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Why High School Students Need More Than College Prep

LA Johnson

I step up to the counter at Willy's Cafe at Willamette High School in Eugene, Ore., and order a latte.

There's a powerful scent of fresh coffee in the air, and a group of juniors and seniors hover over a large espresso machine.

Carrie Gilbert, 17, shows how it's done: "You're going to want to steam the milk first," she explains. "Then once you have the coffee, dump it in and use the rest of the milk to fill the cup."

She hands over my order. Not bad.

Yes, this is a class, and these students are earning credit. But I can almost hear parents and students, for whom college is the only option, saying: Credit towards what? Isn't this just training for the dead-end, low-wage jobs of the future?'

Gilbert, who helps manage the cafe and train other students, doesn't think so. "Just the overall experience with the cash register and all the different kinds of food preparation and working with money and all that stuff, it prepares you for all kinds of things."

Training as a barista may not seem like a big deal, but Gilbert — and educators here and around the country — say she's learning those all-important "soft skills" that employers expect.

Roughly seven out of 10 high school grads are headed to college every year — but that leaves hundreds of thousands who aren't. And survey after survey shows that employers are demanding — even of college-bound students — some level of job skills and professionalism: punctuality, customer service, managing people and teamwork.

That's the message students at Willamette High hear just about every day over the PA system: You need job skills with real market value. The school's career and technical education program offers courses and training in all kinds of fields; culinary arts, health careers, robotics and welding. Students train as bank tellers with a local credit union, or learn food service and restaurants at Willy's Cafe.

The school is affiliated with DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America) program, which focuses on merchandizing, retail sales, marketing and entrepeneurship.

The nearly 70-year-old program once seemed a relic of the "vocational education" era — a time when a much larger percentage of high school graduates went right into the workforce. But today, DECA is all about giving kids a taste of the real world and getting your foot in the door, says Dawn Delorfis, an assistant principal at Willamette High.

DECA teachers and administrators don't discourage students from going to college, she says, but they do try to let every student know that, with the right skills and training, there are good entry-level jobs for them out there.

Many of those jobs, "provide a good living for someone coming out of high school," Delorfis adds. "But the thing I think does still exist is the stigma attached: 'Oh, you're not going to college?' "

Luis Sanchez, 18, says college and Starbucks are definitely not for him. But he likes the training at Willy's because it's like running a small business: "My parents own a restaurant, and I want to help run it."

Which brings me back to parents, and that pressure of college as the only option. What happens when your kid comes home from school one day and says she's training as a barista?

"If it were my kid, I wouldn't let it happen," says Anthony Carnevale. He's the head of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. "You don't tell middle-class Americans, 'I'm going to send your kid to trade school.' "

Carnevale and others acknowledge that even good programs like DECA, and career and technical education programs in general, are often viewed as second-rate — a pipeline to low-wage, dead-end jobs.

"These are not dead-end jobs," says John Fistolera, with DECA's corporate office. Fistolera says DECA teaches specific skills that business and industry require for employees to be successful. That's been DECA's mission since the mid-1940s, thanks to its partnerships with local employers and some of the nation's biggest businesses.

It's a message that has broad and growing support, even from the White House. "You can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need," President Obama said in 2014.

But what high school students usually hear is another message the president touts just as often: "College for all."

Carnevale says that's a message that kids and parents need to take with a grain of salt.

"Every year more than 400,000 young people in the top half of their high school class go to college, and at least eight years later, they have not gained either a two- or four-year degree or a certificate," he notes. So, he adds, at some point those people need job skills and a path into the workforce.

Carnevale warns that the high school curriculum has moved to higher and higher levels of abstraction, away from practical and applied learning.

At Willamette High, though, the message to students is simple: Prepare for both work and college. It kind of makes sense, says 18-year-old Kareena Montalvo. The DECA course she fell in love with is graphic design.

"I can't tell you how many posters we've done for upcoming plays, musicals," she says. "It lets me understand how artists need to meet clients' needs."

Montalvo says she's already getting paid for several projects in the community. She sees herself as an entrepeneur and, down the road, a college student.

"I want to get my major in graphic design and a minor in marketing."

But right now, says Kareena, the idea of going into debt at such a young age to pay for college is crazy. So, she says, it's great having marketable skills and pretty good job prospects right out of high school.

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