Modern Trades: The Rise of Career Tech Education

Machining is just one of the career tech programs at Van Nuys High School, along with training in the medical field, computer science and culinary arts. Having cut funding for shop class for many years, the LA Unified School District is making more money available for career tech.

David Avalos, a junior at Van Nuys High School. Photo by Avishay Artsy
David Avalos, a junior at Van Nuys High School. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

Remember shop class? For many years it was dropped from high schools and has now returned as Career Technical Education. And it may be a route to work in high tech manufacturing and other vocations that won’t leave kids drowning in student debt.

CNC milling is one of the high-tech manufacturing skills now being taught at Van Nuys High School. Other CTE courses taught there include automotive repair, stage design, video production, and food service and hospitality.

Van Nuys High School Principal Yolanda Gardea and Jose Castro, the school’s machine class instructor. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
Van Nuys High School Principal Yolanda Gardea and Jose Castro, the school’s machine class instructor. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

“Going to the university and getting $200,000 in debt and having a philosophy major, it makes you smarter — I mean, and no one says that that is not the case — but you are not career ready. Unless there’s jobs for philosophers these days,” said Van Nuys High School Principal Yolanda Gardea.

David Avalos, a junior at Van Nuys High School, has learned how to operate a CNC Mill. When he started working in the machine class, he says he really didn’t expect to like it.

“I thought it was weird, because you’re just kind of cutting metal. And I didn’t see the whole point,” he said. His first project was to cut a cylindrical block of metal into a hammer.

“But the more you cut, the more it starts to look like a hammer. And this is really cool to see yourself actually make something that you use,” he said. “It was really rewarding for me.”

Joseph Agruso has been teaching automotive classes at Van Nuys High School for a dozen years. Here he poses with several of his students.
Joseph Agruso has been teaching automotive classes at Van Nuys High School for a dozen years. Here he poses with several of his students and with principal Yolanda Gardea. Photo by Frances Anderton.

Recently the state legislature passed a bill that would allow students to continue to take CTE courses in order to meet high school graduation requirements. Set to sunset next year, this continues now to 2022.

“I’m just a really big fan of career technical education. I think we are missing a whole sector of our young people,” said the author of the bill, Democratic State Senator Connie Leyva.

In a garage-like space, a car is jacked up for students to learn how engines work. It seems like a typical shop class until you go upstairs and find a classroom filled with computers.

“Cars are a lot more complex than they were years ago,” said Joseph Agruso, who has been teaching automotive classes at Van Nuys High for a dozen years.

“There’s up to 40 or 50 different computers that basically communicate with each other, so when you hit a button on your radio, it goes to a computer that selects the program that you’re interested in. Or if you hit the unlock button on your door switch it goes to a body control module. All the computers and all the technology is a lot more advanced than it was years ago, so the kids have to be highly developed in their skills.”

A student at work in the machine class. Photo by Frances Anderton.
A student at work in the machine class. Photo by Frances Anderton.

Jasmin Benitez, a tenth grader who wants to be a mechanical engineer, is taking an engine repair class at Pierce Community College in Woodland Hills, and an automotive class at UCLA. She’s also getting certified in automotive diagnostics.

“Things like that help us in life, so that’s just increasing our chances of getting hired quicker,” Benitez said. “Enrolling ourselves and doing all these extra courses and classes is helping us but it depends on when you start. And what you plan on doing. So you have to decide now from an early start.”

Principal Gardea says the school works with local businesses and industry leaders to create internships for the students and to meet their hiring needs.

“We are part of the National Tooling and Machining Association of the San Fernando Valley. I go to meetings with them at six o’clock in the morning and they, as a group of businessmen, are investing in education to help kids but they’re selfishly trying to find qualified people. They’re going to lose a lot of employees in the next year or so. Most of their employees are in their 60s. And it’s a difficult, high-skilled, precise job that takes high-level math to be able to do it,” Gardea said.

A handmade poster to promote automotive classes at Van Nuys High School. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
A handmade poster to promote automotive classes at Van Nuys High School. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

So where does the money come from to pay for all this? Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the classic ‘80s movie, used Van Nuys High School as a shooting location. So did the horror films Christine and Sleepwalkers, and lots of TV shows, including The Wonder Years, Scrubs and Twin Peaks, as well as music videos and commercials. That means revenue for the school. Other schools can get money through a federal grant distributed to states and districts.

And having cut funding for shop class for many years, the LA Unified School District is making more money available for career tech.

“We have just received a grant to increase the number of CTE programs in our district for $32 million from the state,” said Seema Puri, the CTE Coordinator for LAUSD. “So we have a model here right now. But we want to create more CTE programs to this level. There is a great need, and people understand that these programs open doors for the students, and provide them various opportunities, various pathways, so these students can either go to college — four year universities or community colleges — or go straight into the career pathways.”

An inspirational poster in the machine class at Van Nuys High School. Photo by Frances Anderton.
An inspirational poster in the machine class at Van Nuys High School. Photo by Frances Anderton.

Learn more about Career Technical Education in the LA Unified School District at a CTE Student Showcase this Saturday morning at Eagle Rock High School. Students will present their projects and field questions as invited guests make a gallery-walk of the showcased programs. Refreshments will be provided courtesy of the Culinary Arts programs at Santee and Manual Arts high schools.

When: Saturday, May 21, 9:00 am – 12:00 pm
Where: Eagle Rock High School, 1750 Yosemite Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90041, Outdoor covered quad area; look for student hosts on site (parking available on site; look for student parking attendants)
Click here to see a flyer for the event.

The following CTE programs will be showcased:

· Agriculture & Natural Resources (Sylmar HS)
· Arts, Media & Entertainment (Chavez ArTES Learning Center)
· Building & Construction Trades (Westchester HS)
· Engineering & Architecture (Olive Vista Middle School)
· Fashion & Interior Design (Santee HS)
· Health Science & Medical Technology (Narbonne, HS. Reseda HS, Roosevelt HS)
· Hospitality, Tourism & Recreation (Manual Arts HS, Santee HS)
· Information & Communication Technologies (Elizabeth Learning Center)
· Manufacturing & Product Development (Chatsworth HS, Eagle Rock HS)
· Marketing, Sales & Service (Elizabeth Learning Center, Manual Arts HS, Roybal Learning Center)
· Transportation (Belmont HS, Van Nuys HS)