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Oregon needs better vocational education

OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO - A student learns construction skills at a wood shop class in Gresham.Editor’s note: Friday, July 8, was the deadline for submission of the statewide initiative petition signatures. As of Monday, there was still no word on whether IP 65 (Oregonians for High School Success Initiaitive) had been certified.

We’ve heard a lot about Oregon’s high school dropout rate and how it’s among the worst in the country. As a high school teacher, I worry about the ones we lose.

What’s the cost to that student in terms of lifelong potential, earnings and self-esteem? What’s the cost to our communities when failed students become adults who never reach their potential?

Early in high school, I was kind of a disaster. I was failing most of my classes, including math. But when it came to metal and wood shop, I found out I actually had talent. And in the applied learning setting, I was finally able to understand math concepts that had eluded me in my traditional math class. My grades improved and I advanced to calculus. 

That’s why I’m supporting Initiative Petition 65, a measure that may be on the November ballot. It will restore shop classes and other vocational and career technical education (CTE).

I’m just one example of a life changed by CTE. In my job at Cleveland High School as a woods CTE teacher, I see myself in my students all the time and I want to be there for them.

One young man was plagued by anger and violence — until he fell in love with building things from metal and wood. Instead of dropping out, he did what it took to stay in school and continue with shop class.

Another was forced to Dumpster dive from a young age. Again, shop inspires and motivates this student, who now sees a path from hunger to stability.

Without career technical education, we’ll lose these kids. In Beaverton, where my wife teaches, there haven’t been shop classes in more than 15 years. Unfortunately, around Oregon, that’s more the norm than the exception, and its contributing to our alarmingly low graduation rate. It’s no honor for our state to be among the lowest in the country for graduation rates.

Even where programs exist, there are problems. Classes are crowded. For instance, in my shop class we have one table saw and kids stand in line for 20 minutes to make one cut. Our equipment is many decades old. We lack a full gamut of modern subjects — in other states, classes include biomedical technology, medical interventions, robotics, 3D, forensic psychology, ship navigation and more.

Across Oregon, young people with math and technical know-how are needed to go to work in good-paying jobs. 

But there’s a disconnect because high school fails to engage enough young people with real-world skills or the array of occupational possibilities that exists out there.

IP 65 will give the much-needed resources to provide CTE that bridges this gap. IP 65 prioritizes our high schools and creates a funding mechanism support to CTE, as well as college prep and dropout prevention for all of our high school students.

IP 65 allocates new money received each year into Oregon’s general fund due to economic and population growth. This is on top of what schools already receive and districts determine how to spend it.

When I think about the children who don’t have these opportunities, I think about the cost to their lives and to our society as a whole. It makes sense to dedicate money to save ourselves from these heart-breaking costs.

I wholeheartedly support IP 65. This November, I hope you will vote yes for high schools. 

Brian Barnes of Portland is a woods and construction teacher at Cleveland High School. For information about the campaign for Initiative Petition 65: org>ip65.org