Vocational School Raising Bar for Its Students and Its Future
Ohanian Comment: Yes, of course mechanics can love opera and write sonnets. But should they have to? Why should students talented in auto mechanics have to pass five college-prep regents exams to get a high school diploma? Why should "tomorrow's mechanic" have to be a scholar? That said, it sounds like Principal Silberman is trying to make a good compromise. It would have been valuable to hear from some of the teachers and (male) students.
If you go to the school website and click on report card, which provides information on the school population, students eligible for free lunch, suspensions, special ed, and so on, you find that this information has not been updated since 2003.
Seven years ago, Automotive High School in Brooklyn was producing such poor writers that the state considered shutting it down. Even the automotive program, once the soul of the school, was slashed over the years to bolster lagging academics.
But this year, there are two fledgling advanced placement courses. The National Honor Society banner, stuffed in a closet for years, has been rehung. The school has its first girls' sports team, the Pink Pistons, who bowl, and a Mercedes-Benz lab - its first new industry-sponsored auto shop in a decade.
Leading the changes is the school's principal, Melissa Silberman, 34, a fast-talking Vassar College graduate who wears pearls, uses Hello Kitty notepads and loves the color pink. She does not own a car and got her driver's license only after being assigned to Automotive.
"I'm a Brooklyn girl," she said by way of explaining her inability to provide driving - rather than subway - directions to the school, in the Greenpoint neighborhood.
Ms. Silberman may be an unlikely candidate to lead Automotive, a school with the motto "Manhood, Service, Labor, Citizenship" carved in stone above its main entrance. But for vocational schools and programs in New York City and elsewhere, these are trying times that call for change.
Across the country, the ratcheting up of test-based academic standards - from the "adequate yearly progress" mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law to New York State's requirement that all students pass five Regents examinations to graduate - has thrown into question the future of vocational education.
Some school districts have reacted by closing hands-on programs like auto shops, sometimes replacing them with computer classes. Elsewhere, educators are looking to expand vocational education, albeit under a new name, career and technical education. In New York City in recent years, John F. Kennedy and Christopher Columbus High Schools in the Bronx have closed their auto shops, while automotive programs at schools like Tottenville High on Staten Island have shrunk. Of the city's 18 vocational high schools, a third have spent time on the state's failing schools list, in danger of being closed. Automotive was one of them two and a half years ago, when Ms. Silberman was hired as an assistant principal for humanities.
One year into her principalship, Ms. Silberman is trying to restore some of what had been glorious about Automotive, while introducing other ingredients for academic success that are entirely new to the 82-year-old institution.
"I believe that tomorrow's mechanic can love classical music, and tomorrow's mechanic can be a scholar, and those things can exist side by side," Ms. Silberman said in her office one recent morning, as students sweated over state-required Regents exams. "Some might call it a pipe dream, but you have to believe."
Proponents of vocational education are distressed by what they see as the Bush administration's antipathy toward it; President Bush hinted earlier this year that $1.3 billion in federal aid for career and technical programs could be folded into other initiatives.
The prospect of losing federal money worries Ms. Silberman. But mostly, her time is consumed by more immediate concerns, like how to recruit more shop teachers for next year and getting a bargain on uniforms for the new football team.
She draws inspiration from the school's history, thumbing through yearbooks and marveling at the intimate "Dear boys" messages from former principals. One of her first moves in September was to order the removal of a metal sheet covering the motto on the school building. The motto, with its reference to manhood, had been concealed in an unsuccessful effort to make girls feel at home at Automotive; this year, there are 64 in a student body of 813.
At the same time, Ms. Silberman took steps to recruit and keep female students, like setting up the girls' bowling team and taking a hard line on sexual harassment: boys who compliment her outfits are chided for speaking inappropriately to the principal.
"The attitude at Automotive when I first came in was like, 'boys will be boys,' " said Carline Celius, 17, the only girl expected to graduate in June. "You just learned to be like, 'O.K., that wasn't that big of a deal.' "
So far, 250 girls have listed Automotive as one of their 12 high school choices for next year, up from 96 last year.
"I'm thrilled," Ms. Silberman said.
Thanks in part to Ms. Silberman's work as assistant principal for humanities, Automotive's scores have improved enough that last year, it was the only city high school removed from the state's failing schools list. Now, the challenge is to raise the bar in the vocational programs without letting the standardized test scores slide.
So dull Regents preparatory classes have been largely replaced by courses with names like hip-hop and the classics, and African-American literature. They treat the Regents as the floor, not the ceiling, Ms. Silberman said, by weaving basic material into high-level lessons on engaging topics. The two advanced placement courses, in biology and world history, were set up so quickly that top students like Dale Willis, 16, did not choose them, but were simply placed into them. And if no one does well enough this year to earn college credit, so what?
"The freshmen will know there's an A.P. class," Ms. Silberman said firmly.
The college counseling office moved from a tiny room in a corner of the building to a large one in the middle of the first floor. A persistent new college counselor got all 64 seniors to apply to either colleges or two-year technical programs.
On the other end of the spectrum, Javier Guzman, 30, taught a double block of literacy last semester for 15 juniors, all boys, who read at the third- or fourth-grade level. One recent afternoon, they sat in a circle as Mr. Guzman drew them into a discussion about when it is appropriate to lie, then seamlessly segued into the real topic at hand, asking, "In the book 'Miracle's Boys,' who is guilty of lying?"
But more unusual is what Ms. Silberman is trying to do with the school's vocational program.
When she first arrived, the tension between shop and academic teachers was palpable. The shop teachers were embittered by years of seeing their program chipped away, to 10 teachers last year from 37 in 1986. The school's decline gained speed as academic standards rose. Poor students with no interest in cars were funneled into the school, teachers said, and eventually, few good students chose to attend. Shop classes were eliminated to shore up academics, and as the situation spiraled downward, longtime teachers left.
"We had so many people retire, and we had no one really coming up the ranks," said Thomas J. Cassino, 56, who has taught shop at the school for two decades. "It looked like the handwriting was on the wall. No one was looking, in terms of the Board of Education, to enhance the program.
"I couldn't really fathom it," he said, "but I thought that possibly we would be down to just a few shops and turn into an academic school."
With no knowledge of and, truth be told, no great love for cars, Ms. Silberman had to struggle for respect. Early on, her literacy workshop for shop teachers was met with stony hostility.
"They didn't say a word," she said.
But sometimes they did, and sometimes silence might have been preferable. "They asked my age, they said, 'Are you dating anybody?' " Ms. Silberman said. "They did not trust my passion about the place."
As principal, Ms. Silberman moved staff meetings from the school auditorium, where shop teachers traditionally sat in the back of the room like surly teenagers on a school bus, to the gymnasium, where she set up conference tables, forcing people to look one another in the eye.
She brought back special freshman shop classes that had been eliminated, she said, in the rush to spend money on Regents preparatory courses.
For the first time in years, two new shop teachers were brought on board. The Mercedes-Benz lab opened, warranting a celebration not seen since Toyota opened its shop there more than 10 years ago.
Efforts are also under way to meld the school's vocational and academic missions. This semester, a business teacher, a math teacher and a shop teacher are running a class together; their students will run a school store. Other teachers are honing an English curriculum meant to lure in car buffs with literature like Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and selections from "Drive, They Said: Poems About Americans and Their Cars."
Ms. Silberman acknowledges that should a car drive by, chances are she could not name the make and model. But the notion of teaching teenagers a trade resonates with the working-class roots she transcended when she became the first college graduate in her family.
So she is trying to get an Automotive High School alumni association going, mulling over the prospect of recruiting more shop teachers at neighborhood garages, and hunting for money to fill the school library with the latest in automotive literature and reading nooks featuring comfortable old car seats. The results, she hopes, will be reflected as much in Automotive's test scores as in the sounds that fill its halls.
"You should hear every shop humming," she said. "Right now that's not so, and I'm going to get it back to that place."
New York Times
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