believes the benefits of the RTA would far outweigh its negative consequences. Both her school and Burlington Tech have grown so large that they can no longer accommodate all the students who want to attend. Though in other parts of the state 34 percent of high school students take tech-ed classes, in the northwest the figure is closer to 10 percent -- a difference Finck attributes to space restrictions.
Ironically, the overwhelming popularity of these programs also threatens their future. For example, CTE's dental-assistant program is the only one of its kind in Vermont and one of the few high school programs certified by the American Dental Association. Currently, the program offers free X-rays and other dental services to people in the community. But it's also located in very cramped quarters -- the program's X-ray machine and patient files are housed in a converted closet. And the ADA has notified the school that it must find more space or lose its certification.
Losses of that kind, Finck argues, also hurt the wallets of students and parents. "In the cosmetology program, for example, these kids can finish all the hours they need to sit for their board exam, which is what you'd pay $5000 to $10,000 to go to school for," Finck says. "The other component is, we're able to give students a taste of college while they're still in high school."
Others aren't as convinced that the RTA proposal is a wise investment, however. Winooski's Ticehurst remains skeptical of the Chamber of Commerce's oft-repeated claim that the state will pay for all the project's capital costs.
"That's not what I'm hearing from the state," Ticehurst says. "When you talk to legislators or the Department of Education, they're saying, Wow! The last we heard, it was $27 million and that was a year ago.' Now it's up to $45 million. So if we launch this boat now with the assumption that the state will foot the bill and it doesn't materialize, who is liable for that?"
Vermont NEA, the state's largest teachers' union, has remained largely on the sidelines in this debate and has not taken a formal stance on the RTA. According to President Angelo Dorta, union members are of two minds. Many are attracted to the state-of-the-art facilities and diversity of programs being proposed. But others are asking whether a $40 million to $70 million investment in bricks and mortar is preferable to investing that money on improving programs in existing high schools.
Moreover, Dorta doesn't believe any of the educators at either CTE or the Burlington Tech Center have been assured they will have jobs at the new school. And a new academy with its own school district would require negotiating a new teachers' contract.
All of these uncertainties are worrisome for longtime educators like Fairfax's LeBaron, who has drafted his own scaled-down alternative to the RTA plan. Rather than centralizing all tech ed in one place, he proposes offering existing school districts their own specialties. And he wonders whether a centralized, full-time academy that channels students into highly specialized career paths is really the best way to offer the most students a flexible, well-rounded education.
"I think a large part of this is that we have a corporate influence saying, Let's spend some public money on training private workers," LeBaron says. "It's a bit like seeing kids as drones to be shaped to particular ends, and that rankles the hell out of me."