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VOL. 36 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 12, 2012

‘Voc-Ed’ changes to fit modern needs

Focus shifts to teaching ‘the science behind what they’re doing’

By John McBryde

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Pearl-Cohn student Gerald Harris "will be ready for on-air when he leaves here," says Todd Young, his instructor in the school’s Emmy Award-winning TV production and broadcasting program.

-- Photo: Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

In a space that is now an empty garage bay, Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School will soon add another layer to what has already become a showcase for Metro schools.

Construction is set to begin on a fully functioning recording studio, converting a room that was once used as a shop class into a facility that will have all the technology and square footage necessary to accommodate a band or even an orchestra.

The addition serves as an exclamation point on Pearl-Cohn’s status as a beacon for the Metro’s relatively young Academies of Nashville program.

“It will bring on a whole new dimension, allowing our students to record bands or artists that are already established,” says Ernestine Wilson, Academy coach for Pearl-Cohn, which offers the academies of entertainment communication and entertainment management.

“Right now, they’re really only able to record themselves individually (due to space limitations). But with this new studio, any artist can come in and record with our students doing the work as engineers or whatever.”

The build-out of what was once space for woodwork and metalwork instruction can be seen as both a literal and a figurative demonstration of how far vocational education has come in recent years. In the 12 zoned high schools in Metro Nashville, “shop class” is now TV broadcasting at Pearl-Cohn, three-dimensional drafting at Cane Ridge High and banking and finance at McGavock High.

“Voc-ed” has come a long way since the automotive repair, home economics and cosmetology classes of yore.

“The goal of vocational education 20 years ago was to arm students with skills so they could go out directly to the workplace,” says Donna Gilley, a career and technology education coordinator for MNPS. “And today’s students truly need to be both college and career ready.

“Through all of our programs, we’re striving to give all students both hard skills and soft skills, – those professional skills that are needed across the board in any profession – but also industry-specific skills that would allow them to go directly to the workforce. But at the same time, we want to connect it to a college program so that students have that option.”

MNPS began making the transition to “pathways” learning about 12 years ago, Gilley says, and it implemented the Academies of Nashville in 2006. It’s designed to give high school students a specific focus and path to better prepare them for life after graduation, whether it’s on to college or straight into the workforce.

High school freshmen and their parents have a chance to explore options and determine a pathway through what is known as Ninth Grade Academy. After deciding on an academy, that student’s curriculum will be based on that pathway.

The five core academies of MNPS are:

  • Arts, media and communications
  • Business, marketing and information technology
  • Engineering, manufacturing and industrial technology
  • Health and public services
  • Hospitality and tourism.

“Health science has ballooned to the top, and that’s because of student interest,” Gilley says, adding the pathway is offered in nine of the zoned high schools.

“We try to develop the academies based on three things,” she says. “Number one, what is student interest? Secondly, we compare their interest to industry demands, and thirdly, we look at our existing programs. We’re really trying to look at both student demands and employer demands.”

Bells and whistles don’t hurt, either. Pearl-Cohn is in its third year as one of Metro’s six thematic magnet schools, which are zoned schools that also hold the distinction of holding a lottery application for out-of-zone students wishing to attend there.

As word gets out about the equipment and programs at Pearl-Cohn – the $3 million TV broadcasting equipment donated by the Golf Channel, a songwriting path, the school’s very own record label – interest is growing in the inner-city school from across Davidson County.

“Several students from all over the district have come here because we are an entertainment magnet,” Wilson says. “Enrollment at Pearl-Cohn is about 850 students, and our freshman class this year is about 284, which is very large for us. That’s where we want to see it going.”

Pearl-Cohn’s lobby features a giant LCD screen that displays various video from school news and activities, as well as a radio booth where student DJs can broadcast onsite. Classes offered include media publishing, marketing communications, audio engineering and radio production, among others.

Perhaps most impressive is TV production and broadcasting, where the school won a Mid-South Regional Emmy for best sports broadcast and was nominated in three other categories. It has also captured the attention of PBS for its broadcast reports of school news.

“What I’m trying to do is create a situation that’s both teachable, which is very important, but also real-world,” says Todd Young, instructor for the TV pathway, adding some of his students are more interested in the behind-the-scenes end of broadcasting, while others lean toward the on-camera side.

Gerald Harris would be of the latter.

“It’s what I’ve wanted to do for a long time, since fourth grade,” says Harris, a senior who has already been accepted into the broadcasting program at Middle Tennessee State University.

“Put a camera on him, and he’s a natural,” Young says. “My belief is that Gerald will be ready for on-air when he leaves here.”

If Pearl-Cohn represents the 180 from where vocational education was back in the day, then Cane Ridge High in southeast Davidson County would be a multi-dimensional 360. With large rooms in one wing of the school dedicated to hands-on training in carpentry, electrical and concrete work – as well as a couple of computer labs devoted to computer assisted design (CAD) and drafting – Metro’s newest high school sports a fitting image of a 21st century shop class.

“We’re a great example of a curriculum that allows kids to go in a lot of different direction,” says Lance Lott, academy coach for Cane Ridge’s architecture and construction academy. “We range from giving them credentials to go work in a specific industry right out of high school all the way to having an articulation agreement with MTSU’s concrete management program. We do have a good program to prepare them for whatever track they want to take.”

Enrollment in this academy is at capacity, Lott says. The school has several partnerships with various companies and industries and, in addition to the track to MTSU, has an agreement with Tennessee Technology Center at Nashville. Students also can earn credentials for certification in OSHA and in the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER).

Harold Cunningham, a construction, electrical and concrete instructor who has been at Cane Ridge since it opened five years ago, may offer the best scope of how vocational education and especially “shop class” have evolved through the years.

“We’re studying more of the science behind it,” says Cunningham, who worked as a general contractor before getting into the teaching profession. “That’s the primary difference.

“I don’t know if this sounds proper or politically correct, but I’ll let them fail (on a project),” he adds, “because I want them to go back and fix it. I find it builds a better basis. We do a little more research and learn the science behind what they’re doing, instead of just being told this is what you’re going to do.

“They buy into it more that way.”

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