When the Learning Is the Hands-On Kind|
By MICHAEL WINERIP
The New York Times
April 9, 2003
His first two years at Long Beach High School, Wes Moran
was going straight downhill. "I was cutting a lot, did no
homework," he said. He felt his teachers wanted him to
learn new stuff daily, but he didn't see the point. People
noticed he was skipping class and sneaking outside for a
smoke and pegged him as a slacker.
Then, in junior year, he decided to attend the Nassau
County vocational high school, the Joseph M. Barry Career
and Technical Education Center - better known as Barry Tech
- "on a trial basis." He signed up for refrigeration and
It took some getting used to. He had to be up at 5:30 to
catch a little yellow bus for the half-hour ride to Barry
Tech in Westbury and barely had time for a smoke before the
three-hour class started.
If it was social studies, three hours would haved killed
Wes, but with refrigeration, he was amazed. There was
always something new. "We learned copper tubing, basic
electricity, condensers, compressors," he said. "You do
vinyl piping work, plumbing, evaporation, carpentry.
There's so much to it."
He loved their field trip to a Marriott hotel. "Two
maintenance guys toured us around," he said. "We went
everywhere. They showed us the big machines, took us up to
the roof to see the air handlers."
This year, he took Refrigeration II with Mr. S, Eugene
Silberstein. "We worked with more complex things like
defrost timers," said Wes, who began to see that
refrigeration could play a big part in his future. "They
say there's a lot of money in the industry. I want to start
saving up and get a business."
Mr. Silberstein was a role model. "He's worked on a lot of
famous people's houses," said Wes. Indeed, before becoming
a teacher, Mr. Silberstein did air-conditioning work for
William F. Buckley Jr., Luciano Pavarotti and Maria
Shriver, to name a few.
Mr. Silberstein sees big things for Wes: "He'll be a
superstar in this industry. He has the desire and guts to
go out and do what he wants."
Last week, Mr. Silberstein helped Wes review for the state
vocational education championships in Syracuse. "He told me
the whole theory about disconnect switches," Wes said. If
Wes could win the state refrigeration title, he'd earn a
trip to Kansas City, Mo., in June for the nationals,
sponsored by SkillsUSA, a nonprofit group that has run
vocational competitions for 39 years.
The bus ride to Syracuse was five hours. Wes packed his
tool box, a roll of copper wire, goggles and his new,
rubber-soled steel-tip shoes. Asked if he was nervous, he
said, "No point in being nervous. I'm going to do how I'm
going to do. Being nervous is just another thing to worry
Unlike Wes, people who believe in vocational education are
very nervous. Even as unemployment rises, the Bush
administration wants to cut vocational financing to $1
billion this year from $1.3 billion. And in 2004 it plans
to end all federal financing and reallocate that $1 billion
to help students pass the state tests mandated by the No
Child Left Behind Act. In New York, Gov. George E. Pataki
has proposed a 25 percent cut in the state budget for
With more states requiring students to pass standardized
tests for a diploma, many vocational schools are losing
them to traditional academic high schools. Barry Tech has
undergone a $27 million renovation, including a $50,000
computerized framing machine for auto-body work; a paint
shop that can mix 60,000 colors; and three new hair salons.
And yet, since New York began requiring students to pass
five tests for a diploma, Barry Tech's enrollment has
dropped, to 1,121 today from 1,517 in 1999.
Yvette Bravo-Rivera, Barry Tech's principal, said that
keeping a boy like Wes at a traditional academic high
school for test preparation was cruel. "Giving them more of
the same stuff they fail at is like screaming at a deaf
person," she said.
Brad Smith, who ran the New York vocational education
competition, believes many students are better off learning
a trade than trying to get five 65's on state tests. "We're
losing sight of the real purpose of public education," Mr.
Smith said. "We'll always need people to fix our cars,
build our houses, cut our hair. Not everybody needs
Fifteen hundred students in 68 trades came to Syracuse to
compete. Most of Wes's judges worked for Carrier, which is
based here and is the world's largest air-conditioning
manufacturer. Robert Dohse of Carrier said the industry
could not get enough skilled workers. "If you know A.C. and
refrigeration, you'll never be out of work," Mr. Dohse
The 13 refrigeration competitors took a written exam, then
performed six hours of hands-on tests. Wes had to make a
copper tubing connection by brazing, swaging, flaring and
deburring. He was surprised how hard the test was and how
much the judges knew. He got to meet the best in the
business, including Matt Huber of Brockport, N.Y., who won
the state refrigeration/air-conditioning title last year
and took fourth in the 2002 nationals.
When the results were announced, Wes was disappointed not
to win, although fifth place was nothing to be ashamed of.
"Not a lot of people get the opportunity to do this," he
Since Syracuse, he has been as busy as ever, with school
and a job bagging groceries at a local Associated
supermarket. He already has a summer internship lined up,
working for a publishing company. "I'll be doing all the
A.C. in the building," he said.
With the Wes Morans in mind, vocational educators are
pressing Congress to restore the financing the budget cuts
removed. In the Senate, Democrats are supportive, but only
one Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, has been
willing to challenge the administration.
Senator Collins lives in blue-collar Bangor, was an
educator herself and often visits the local vocational
school, United Technologies Center. She said many students
there "mention for the first time in their lives that they
are interested in learning."
As any teacher knows, igniting that learning spark is
everything. Often that means thinking beyond five state
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