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Giving a Hand to Those Who Learn a Trade

This paper ran a number of articles highlighting the Richmond Technical Center. It seems to be a concerted attempt to stir up feeling against the Feds' decision to cut Perkins moneys for vocational ed.

Keyanna Lennon, who turns 18 today, wants to follow in her grandfather's footsteps, which is why she's becoming a welder at Richmond Technical Center.

"You get a lot accomplished when you work with your hands," Keyanna said yesterday.

The Huguenot High School senior, who also plans to go to college, has figured out something that this softened society has forgotten in the midst of wealth and political correctness:

It's important and honorable to have a trade.

"We've got to change the attitude we have that it's somehow sinful, beneath the level of political correctness, to work with your hands," Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder said yesterday.

That's why his budget will include money for promoting vocational education and "stressing the need for it," Wilder announced yesterday.

The politically correct idea that everyone should be equally prepped for college is unrealistic and counter-productive, Wilder said, because everyone is not "going to learn at the same level, have the same aptitude."

Students who fall behind or are confused by regular classes contribute to the city's scandalous truancy rate (25 percent last year). That's a tragedy for those students, and for a city consistently plagued by youth crime and violence.

Equally troubling is the fact that just a quarter of jobs in this country require a college degree, while more and more good-paying occupations require precise vocational training, something Europeans have recognized for years.

N. Mauricee Holmes, the principal of the Richmond Technical Center, said she sees university graduates going to community colleges for that kind of training once they realize their degrees won't pay the rent.

"They could've gotten it free here," Holmes said. "It drives me insane."

Vocational training gives kids "a sense of focus" and accomplishment, Holmes said, which is why the technical school has very little truancy.

"By doing hands-on, we don't have that problem," Holmes said.

The artistic aspect of the trades can soothe students with behavioral issues, while setting them up for a productive future.

Drafting and design teacher Charles H. Abdel-Alim said he has found that kids with attention-deficit disorder can become excellent workers for "employers willing to go the extra mile."

And some of the brightest high school students, such as 16-year-old Melissa Epps of John Marshall, come to the trade school to get an early start on high-tech careers such as architectural design.

It's a bright, airy and clean place, this sprawling facility on Westwood Avenue. There's room for many more students than the 800-plus who currently attend, Principal Holmes said.

She's an enthusiastic woman, totally engaged in her mission.

And it's a good one, one that can truly save lives while adding to the luster of metro Richmond.

(Many of you know my bias. I've been a bricklayer for most of my life and can point to stuff I've built all over this town, and in places far from here. The masonry trade saved my life by teaching me how to work hard and live hard.)

Wilder said yesterday he would like to see the city introduce vocational training at the middle school level. By the time students are in the 10th grade, he added, they should know whether they'll pursue college or a specific trade -- or both.

The key, Wilder said, is changing attitudes. "There's nothing wrong with working with your hands. You can't work with your hands if you don't use your mind."

Contact Mark Holmberg at (804) 649-6822 or mholmberg@timesdispatch.com

— Mark Holmberg
Richmond Times-Dispatch


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