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When Learning Is the Hands-On Kind

Posted: 2003-04-09

"We'll always need people to fix our cars, build our houses, cut our hair. Not everybody needs college."


His first two years at Long Beach High School, Wes Moran was going straight downhill. "I was cutting a lot, did no homework," he said. He felt his teachers wanted him to learn new stuff daily, but he didn't see the point. People noticed he was skipping class and sneaking outside for a smoke and pegged him as a slacker.

Then, in junior year, he decided to attend the Nassau County vocational high school, the Joseph M. Barry Career and Technical Education Center ? better known as Barry Tech ? "on a trial basis." He signed up for refrigeration and air-conditioning.

It took some getting used to. He had to be up at 5:30 to catch a little yellow bus for the half-hour ride to Barry Tech in Westbury and barely had time for a smoke before the three-hour class started.

If it was social studies, three hours would haved killed Wes, but with refrigeration, he was amazed. There was always something new. "We learned copper tubing, basic electricity, condensers, compressors," he said. "You do vinyl piping work, plumbing, evaporation, carpentry. There's so much to it."

He loved their field trip to a Marriott hotel. "Two maintenance guys toured us around," he said. "We went everywhere. They showed us the big machines, took us up to the roof to see the air handlers."

This year, he took Refrigeration II with Mr. S, Eugene Silberstein. "We worked with more complex things like defrost timers," said Wes, who began to see that refrigeration could play a big part in his future. "They say there's a lot of money in the industry. I want to start saving up and get a business."

Mr. Silberstein was a role model. "He's worked on a lot of famous people's houses," said Wes. Indeed, before becoming a teacher, Mr. Silberstein did air-conditioning work for William F. Buckley Jr., Luciano Pavarotti and Maria Shriver, to name a few.

Mr. Silberstein sees big things for Wes: "He'll be a superstar in this industry. He has the desire and guts to go out and do what he wants."

Last week, Mr. Silberstein helped Wes review for the state vocational education championships in Syracuse. "He told me the whole theory about disconnect switches," Wes said. If Wes could win the state refrigeration title, he'd earn a trip to Kansas City, Mo., in June for the nationals, sponsored by SkillsUSA, a nonprofit group that has run vocational competitions for 39 years.

The bus ride to Syracuse was five hours. Wes packed his tool box, a roll of copper wire, goggles and his new, rubber-soled steel-tip shoes. Asked if he was nervous, he said, "No point in being nervous. I'm going to do how I'm going to do. Being nervous is just another thing to worry about."

Unlike Wes, people who believe in vocational education are very nervous. Even as unemployment rises, the Bush administration wants to cut vocational financing to $1 billion this year from $1.3 billion. And in 2004 it plans to end all federal financing and reallocate that $1 billion to help students pass the state tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. In New York, Gov. George E. Pataki has proposed a 25 percent cut in the state budget for vocational education.

With more states requiring students to pass standardized tests for a diploma, many vocational schools are losing them to traditional academic high schools. Barry Tech has undergone a $27 million renovation, including a $50,000 computerized framing machine for auto-body work; a paint shop that can mix 60,000 colors; and three new hair salons. And yet, since New York began requiring students to pass five tests for a diploma, Barry Tech's enrollment has dropped, to 1,121 today from 1,517 in 1999.

Yvette Bravo-Rivera, Barry Tech's principal, said that keeping a boy like Wes at a traditional academic high school for test preparation was cruel. "Giving them more of the same stuff they fail at is like screaming at a deaf person," she said.

Brad Smith, who ran the New York vocational education competition, believes many students are better off learning a trade than trying to get five 65's on state tests. "We're losing sight of the real purpose of public education," Mr. Smith said. "We'll always need people to fix our cars, build our houses, cut our hair. Not everybody needs college."

Fifteen hundred students in 68 trades came to Syracuse to compete. Most of Wes's judges worked for Carrier, which is based here and is the world's largest air-conditioning manufacturer. Robert Dohse of Carrier said the industry could not get enough skilled workers. "If you know A.C. and refrigeration, you'll never be out of work," Mr. Dohse said.

The 13 refrigeration competitors took a written exam, then performed six hours of hands-on tests. Wes had to make a copper tubing connection by brazing, swaging, flaring and deburring. He was surprised how hard the test was and how much the judges knew. He got to meet the best in the business, including Matt Huber of Brockport, N.Y., who won the state refrigeration/air-conditioning title last year and took fourth in the 2002 nationals.

When the results were announced, Wes was disappointed not to win, although fifth place was nothing to be ashamed of. "Not a lot of people get the opportunity to do this," he said.

Since Syracuse, he has been as busy as ever, with school and a job bagging groceries at a local Associated supermarket. He already has a summer internship lined up, working for a publishing company. "I'll be doing all the A.C. in the building," he said.

With the Wes Morans in mind, vocational educators are pressing Congress to restore the financing the budget cuts removed. In the Senate, Democrats are supportive, but only one Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, has been willing to challenge the administration.

Senator Collins lives in blue-collar Bangor, was an educator herself and often visits the local vocational school, United Technologies Center. She said many students there "mention for the first time in their lives that they are interested in learning."

As any teacher knows, igniting that learning spark is everything. Often that means thinking beyond five state exams.

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