Get to Work

As schools push toward 'measured and mandated,' a local jewel may be lost unless a community and an industry come together to save it



At a little house on Maplewood Drive, the radio is tuned to KRED and a country song swings its way across the windswept, sunny lot in McKinleyville's newest 32-acre subdivision. Building Trades teacher Dave Enos is in the garage with a clutch of high school students, engrossed in fixing a broken saw. Out back, young men swagger around in heavy tool belts, assembling the foundation of a deck. They hold themselves unlike most teenagers. They stand a bit taller. For some, their futures are taking shape as a result of this class.

McKinleyville High School senior Austin Jacobs sidles up, grinning. When asked what he's doing after graduation, he comes over all kinds of serious and says he's got a job in construction. "I'm pursuing that career," he says. Fellow senior Aaron Nemetz lets loose an eye roll. "Pursuing that career," he teases. Nemetz says he's had multiple job offers and will take off to join a crew in Utah this summer. Nemetz, who hung every door in the Maplewood house, wishes the younger kids at his school could take the class, too. "They're bummed," he says. Without a swift, innovative funding solution, this is the last house the Building Trades program will construct.

Based out of the MHS campus, Enos has been building houses with McKinleyville and Arcata high school students for 23 years. His program is known and well regarded throughout the local community and even beyond. "One of the best career technical education programs in Northern California exists on the McKinleyville High School campus," says California State Sen. Mike McGuire, who visited the Maplewood house a few months back. "Building Trades is such an impressive, robust, results-driven program. They've done a fantastic job. It truly is one of the best in the state."

Building Trades was first offered by the Humboldt Regional Occupational Program (HROP) back in the late 1970s at Eureka, Arcata, McKinleyville, Klamath-Trinity, Fortuna and Ferndale high schools. At the program's start, students worked on small projects like storage sheds but, with Rob Bode at the helm in 1987, they started building entire houses. As far as anyone in the Humboldt County Office of Education (HCOE) knows, it was the first home construction program for high school students in the state.

The class demands a two-year commitment from students, who usually take the course their junior and senior years. Thirteen teens enrolled in the class this past year from both Arcata and McKinleyville. Every afternoon, they would head over to the job site and spend fifth and sixth periods helping build a house from the ground up, involved in every stage of the project, from digging the foundation to installing sprinkler systems and putting up the finish trim. Since the students can't get paid due to workman's compensation issues, they instead earn tool credits, which allow them to fill their tool bags in preparation for future projects. The students in Enos' architectural design class developed the plans for the houses, many of which integrate cutting-edge green technology.

Over the years, Enos and his crew of teenagers have completed 16 homes and helped out with major building projects like the Fieldbrook firehouse, a law enforcement facility at McKinleyville's Pierson Park and an athletic field house on the MHS campus. Keeping with a longstanding tradition of support, more than 90 local businesses donated materials to the Maplewood house. Jim Furtado, of JLF Construction, who took the Building Trades class at Arcata High back in the 1980s, always saves Enos a lot in his subdivisions and gives him a deal on the price.

Gene Callahan, a local contractor who's helped Enos teach Building Trades since 1998, says that, more than anything, the class is about teaching kids how to "show up." It's also about providing local industry with a pool of potential employees who know how to work. "Right now," Callahan says, "it's near impossible to find employees who not only know what the heck they're doing, but who even know how to show up in the first place. In this class, we say, 'Come here, put on your tool belt and don't screw around.'"

Callahan is frustrated that Maplewood is the last house for Building Trades.

"Everybody says this is the best program we have going in Humboldt County, this is the one we need the most. And this is the one they're going to cut," he says, shaking his head. "I just love doing this. It is so full of value. Who's gonna' teach you to be in the trades? If your dad doesn't teach you, who is? Most of these kids don't have a dad to teach 'em.

"We're a poor county," he continues. "We're not down there in the Bay Area where every kid's gonna' go to college and every kid's gonna' get a high tech degree or go into banking. We are a county that used to have mill jobs and fishing jobs and all of that has fallen apart. But there's a lot of work around here."

Callahan, who has retired on numerous occasions, says his phone rings off the hook with people looking for recommendations for carpenters. "I have 45 years of clients who still need something done and I don't know where to turn," he says.

Even though plenty of college-bound students have taken his class over the years, Enos says there are some kids who just can't get out of school fast enough.

"They hate it," he says. In many cases, his has been the sole voice telling them there are other, viable options. "Not only is college expensive, it's just not for everybody — and that needs to be OK ... I see so many of these kids dying a slow death in the classroom. I'm not placing blame, but I'm saying things need to change. Students are on the treadmill that they're provided. Right now, schools are still pushing, pushing, pushing the whole college thing at the expense of these other classes."

Enos would like to see students offered a more balance variety of courses. He believes the current focus on college prep programs, like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, is a misuse of time, effort and energy, considering the few students they help.

While high schools primarily focus resources on preparing kids for college, only about 30 percent of California students actually end up pursuing a four-year degree, according to McGuire.

"What we know is, [Career and Technical Education (CTE)] is good for students," he says. "If a student is enrolled in a CTE program, we see an 81 percent decrease in high school dropouts statewide. We also see a 90.8 percent graduation rate of students who are enrolled in CTE and that's above the average statewide graduation rate of 74.9 percent."

Enos wants to get word out that trades-based education is something students truly need. In turn, local industry, desperate for employees, needs them. Enos asks what can be done to keep offering classes like his for kids in Humboldt County. After decades of seeing the powerful impact of hands-on education for students with interests and abilities across the academic spectrum, Enos is solemn but not resigned.

"We're going down swinging," he says.

Deputy County Superintendent Jon Sapper sits at a conference table at the HCOE headquarters in Eureka. He leans forward in his pleather chair and executes a thoughtful, measured explanation for what happened to the funding for Enos' Building Trades class and others like it.

He starts with a little history. Regional Occupational Centers and Programs (ROCP) was founded in California in 1967. It provided stable funding of about $400 million a year to 72 CTE programs across the state. With these funds, Humboldt's Regional Occupational Program (HROP) offered 31 career-based programs. Building Trades was one of them. "That funding is gone," says Sapper, explaining that, in 2015, after almost 50 years, the state discontinued ROCP and put a new program in its place. "That new model has not treated rural areas well."

Operated by the county office in partnership with local high school districts, HROP worked with a budget of about $2.5 million to provide hands-on career training courses each year. Sapper says it was a model that truly worked for Humboldt County. In its heyday, local districts offered classes in more than 100 different career areas — like firefighting, video production, culinary arts, health occupations and landscape design.

Partnering with local industry was crucial to the program's success.

"Over the years, our employer community has been tremendously supportive of career and technical education for local students," says Sapper. "When ROCPs were in full force in Humboldt County, 168 local employers provided work experience and internship opportunities for students. That's very significant."

While the state has historically been the biggest and most reliable source of CTE funding in California, it hasn't been the only one. Districts have always operated their own career and vocational programs. Traditionally, ROCP funded upper division classes with a work experience component. School districts, meanwhile, tended to offer introductory classes. "A district would offer Auto One, Two, and Three and HROP would have funded Auto Four," Sapper explains.

What made HROP unique was its ability to absorb high costs of equipment for courses like metal shop and robotics, and that it was designed to support small class sizes, allowing targeted, specialized training. While a typical lecture-style high school class requires about 24 students to be financially workable, an ROCP class could run with just eight to 12 students and still pay the bills.

The program also served students 16 years of age and older, allowing it to enroll adults as needed to fill out classes and make them viable. "That was a great model for rural counties that don't have the numbers the larger areas do," says Sapper.

In response to the 2008 economic recession, and to transition away from ROCP, the state implemented a "flex" funding model that lifted restrictions on money that was previously earmarked for specific programs, allowing districts to spend it in other ways. Even so, Sapper says, HCOE chose to continue to use that funding stream to support CTE classes until the bitter end. These flex funds allowed Enos and his students to finish their last house as the Building Trades class was the final HROP funded class in the county.

At this point, one might wonder why the state decided to eliminate ROCP funding in the first place. In addition to a general pinch in the state budget, Sapper says a couple of dynamics came into play. First, the state felt some urban areas were using too many of their dollars for exclusively adult-based programs. Second, officials wanted to move to a framework called Career Pathways, which requires schools to offer multiple, sequenced courses in a given training area. Sapper says this was doable in big cities, but it is near impossible to sustain in rural schools with limited enrollment and financial resources.

The 2015 Budget Act terminated ROCP funding and shifted the money over to what was called the Career Technical Education Incentive Grant Program (CTEIG), a competitive grant structure with a steep matching funds requirement. It was geared toward students in kindergarten through high school and eliminated the adult education component that had provided crucial flexibility to rural districts. With $900 million to spend over three years, CTEIG was set up in 2015-16 to provide $400 million in funding to schools across California the first year, $300 million for the next and $200 million for 2017-2018, the program's final year.

But instead of being managed by the county with stable, predictable funding, districts and classroom teachers became responsible for applying for grants to fund their individual CTE programs. County Superintendent Chris Hartley says some districts didn't even want to apply for the money because the new program's compliance components were too complicated to keep up with. In response, the county stepped in to provide support, which came in the form of Susi Huschle, CTE coordinating teacher and career counselor for HCOE, who helps districts navigate the hoops to keep funding flowing for CTE courses across the county.

"The funding is a sliver of what it was before," says Huschle, her desk scattered in budget charts. And it's on a steady decline. In the 2013-2014 school year, HROP received $2.7 million to run its programs. That amount was more than halved in the first year under the competitive grant system, when local districts applied for more than $6 million in grants and were awarded about $1 million. In the second year, funding diminished further to $883,000. Next year's budgets have not been finalized but the funding is almost certain to decrease again.

In anticipation of the expiration of the three-year grant funding program, the state recently put forward Assembly Bill 445, bipartisan legislation developed to continue funding CTE programs beyond 2018. But the bill died last month, leaving no plan in place past this coming school year.

McGuire, who is known for his passionate stance in support of career and technical education, took the lead in supporting AB 445. When asked why it didn't pass, he points to Washington, D.C.

"We have deep concerns about the impact President Trump's proposed budget will have on California's school kids," he says. "One of the biggest concerns that the state has right now is the rollback of the Affordable Care Act. If the current Trumpcare plan is adopted by the U.S. Senate, it would have a devastating impact on every state service, including California's public schools."

The state Legislature is being careful about committing to large expenditures because of this budgetary uncertainty. "AB 445 had about a $1 billion price tag," McGuire explains. "A lot of bills with high price tags were held in the Appropriation Committee."

Folks in Sacramento are working on a ballot initiative to replace AB 445. If passed, it would provide permanent CTE funding by either 2018 or 2020. But what happens when current funding expires in June of 2018 remains unclear.

The sea change in California's approach to CTE funding has hurt rural counties like Humboldt.

"The (grant) program was a poor way to handle the shift of a stable, dedicated funding source to really a three-year fix," Hartley says. "But this is where we're at. We've been talking about this for years. We've been trying to strategize. It's not like the sky just started to fall. But when the reality of it comes it's like, 'Ouch.' Then we get a reaction."

On April 11, the Northern Humboldt Union High School District held a special board meeting to address the closure of the Building Trades class. Enos gave a presentation about how hands-on programs like his can change students' lives. Local trades industry leaders and community members spoke in support.

"You wouldn't believe how we filled that whole hall up with people," says Callahan. "There were parents that cried. Some said, 'If it wasn't for this class, my kid wouldn't even go to school.'"

Minutes from the meeting indicate that interim district Superintendent Kenny Richards reminded the impassioned crowd that the district has never funded the class. Since its inception, Building Trades has been funded by HROP, not the district. HROP teachers like Enos are county employees, not school district employees. It was the county's decision to eliminate the program, not the district's, Richards said.

But despite vehement community support for Enos' class, the district did not agree to step in and save it. Without cutting funding to other popular or mandated programs, it couldn't, says Hartley.

"The rubber kind of meets the road in a situation like this," he says. "Districts don't have any options. We can't just run the Building Trades program because we like it. For people to even go to that board meeting ..."

Hartley pauses and regroups.

"Look, those board members' hands are tied," he continues. "If we run this, we're going to have to cut something, so what should we cut? Our woodshop program? Who do we fire to keep this going? We're in an impossible situation. There's no slush fund around here to grab. ... If we had new dollars, awesome. We'd love to keep it."

"I don't even think it's, 'If we had new dollars.'" adds Huschle. "It's if we have the same dollars — that's a big part of it — the dollars were taken away. We need to get the dollars that we had."

Huschle recognized that the Northern Humboldt district meeting perhaps wasn't the most appropriate venue to discuss the future of trades education in Humboldt County. So, afterward, she collected the names and contact information of everyone who attended in support of Enos' class and invited them to a June 7 meeting hosted by HCOE, with the hope of launching a local trades industry partnership.

About 30 building industry representatives and educators attended, gathering for a frank discussion about Humboldt's trades-based job market. They came to a quick consensus that it's time to stop looking to Sacramento for solutions and hunker down here at the local level to come up with a sustainable plan to save — and maybe even expand —trades education in Humboldt.

Humboldt County industries have always been supportive of local schools — just consider all of those businesses that donated to Enos' Maplewood house or the 168 Sapper says used to offer internships to local students. The Trades Industry Partnership wants to take that relationship a step further and bridge the gap between Humboldt County's young workforce and an industry that finds itself in crisis, desperate for workers.

Everyone agreed there's a very big messaging problem when it comes to blue collar jobs. They formed a marketing committee to work toward nudging blue collar work back into the public eye as a righteous career path for both high school graduates and college bound students. The group also discussed the development of apprenticeship, internship and mentorship programs as early as middle school to engage youth early on.

Then a very Humboldt County question was posed: "How do we represent a better career choice than the marijuana industry?" When kids know from an early age that they can make more money over the course of a summer trimming than in a whole year at a regular job, there's sometimes little incentive to do otherwise. As the group grappled with what could be done to get kids to consider another path, someone suggested emphasizing the value of a job that's safe and stable.

"We're always going to need things to be built, we're always going to need things to be repaired," one contractor offered. It's hard work, yes, but deeply satisfying on a number of levels. He said he would like to get the message to young people that it's possible to make a good living in construction, as much as or even more than wages earned by college graduates, with the added bonus of no debt from student loans.

The local building trades community is comprised of skilled people who hold important knowledge. They would very much like to pass it along to the next generation of workers and go ahead and retire already, but those young people are not around. One guy said he's got 65 employees and only two of them are under the age of 25. Another builder said he reads all the literature and, as far as he can tell, about half as many people are going into blue collar trades as are retiring from them.

As the meeting progressed, various committees were formed with an agreement to reassemble and report back in September. In the meantime, educators in the room expressed a commitment to shifting the college-is-best narrative kids currently hear from school counselors and teachers. Everyone agreed it is crucial to start letting kids know a career in the trades is just as viable a choice as college.

In recent years, starting with eighth graders' freshman orientation, students are persuaded to enroll in intensive, college preparatory courses. This happens across the board, seemingly with little consideration of where a student's interests or abilities lie. The message to students is clear: If you don't take college level courses during your time in high school, you might not get into the best of colleges and, without college, you won't be successful. Sometimes, kids have other strengths. But right now, they're not being presented with other respected alternatives.

Why the push toward college prep? This goes back to something Huschle talked about in a meeting the week before. Under the current model, she says, a school's funding level is determined by its Academic Performance Index (API) score. This score measures academic growth using standardized test scores and college enrollment rates as indicators of school success. Schools are funded accordingly.

"The one thing that we know about schools is, if it's measured or mandated, it's funded," Huschle says. "That's just life." Right now, (vocational) courses serve no purpose in terms of measured and mandated. So it's easy to say, 'They're expensive, let's get rid of them.'"

This may be about to change. The state is developing legislation that would expand its "measuring" concept to include career readiness indicators, too. This is a potential game changer for career and technical education throughout the state. If it becomes one of the measured pieces of the educational achievement metric, she says, districts are more likely to fund it.

We still don't know if Enos will get to build another house with another class. The possibility of finding a solution is still on the table for a a few more weeks. The outlay for the Building Trades program is about $400,000 over the course of two years. (See cost breakdown in chart.) The Maplewood house took two years to build and is expected to sell in the low $400,000s. Based on those figures, it seems the program doesn't really cost anything in the end. In fact, Enos says all of his classes' homes have sold at a profit, except one that got caught up in the housing market crash. The county and district would need to get creative about who would officially employ Enos, otherwise, someone's just got to manage the money and float the debt while the house is being built.

The afternoon wears on at the job site on Maplewood Drive. The kids are gone, and Enos is talking to a woman from next door, who's stopped by for her daily progress report. While he shows her the concrete poured that day, she says her son took the Building Trades class from Rob Bode at Eureka High years ago and loved it. She heads home to cook dinner and Enos returns to discussing the future of his class and his industry.

He thinks it's vital to keep education relevant for all kinds of students, especially those who don't fit into the college-bound box. "It's like bass fishing." he says "We've gotta' keep putting something in front of their noses or we'll lose them."

"After they graduate, the reason kids get into drugs, or stuff they shouldn't be doing, is because they don't have any other targets to shoot for," Enos says. "So many of the kids in my class over the years have truly paid attention. They got something out of it. And then they went out there and really used it."

Enos leans back against his van in pair of dark shades.

"Right now the demand for people who know how to work is off the charts," he continues. "Whether it's fast food, or construction, or home health care — whatever. Everybody's looking for people to work. Nobody wants to work."

Comments (6)

Showing 1-6 of 6

Add a comment

Add a comment