Share story

If an eighth-grader in the Seattle school district played her cards right, she could line up free college credits, paid internships and industry certifications while still in high school — a strategy that could

lead straight to a job in the trades or manufacturing.

Yet Seattle has lagged behind other districts such as Tacoma, Auburn and Renton in getting students onto this path, officially called Career and Technical Education (CTE) but also known as vocational ed — or shop class.

Vocational educators say Seattle’s low participation in part reflects a college-for-all mentality evident over the district’s last several administrations, which have focused narrowly on preparing students for four-year universities while neglecting other routes to successful careers and adult lives.

Now, a national enthusiasm for instruction in the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — has breathed new life into shop class by blending traditional book learning with the hands-on experience and practical skills many employers say they want.

Among the ways that STEM is boosting vocational ed in Seattle:

• The district-sponsored Seattle Skills Center opened in 2012 and now has classes in several high schools that lead to industry certifications. Students at West Seattle High, for example, can earn a Nursing Assistant Certificate, which prepares them for work as home health aides or in nursing homes or hospitals.

• Also in 2012, the district refurbished the long-mothballed machine shop at Beach High, where students are studying a curriculum pioneered by Boeing.

• Roosevelt High’s hands-on program for applied science was one of 11 in the country honored last year by a national organization representing manufacturing engineers.

Still, for vocational ed to really take hold, students need to know these opportunities exist, and parents often must be convinced that they’re not part of a second-class education for kids who aren’t considered college material.

To that end, Roosevelt is hosting an event Wednesday for families with students at that school or still at Eckstein or Hamilton middle schools to tell them about Project Lead the Way.

It’s a national program in more than 5,000 schools, including Roosevelt, that uses the hands-on approach of vocational education to better prepare students for university-level engineering and biomedical science.

“To really do STEM, you’ve got to bring back shop class,” said Dave Gering, executive director of the Manufacturing Industrial Council of Seattle. “It just can’t be your dad or your uncle’s shop class. They can’t be making ashtrays.”

Shifting perception

Seattle Public Schools has offered vocational classes since at least 1921, with enrollments swelling and dwindling through the decades in response to the changing economy.

But by 1996, vocational ed in Seattle and elsewhere had largely become more like hobby shops that had no clear connection to careers.

That year, then-superintendent John Stanford hired Shepherd Siegel to not only revive vocational education but to integrate it with academics and electives so that everything a student did in high school pointed in some way to a career.

“Someone said to me when I came in, you’re going to be successful because it has nowhere to go but up,” said Siegel.

“There were times when it was used as the dumping ground. It’s for the behavior kids we can’t handle, it’s for the poor kids, it’s for the minority kids I don’t know how to teach.”

Siegel said that hasn’t been true for many years now, but the perception has been hard to shake.

The state considers Career and Technical Education important enough to provide districts with extra money to teach it.

Seattle has the equivalent of about 12 percent of its full-time students enrolled in CTE classes.

If the district bumped that up to the state average of about 18 percent (same as Everett), it would receive about $600,000 more a year in state aid, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

“I spent 16 years and I’m really proud of a lot of the things we accomplished, but we were never a priority,” said Siegel, who left the district in late 2012 to work for Project Lead the Way.

During his tenure, Siegel developed 11 career academies and opened the state’s first Project Lead the Way program at Ballard High School.

The program now operates at six other Seattle schools, including Roosevelt, which was singled out last year by the Michigan-based Society of Manufacturing Engineers as a national model. The honor included grant money to pay for a summer camp for middle-school students to get them interested in STEM.

The integration of academics and vocational educational also is benefiting students looking for jobs in trades and manufacturing right out of high school.

The Seattle Skills Center opened in the fall of 2012 with classes spread out at several high schools, including West Seattle and Rainier Beach.

There, students who are at least 16 can study for aviation, information technology, game design and animation, and medical careers.

Many courses offer college credit, and some include industry certifications often listed as requirements in help-wanted ads, which students can earn in addition to their regular high-school diploma.

Machine shop reopens

The Skills Center program at Rainier Beach uses a curriculum initially developed by Boeing to teach the skills and know-how manufacturers want in new hires.

“This is the most amazing story of all: The Seattle Public Schools reopened the mothballed machine shop at Rainier Beach High School,” said Gering, of the Manufacturing Industrial Council of Seattle.

“If I had told anybody that two years ago or three years ago, they would have told me I was out of my mind.”

His organization, Boeing and OSPI developed the program, called Core Plus, which applies to a variety of industrial fields.

Started in the fall of 2012, Core Plus has expanded to 30 sites (a mix of comprehensive high schools and Skills Centers that serve several high schools).

Subjects include safety, basic applied math, basic logistics, precision measuring and quality management. It’s a full two-semester program that takes some planning to fit into a high-school schedule.

But a few years ago, Seattle cut back on the career specialists who made students aware of vocational opportunities and helped them find jobs or more training after graduation,

leaving the CTE staff to get the word out as much as possible.

“Mostly our alternative high schools have them, but our comprehensive high schools don’t have them, so that’s a big, huge hole in the system,” said Mary Davison, who replaced Siegel as the district’s CTE manager.

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or On Twitter @jhigginsST