Almost exactly two years ago, the Albany, Lebanon and Corvallis school districts were invited to pool their vocational resources to create the area’s first Regional Trades Academy.

The academy was to offer a series of shop classes to students from all three districts, transporting them to different schools so they could experience each one.

Most mid-valley high schools no longer have a full complement of shop teachers. So, the reasoning went, why should individual schools think about creating their own carpentry or auto mechanics classes when with a little planning, coordination and travel time, districts could work together to offer a full slate of programs?

And it might have worked, too — had it not been for the planning, coordination and travel time.

Logistics proved to be the undoing of the Regional Trades Academy, with scheduling difficulties prompting Corvallis to withdraw from the project in 2012 before the first fall school term even began.

Lebanon, which took the lead on forming the partnership, stepped down after the 2012-13 school year, saying too few students wanted to devote the time and risk running short on credits necessary for graduation.

However, South Albany and West Albany high schools are moving forward with shared career technical education. Both continue to work with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Tangent to provide classes.

Although the program has dropped the “regional” label from the trades academy, the partnership between the two schools and the IBEW is slated to go on next year, too. This past Monday, Greater Albany Public Schools proposed a budget allocating $25,000 to keep the IBEW in the loop.

Kevin DeCoster, West Albany’s dean of students and that school’s point person for the academy this year, said West in particular has let go many of its shop classes over the years. It makes sense, he said, to look for efficient ways to bring them back — and with them, some of the students who may otherwise have had few opportunities to follow their passions.

“This is the kind of thing that can fill that gap,” he said.

Looking back

Once part of the bedrock of the high school experience, shop classes began shrinking in Oregon school districts in the late 1980s to early ’90s.

Shops required expensive equipment, specially trained teachers and dedicated classroom space, usually on a large scale. Faced with budgets limited by property tax laws, coupled with increasing pressure to meet academic standards under Oregon’s school reform act in 1991 and the federal No Child Left Behind law a decade later, many school districts began letting their vocational programs go.

“It just didn’t seem to fit,” said Charlie Burr, spokesman for Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries. “Even though those programs were extremely valuable, they didn’t necessarily help you fill out a standard test. Looking back, that (elimination) was a huge mistake.”

BOLI has an apprenticeship training division, Burr said. Before the decline, the average age of participants was about 19. Now, that age is 26.

Late entry into a trade can mean fewer experienced workers for Oregon industries.

But more important, Burr said, early exposure to vocational programs connects learning with doing and helps some students find their passion.

“It’s not just about having good little workers,” he added. “It’s about having a more enriched life.”

Bringing back those programs has been a major focus for BOLI. In recent years, Oregon’s lawmakers have joined the effort.

In 2012, about $1.8 million in new Career and Technical Education Revitalization Grants was distributed to eight districts in Oregon. This past January, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian and Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rob Saxton announced that grant fund had almost quintupled in size, with $8.87 million in CTE Revitalization Grants going to 140 Oregon middle and high schools.

“Oregon’s competitiveness is fundamentally linked to the availability of a skilled workforce,” Avakian said in a statement about the funding. “Today’s announcement represents the most significant investment in career education and hands-on learning in a generation.”

The mid-valley’s Regional Trades Academy was part of that first $1.8 million, receiving the largest of the eight grants — $435,290 — to organize what was to have been a two-year career occupations program.

About 75 students from Lebanon and Albany spent three hours a day the first semester rotating among introductory classes in six disciplines: rough carpentry, finish carpentry, welding, electrical, automotive and masonry. They spent the second semester specializing in their top two choices.

Students were to have spent their second year in a single, apprentice-level field. But the grant wasn’t renewed in the second year, and Lebanon withdrew when it expired.

Assistant Superintendent Bo Yates, who had been principal of Lebanon High School when the academy began, said that was a building-level decision based on too few students signing up to keep it going. But project coordinator Eric Frazier, who continues to teach construction at Lebanon High School, said the problem was timing, not lack of interest.

Students spent half of each day working on shop projects. Much of the time, they also had to spend half an hour each way riding a bus to Albany or Tangent. The remaining time at Lebanon High, he said, simply wasn’t enough to obtain necessary credits, particularly for students who needed to play catchup for graduation.

“It was just too cumbersome to fit into the school schedule,” Frazier said.

DeCoster said academics proved a minor sticking point for Albany, too.

The classes gave students clear messages about the practical application of math and science, DeCoster said, and West did notice academic progress, partly because interested students had to keep their grades up in order to participate. But overall, the classes didn’t cover enough of the classroom material for organizers to use them as the sole replacements for core classes.

Moving forward

Albany has kept the basic structure of the trades academy through this year, inviting participants to spend the first semester rotating among several disciplines and using the second semester to focus on their favorites.

Teachers this year offered electrical classes through the IBEW, finish carpentry through West Albany, and auto mechanics, construction and masonry through South Albany. About 60 students at the two schools are participating.

Students spend the first semester rotating through all the offerings. They went to core academic classes at their own schools each morning and worked on the trades academy in the afternoon, four days a week.

On early release Wednesdays, they stayed at their home schools, catching up on core classes and spending time on “work readiness” skills, such as filling out resumes and going through CPR and other safety training.

As with the regional academy, students in the trades academy are spending their second semester following the same schedule but specializing in their top choices.

While both schools still offer at least some vocational programs of their own, the academy’s extra time and emphasis allows them to tackle larger-scale projects, such as the storage sheds South Albany shop teacher Matt West taught his students to build and install.

Going it alone this year, DeCoster said, Albany has learned two things: One, it’s all but impossible to run the trades academy unless someone other than one of the teachers coordinates the program. Somebody needs to work out schedules and transportation and discipline and other sticking points, and the teachers leading the classes don’t have that kind of time.

Two, he said, the experience has indicated a need for providing more hands-on learning experiences.

Most of the students who signed up for the trades academy this year aren’t oriented toward traditional academics, DeCoster said, but they still need to pass state assessment tests and rack up 24 credits before receiving a high school diploma. That means Albany would benefit from finding ways to include more applied learning in core academic classes.

DeCoster is retiring this year and won’t see how the academy is organized as it moves forward. But the district remains committed to finding regional partnerships to link students with trade careers.

Ideally, he said, he’d like to see a program that lines up students in the trades academy either directly with local jobs or with programs to further their training at Linn-Benton Community College.

Dave Baker, the training director at IBEW, said his organization will remain involved in the academy in hopes of making this happen. He said he encourages other employers to find ways to connect.

“There are opportunities for jobs that don’t necessarily require a degree but do require additional training,” he said.

It’s important, he said, to offer high school training in electronics — or in any trade — “just to show students, ‘This is an opportunity. This is a job you could look into.’”

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Jennifer Moody can be reached at 541-812-6113 or jennifer.moody@lee.net.