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School truancy needs a career and technical solution

By Carol Randolph
On November 22, 2015
Carol Randolph

D.C. Student Construction Trades Foundation’s Carol Randolph argues truancy problems start with lack of student engagement.

District of Columbia high schools are struggling with a chronic truancy problem that at any given time involves more than half of their enrollment, according to a sobering report released by the Children’s Law Center and D.C. Lawyers for Youth. The report is critical of anti-truancy measures that increase administrative and legal interventions without addressing the underlying cause.

Many factors contribute to poor school attendance, particularly for low-income and disadvantaged youth. The root cause is a lack of engagement in learning that is relevant to everyday life, gives students a sense of accomplishment and connects them to employment.

District of Columbia schools are not alone. Research shows more than 1 in 4 African-American youth in the U.S., ages 16 to 24 have little or no connection to school and work experiences as they enter adulthood.

A decade ago, District of Columbia Students Construction Trades Foundation founded the Academy of Construction and Design at one of D.C.’s oldest public high schools. Their goal was to increase the skills and readiness of individuals seeking jobs in the region’s booming construction industry.

It met extensively with school, industry and community leaders to address diverse needs and concerns. After listening intently to a description of a proposed technical academy in an early meeting with the D.C. Board of Education, a student representative to the board remarked that more students would stay in school and avoid dropping out if they were able to participate in the hands-on math, carpentry, electrical, blueprint reading and science courses we planned to offer.

Over the ensuing decade, outcomes for students in the career and technical education (CTE) classes would prove him right.

The Academy of Construction and Design has maintained a greater than 90 percent graduation rate. CTE pathways combine academic and technical studies to encourage students to stay in school and graduate with skills and credentials that open doors to employment, further education and viable careers.

Skilled trades CTE changes the way students see themselves and their future prospects. However, D.C. and other urban school districts continue to overlook or eliminate these programs entirely.

Anyone who dismisses the need for accredited instruction in carpentry, electrical and other building trades should remember that heavy snow, arctic temperatures and high winds shut down much of the country last winter. The winter storm also caused broken pipes, collapsed roofs and downed power lines.

To begin to understand why skilled trades education has been pushed aside, we can look back to debates between the 19th-century leaders, W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. Washington advocated training students in craft, industrial and farming skills, while Dubois focused on college-educated African Americans whom he called the “Talented Tenth.”

This planted the seed of thought that college education holds much more value and commands greater respect than vocational education. This misconception lingers today, even as educators struggle to reduce truancy, improve student performance and close the achievement gap for Black and Latino students.

The DC Students Construction Trades Foundation just opened its newly renovated and constructed training facility at IDEA Public Charter School, one of the city’s longest operating and top performing high schools. These classrooms and training labs are the new home of the Academy of Construction and Design during school hours and the DC Apprenticeship Academy, which offers evening classes for apprentice trainees employed by contractors in the District of Columbia.

Our science, technology, engineering, design arts and math partnership with IDEA is a replicable model for educating and employing the next generation of skilled trades professionals who will keep technology-smart homes and buildings from being cold, dark and flooded.

Carol Randolph is chief operating officer for the DC Students Construction Trades Foundation and co-founder of the Academy of Construction and Design in Washington, D.C.

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