Its three high school were maxed out with a total of 3,410 students when they opened for the 2002-03 academic year and the New Castle County Vocational Technical School District has a waiting list of prospective students with 770 names. Another 2,000 adults, most of them in their late teens or early 20s, are enrolled in vocational courses in its evening-school division.

To accommodate demand, the district hopes to open St. George's Technical High School just south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal in September, 2004. That timing is somewhat iffy in that it depends to a large extent on New Castle County government installing a sewer line to serve the site, but the district and the state are committed to having the school in operation as soon as possible.. The existing schools are Delcastle Technical High School, with 1,470 students; Hodgson Vocational-Technical School, with 1,100; and Howard High School of Technology, with 840.

Somehow, those numbers don't surprise Superintendent Joseph Deardorff. Vocational education not only is alive and well throughout Delaware and around the rest of the country, he said. What's more, interest in it among the rising generation is growing.

The reason? "I believe that kids can make as much money [in vocational careers] as the best of college graduates," he said.

While all high schools maintain that they are preparing youngsters for productive futures, students who attend Vo-Tech schools have charted at least a tentative career path. Not a few have made relatively firm decisions in that direction which most of their peers will defer for four to eight years if not longer.

That was evident early this year when New Castle Vo-Tech received 1,850 applications, the most ever. And it expects to top that this year. Prospective students must submit applications to their school's counselor by mid-December and the counselors must file them with the district in early January.

Viewed as a percentage of the boys and girls who are 14 and 15, the appropriate age to enter high school, living in the county -- in effect, Vo-Tech's market share -- applicants were the most since 1993. Back then, before the days of public school choice and charter schools, it was virtually the only alternative that youngsters and their parents had to public and private schools oriented toward college preparation.

Although the tendency to denial was strong -- and still is, although that is breaking down -- "not everybody is college material," Deardorff said.

While it is still common to hear about the impossibility of making it in today's world without a college education, reality is that a significant portion of entering four-year college freshmen never receive a diploma. Vo-tech students, he said, have a leg up on many of those dropouts, and even some college graduates, in that their high school education has been largely hands-on and directly related to the needs of likely employers.

District schools offer courses leading to 35 specific careers, ranging from auto body work to welding, divided into five tracks: communications technology' community, health and human services; computer and information services; construction; and industrial and mechanical technologies. Freshmen receive generalized instruction intended to expose them to different career areas so they are prepared to choose a specific concentration for the remaining three years.

The courses are a combination of learning traditional basic skills in a context of present-day application. "It's the old machine shop with computerized equipment," he said. "The G.M. plant [for instance] still assembles cars, but the plant today is nothing like it was in the '50s. Our challenge is to keep up to date."

"By the time they graduate, they've had 1,200 to 1,500 hours of trade instruction," he said. Many also have been summer interns in local businesses between their junior and senior years. About a third of the teachers in the trade or career areas of the Vo-Tech curriculum have come to the district with an average of seven to 12 years of experience in business or industry. Some of them do not hold college degrees, but all must achieve state teacher certification within six years of being hired.

Students also take a full load of academic courses to fulfill state Department of Education's credit requirements for high school graduation. Vo-Teach schools are public schools, supported by both state funds and local taxes -- at a rate of 10.1 for each $100 of assessed property value in New Castle County. Unlike other school districts, the countywide Vo-Tech ones in all three counties have their local tax-rate ceiling set by the General Assembly, rather than referendum. The governor appoints the members of the three vocational school districts' boards of education..

About 10% of New Castle Vo-Tech graduates go on to attend four year colleges. Some 40% receive full-time and another 18% part-time post-secondary education. Apprenticeship training is another major avenue of preparation for employment.

The district has strong long-standing ties with some 350 area firms, both large and small, Deardorff said. The largest group of those are in the construction trades. But a common denominator, he adds, is that all of them maintain their connection for other than purely altruistic motives. Even when it comes to entry-level jobs, there is general agreement in the business community that qualified applicants are hard to come by.

"Employers know our kids -- many of them personally -- and what they can do. When it comes to hiring who do you think will be first choice?" he said.

If that sound like the Vo-Tech schools mean business, that is intentional.

Every student takes eight courses, without study halls or electives.. The schools operate with block scheduling which means a greater degree of immersion in a given course at any specific time in the year. The schools offer athletics and other extracurricular activities and generally function like conventional high schools. But there is a seriousness of purpose that is more pervasive than in those schools.

It begins with an admissions process that is strongly reminiscent of ones used by charter and private schools. Sixth-graders participate in a 'summer camp' designed to determine -- or, to an extent, spark -- their interest. Eighth- and ninth-graders who apply must submit an essay explaining why they are interested in one of the career fields that Vo-Tech schools offers. Vo-Tech students must re-apply after their freshman year and outsiders also are accepted at that level.

"We don't look for the kids with necessarily the highest marks [in elementary schools], but we try to pick those who have the best chance to succeed here and after they graduate," Deardorff said. "The reason most of them are able to benefit from what we offer them is that they're here because they want to be."


Posted on October 2, 2002

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