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Beyond the Basics

Your one-stop guide to local public high schools and a look at what's next in secondary education.


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We all know our public high schools are pretty darn good. That’s one reason we choose to live here. But which school got the top Academic Performance Index (API) score? Which has the highest ratio of credentialed teachers? Which gets the most money per pupil or offers the most Advanced Placement classes?

Diablo pulled together test scores, class-size numbers, and other facts and figures to give you an overall picture of how your son’s or daughter’s school is doing. We also talked to teachers, administrators, and students to get the inside scoop on which schools are doing especially well.

What we found is a vital but little-publicized way in which our schools are doing a better-than-ever job of preparing our kids for college and careers: They’re offering an increasing number of classes that emphasize professional education. This is just the thing for creative high achievers who want to roll up their sleeves and get a real-world taste of what it’s like to be a biotech pioneer, world-class chef, or cutting-edge architect.

Beyond Textbooks
When Tisa Olmer of Orinda was a little girl, she didn’t just dress up her Barbies in cool clothes; she built them an entire city, complete with a hospital, a day spa, and a supermarket.

Given Olmer’s childhood penchant for urban design, it’s not surprising that she would flourish in special career-focused architecture classes at Miramonte High School in Orinda. The class reinforced Olmer’s dream of becoming an architect by giving her a taste of what it’s like to work in the profession. The assignments focused less on theory and more on working up plans of buildings that could exist in the real world. Her designs ranged from residential communities to a Balinese villa. Rendered with state-of-the-art 3-D imaging software, they were good enough to help her win internships at several high-profile Bay Area architectural firms.

Olmer is definitely on her way. But she’s not the only student at an East Bay public high school to benefit from the growing wave of electives and special programs that emphasize professional education. Thousands of teens are getting a realistic look at what it’s like to work in some of today’s most popular and in-demand professions: medicine, biotechnology, mechanical engineering, documentary filmmaking, web design, culinary arts, and many more.

Even as these programs grow by leaps and bounds, they remain one of our schools’ best-kept secrets. Students not already enrolled in such classes might not know about them. Or they might wrongly assume that they’re only for kids who are looking for an easy elective or who lack the aptitude, drive, or finances to attend college.

“Unfortunately, there is still the perception that career courses are for students who want to get an easy A,” says Bryan Yoo, who completed a rigorous bioscience class at California High School in San Ramon to prepare himself for a college pre-med curriculum. “The reality is that every student in this class [was] very committed to their research, and there were times we were in class until midnight finishing up a project.”

Way to the Future

Courses like Olmer’s and Yoo’s are giving students the competitive edge and hands-on kills they need to get into college, do well once they get there, and eventually enter the workforce. Of course, vocational education has been around for decades, in the form of auto shop, woodworking, home economics, and computer training. But the new generation of programs takes the concept to a higher level. Classes are not only highly specialized but also designed to appeal to a wide range of students—including those aspiring to topflight education and prestigious careers. Many of these classes, in fact, fulfill minimum academic and elective requirements for entrance to the University of California and other four-year schools, and admissions officers say they look favorably upon students who have participated in them.

“We’ve found that students who arrive at college and already have chosen a career field can put their college studies in the proper context and are typically more focused and successful,” says Jeff Cook, executive director of Enrollment Services for California State University, East Bay.

These classes are not about pushing teenagers to lock themselves into lifelong career paths before they leave high school, however. They emphasize exploration. Charles Dayton, coordinator for the Career Academy Support Network at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Education, says teens can use these programs to test their interest in different careers. This point should alleviate parents’ concerns that their kids are already under too much pressure from the demands of Advanced Placement courses, college testing, community-service requirements for graduation, and extracurricular activities.

“It’s not uncommon for students to take a course and decide it’s not the career they want to pursue,” Dayton says. “If nothing else, the real-world skills they learn in these classes will help them make those important decisions.”

The Nuts and Bolts

Professional education is generally offered in one of two ways. The first is through Regional Occupational Programs (ROPs), such as Olmer’s architecture and Yoo’s bio-science classes. ROPs are administered on a countywide or regional basis, which means that a student can take an ROP class in, say, environmental science, even if it’s not offered at his school.

Schools also offer professional education through “academies.” These are essentially schools within schools. Students work with the same core group of teachers for up to three years, and learning is organized around career-related themes. Examples include the Health Science Academy at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord, the Arts Academy at Clayton Valley High School, also in Concord, the Education Academy at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, and the Business and Finance Academy at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton.

Both ROPs and academies are thriving. Ten years ago, ROP classes run by the Contra Costa County Office of Education served 5,500 students in Contra Costa County and Berkeley. That number has nearly doubled: ROP classes served 12,000 this past school year, says Marie McClaskey, director of ROP for the Contra Costa County Office of Education. Meanwhile, academies now number in the hundreds around the state after having started with just a few pilot programs in the early 1980s. Three dozen of those academies currently operate in East Bay high schools.

To make these programs relevant, administrators continually research market trends to find out what jobs are in demand and what skills are needed to fill those positions. “We’re offering more courses than ever before, and our courses are much more specialized,” McClaskey says. A new ROP course in viticulture, designed to train future winemakers, debuts this fall at Livermore High.

Not your Mother’s Home Ec

Even traditional vocational education courses like auto shop and home economics have become highly sophisticated. Automotive technology students now work in spaces resembling high-end auto shops and use state-of-the-art computer diagnostic equipment. Students in culinary arts classes at Monte Vista High in Danville and Mt. Diablo High in Concord are learning a lot more than how to make a spaghetti dinner. These aspiring chefs and caterers get professional kitchen experience in how to poach salmon worthy of a four-star restaurant, create a menu for a corporate party, or whip up a pastry crust that would wow Alice Waters.

As much as these professional education programs are thriving, they are not immune to the financial woes that bedevil all school programs. That’s one reason administrators have begun to tap the private sector for donations of money, equipment, and expertise. Contra Costa’s ROP won a $500,000 grant from San Ramon–based Chevron Corporation to fund new and expanded classes in forensic science, biotechnology, veterinary science, and robotics. And the bioscience class at California High School uses state-of-the art equipment donated by local companies.

Rolling up their Sleeves

The bioscience students at California High are certainly making good use of their high-tech gear. One day this past May, some of the 25 students in the class taught by Bill Pence huddled around the laminar flow hood, an enclosed space that keeps dust from falling into sterile containers and specimens. Another group worked on DNA labs, and another on bacteriological microscopic techniques: The room felt more like a biotech lab than a suburban classroom.

Vikaas Sharma, a student in the class, who, like Yoo, is considering a career in medicine, says that the class assignments and laboratory prep he completed over the past two years closely mirrored the work he did during summer internships at the Center for Blood Research in Boston. “We had studied gene silencing, the process of inactivating a gene that may cause disease or be defective in another way, so I was familiar with the process when I went to Boston,” Sharma says.

“Many of the concepts we learned in this class typically aren’t taught until a student’s last year of college.”

Another of Pence’s students, Lauren Heminez, 18, sounded more like a Nobel laureate than a high school student as she discussed the research she had to complete before the end of the school year. It involved comparing three species of nudibranchs—sea slugs—at the genetic level. She wound up submitting her findings to GenBank, the public DNA sequence database maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. “If all goes well, scientists everywhere will be able to access my findings, which would be very cool,” she says.

Practice makes Perfect

These classes let students bridge theory and practice. The students in the robotics class at Monte Vista High School in Danville enjoy translating concepts they might have picked up in math or science classes into practical applications. Plus, these students are natural-born tinkerers who love to grab sensors and tiny motors and build robots. “It’s one of the few classes at our school where hands-on experiences happen every day,” says Randall Lam, who taught the class last year. He adds that some of his students plan to study mechanical engineering in college.

On the other hand, Kaylin DesPrez, a student at Pleasanton’s Foothill High School, is learning the theory that builds on her real-life expertise in child development. She thought she knew everything about kids after babysitting her three younger siblings, but when the 18-year-old aspiring teacher took an ROP class in child psychology, she studied current research into child development and communication techniques. She then put that knowledge into practice by working as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher’s aide at Lydiksen Elementary in Pleasanton.

“I’ve learned how to phrase sentences so that children will listen, and I’ve learned to keep my tone and directives positive, because the children will just tune out someone who is talking to them negatively,” says DesPrez.

Many who have taken the yearlong child psychology course are now teaching in the Pleasanton Unified School District, says Pat Keegan, who teaches the class, which is open to students from other Tri-Valley high schools. “Out of nine elementary schools in Pleasanton, we have six kindergarten teachers who gained their initial teaching experience in this class,” Keegan says.
An added benefit of the class is that DesPrez earned college credit for it. This fall, she’ll enter University of San Francisco with six quarter units already under her belt.

Even students who may not pursue a career in the field they study can put their knowledge to practical use. Steven Patch was one of Olmer’s classmates in the Miramonte High architecture course. He’s not sure he wants to be an architect as he heads to Syracuse University in New York, where he’ll major in either economics or business. But regardless of what he does, he says he was challenged in a creative way by spending part of his senior year sketching a Wrigley Field–inspired redesign of Oakland’s McAfee Coliseum. “I can look at buildings now and appreciate their structural integrity,” he says—then adds with teenage exuberance: “I also learned how to design and build an awesome skateboard ramp.”

Other key ways students put their knowledge to practical use is through interacting with professionals in their chosen field. At the Health Science Academy at Concord’s Ygnacio Valley High, students are taught by Janet Gower, a former cardiac care nurse at John Muir Medical Center. They also spend up to four hours a year “job shadowing” doctors, nurses, and technicians at local hospitals, and learn about the health-care industry via professional guest speakers, research assignments on different careers, and field trips to John Muir and Kaiser Permanente medical centers.

All this adds up to a program that is pretty demanding. “There’s nothing easy about choosing the health academy as an elective,” Gower says.

Education that inspires

Perhaps the most valuable part of these professional programs is that they can help students discover their passions. “I had one student in class a few years ago who really didn’t like school or feel that she fit in,” says Brian Barr, a former Contra Costa Times reporter who is now a journalism instructor at California High. “She joined our newspaper class, found her niche, and ultimately became the top editor during her senior year. She graduated and is now at St. Mary’s College studying journalism.”

For Olmer, the architecture class at Miramonte High showed her that she could turn her childhood pastime into a career. It also brought her into a world where it wasn’t considered strange that she would rather gaze at blueprints than flip through Cosmopolitan. She didn’t feel intimidated being in a class made up mostly of boys; it was a preview, she realizes, for working in a traditionally male-dominated profession. “I always felt very comfortable in the class, because it meant working alongside other students who share my same interests,” she says.

She also got to perform design work that should give her a huge advantage when she begins her studies at Cal Poly Pomona this fall. And no test score, no matter how high, can beat that.

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