Juniors and seniors in the Anchorage School District can take classes to learn how to run a catering business, operate an electrocardiogram and work on an airplane engine -- skills that can lead to good jobs after graduation.
But not many of them do, says Lou Pondolfino, the principal of the King Career Center, which offers programs in everything from engineering to culinary arts.
"Because of the barriers in place that inhibit access, we have under-enrolled classes," he said.
Proposed changes to districtwide graduation requirements could change that.
This week, a task force convened by the school board will present an initial proposal for revising graduation requirements at a series of public meetings.
The idea is to make earning an ASD diploma rigorous and flexible at the same time, while recognizing that career education is increasingly valuable for high school graduates.
"That's the challenge in all this," said assistant superintendent of instruction Ed Graff. "Rigor and flexibility."
NEW DIPLOMA ENDORSEMENTS
The task force grew out of "listening sessions" five years ago that Graff said showed the public's desire for high school students learning practical job skills. Since November, the group has been collecting input, Graff said.
"The community has spoken to the importance of career and technical education," he said.
The basic proposal makes minor tweaks in credit numbers to basic subject areas such as math, history, English and science and reshuffles courses into content areas like "Global Arts and Understanding" and "STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math."
But the bigger shift would be allowing students to receive core academic credit for career and vocational classes, which are now usually counted as electives. For example, a forestry class in the natural resources management program at King Career Center might count as a science graduation requirement class.
The district's proposal would also offer the option of earning an "advanced academic" or " advanced career and technology" diploma endorsement.
After this week's public meetings, the task force will weigh new input. A final proposal goes to the school board, perhaps by June.
The freshman class of 2013-2014 would likely be the first affected by changes, Graff said.
BOOM IN CAREER EDUCATION
It's time for a change, says Service High School English teacher Devon Roberts.
"Some students are ready to investigate careers, some are not," he said. "We want the system to be navigable for both of them."
Roberts graduated from Service back when graduation requirements still included a swim test. That was scrapped, but since he came back as a teacher in the late 1990s standards haven't changed much.
Current course offerings in, say, medical technology or engineering aren't fully recognized as academic content, he said.
What typically happens, said Pondolfino, who was principal at Service High before moving to the King Career Center, is that a freshman who does poorly in their first year and fails an English or math class spends the rest of their high school career playing credit catch-up, which leaves no room in his or her schedule for exploring a career.
"When they are a junior and they find the relevance and the desire (to pursue career related classes) they need to stay at their home schools to make up credits they missed," Pondolfino said.
That means King Career Center courses -- which take up a large chunk of a school day -- are usually out.
With a second summer school session a victim of budget cuts this year, Pondolfino thinks fewer students may be able to fit in King Career classes at all.
Attitudes about career education have changed, but not completely, said Pondolfino
"We have to start using rigor and vocational education in the same sentence," he said. "There is a stigma that we have to address."
Despite that, Pondolfino sees a boom in demand for career education.
"Eighty percent of the workforce certainly in Alaska and nationwide is young people with job skills and not bachelor's or advanced degrees," he said.
The district has plans to expand "career academies" already in high schools like Dimond and Service in the future. If the proposal is adopted, he expects most programs at King Career will have wait lists.
"Preparing a workforce is what King Career is about," he said. "And what the school system is about, both for college and career. If we're not doing both we're doing a disservice to students."
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
The Anchorage School District is holding public meetings this week to hear input on a draft proposal to change graduation requirements:
Wednesday from 6-8 p.m. in the Service High School cafeteria, located at 5577 Abbott Road in Anchorage
Thursday from 6-8 p.m. in the Eagle River High School cafeteria, located at 8701 Yosemite Drive in Eagle River Public