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Making the grades

Bryan Pienta, 17, of Plymouth, works on building a computer at the West Side Area Vocational-Technical School.

Times Leader Staff Photo/Clark Van orden

RINGLE — At their March meeting, Wyoming Valley West School Board members joined in denouncing new application forms from the West Side Area Vocational-Technical School. The new forms seek a lot more information about student discipline records, and board members fear the vo-tech plans to refuse to take some students.

Since the vo-tech is a public school, Board Member James Fender said, “I don’t think that’s right.” And since more than half the students at West Side – which serves five districts – come from Wyoming Valley West, such a change could have profound consequences on their district, other board members pointed out.

But Vo-Tech Administrative Director Pete Halesey insists the changes in application forms don’t signal a plan to reject students. The added info, he said, is necessary to help the school better prepare for the students it gets, and it needs all the preparation it can muster.

That’s because West Side has been doing poorly on annual state math and reading tests given to all 11th-grade students; so poorly that the school has missed mandated minimum goals four years in a row.

And under the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, the potential consequences get harsher every consecutive year those goals are missed, ultimately leading to a possible state takeover.

The school has done a major overhaul of curriculum and is providing a lot of extra attention to struggling students, including more after-school programs, but Halesey insists there is one handicap that is almost insurmountable.

Unlike other vo-techs in the area, where students attend academic classes for half a day in their home districts while taking only vocational training at the tech school, West Side is a “comprehensive vo-tech” providing academics and career training from grades nine through 12.

That means the school gets students who were taught for eight years by some other district, so the school has no control over what level those students have achieved before they arrive.

The fact is, Halesey noted accurately, out of 16 comprehensive vo-techs in Pennsylvania, only one was in full compliance with state goals last year.

The problem is compounded by the fact that West Side not only gets a large percentage of special education students, it embraces them, Halesey said.

The school has developed programs for students who will almost certainly never be able to hold a high-level job but are still able to be gainfully employed, and has joined with the Luzerne Intermediate Unit, an agency that provides special education and other services to area schools, to provide additional training for special education students before they get to West Side.

According to state data, 35 percent of 11th-graders tested last year had “Individual Education Plans,” defining them special education students on some level (though abilities can vary dramatically).

Another 45 percent of those tested were from low-income families. Studies repeatedly show that students from low-income homes frequently score lower than others on standardized tests, and Halesey said that adds to the school’s difficulty in raising test scores.

Yet there is evidence that, as traditional vocational-technical schools transform themselves into modern career training centers, test scores have climbed, according to Alisha Hyslop, assistant director of public policy at the national Association for Career and Technical Education.

Hyslop cited studies in California and Arizona that showed “students in career and technical education programs outscored others in the regular student body in standardized tests.

“The trends we see are CTE students on the whole doing well academically,” Hyslop said.

That may be because career training has become far more complicated, she suggested. For students hoping to enter a wide range of fields, academic skills “are critical for success.”

Halesey agrees, and even a quick tour of his school shows how thoroughly technology has become part of the training.

While auto collision repair students still need to know the classic skills of welding, sanding, buffing and painting, they also must handle a computerized machine that uses a laser to scan an entire car body and measure which parts are out of alignment and by how much, teacher Gary Richards said. When using the complex machine to pull it all back into shape, the kids have to reach factory tolerances as scant as a single millimeter using the computer.

The machine shop includes a “computerized numerical control” metal milling machine. Kids can be found in one room assembling computers from component parts, while those in other rooms write programs on them and still others learn how to keep computer networks secure from hackers and viruses.

The communications department is a computer geek’s heaven, with a green screen that allows students to digitally insert different backdrops behind a person on camera – even the floor was painted green so one student could stand on water. A sophisticated program helps make the previously mundane credits rolled at the end of a production come alive with animation and music.

A key component of the effort to raise test scores is incorporating the academic lessons into these classes, Halesey said, and one student was doing just that, devising an animated “fabulous Phil” character that will quiz students every morning on the school’s daily television broadcast, asking questions that relate directly to material the state says every kid should know for the tests.

All of which may not be enough. Wyoming Valley West Superintendent Michael Garzella said it may be time for the vo-tech and its five participating districts to sit down and re-evaluate the whole program.

“I don’t really know what the answer is, but I know what we’re doing currently isn’t working,” Garzella said.

Conceding that West Side probably isn’t getting the mix of student enrollment it wants – one that would include more academically inclined students who could help raise test scores – Garzella suggested the program needs to be more closely integrated with the various districts, rather than simply having districts essentially hand off responsibility of a student to the vo-tech.

The vo-tech could consider ceding more of the academic training to the home districts, as other career training schools in the area do, or the districts and West Side could develop a more flexible system, with some students attending vo-tech full-time and others only half a day.

The ultimate goal would be to make it all fit together better for the kids.

“They need to be more a part of our system,” Garzella said.

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