• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

On a Friday morning in mid-January, the students in room 607 at University City High School cluster around computer screens in small groups. Most wear sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers. One girl sports the light-blue-and-white jacket and tiny skirt of the school’s cheerleading uniform. A handful wear white lab coats, which, on Fridays, earns them five points of extra credit.

I approach a group of four girls near the front of the classroom. Their monitor shows a page illustrated with the outline of a human body. It looks no different than a worksheet a teacher might pass out in kindergarten for children to use as a template for a self-portrait. But Mykalah Palado, the bare-legged cheerleader, and one of her group-mates, Ana Radic, a serious-looking girl with long straight hair and glasses, explain that their assigned activity is a bit more complicated.

“We’re basically supposed to come up with a patient,” Radic says.

“Like a homicide story,” Palado interrupts.

“Well, yeah,” Radic continues. “We have to give a type of death, like, homicide, accident, or natural cause.”

“And a story of how exactly they died, and what’s shown in their autopsy,” Palado says.

Radic points to the diagram on the monitor. “Basically, that’s an external-injury diagram, and then there might also be internal injuries. So we’ll probably fill that out. And then, for the actual autopsy, which is also internal, we’re going to take out the organs and weigh them and measure them and see which organs were affected.”

Her manner is matter-of-fact, her face serious. Ellie Vandiver, her teacher, will later predict that Radic will end up with a PhD in biomedical research.

University High School interns at Veterans Medical Center with their teacher Ellie Vandiver (second from left) and hospital youth volunteer coordinator Nonnie Artero

“It’s all hypothetical,” Radic says. “We come up with a story about a person and what disease they’re afflicted with, and then we use that disease [as a starting point].”

The assignment, Vandiver explains to me further, is to create a forensic autopsy case complete with toxicology reports, organ weights, and emergency-room and police reports. When each group has finished, they’ll share their reports with their classmates, who will then use the reports to guess the patient’s cause of death.

The exercise follows a two-day fetal-pig autopsy and precedes the 12-week clinical internships that all 32 seniors will begin next week at area labs and hospitals. Alonzo, Palado, and Kobayashi will go to the Veterans Hospital associated with UC Davis. Radic will go to Scripps Genomics.

This is not an advanced-placement class or a room full of pre-selected child prodigies. These students only had to have decent attendance grades and to write an essay about their interest in the medical field to get into this particular biomedical-sciences program. And the program, believe it or not, is one of over 100 vocational-training programs in San Diego high schools, in everything from business management and ownership to fire protection to the foundations of legal practice and introduction to teaching.

But don’t call it vocational training.

The (politically) correct term is “career technical education,” which in 2006 governor Arnold Schwarzenegger included in a state bond for the first time in California history. His Strategic Growth Plan offered $500 million in grants for career technical-education facilities (Proposition 1D). In November 2008, San Diego voters passed Proposition S, a $2.1 billion bond measure for the restoration and renovation of district schools. The San Diego Unified School District has spent roughly $29 million ($16 million from Prop S, $13 million from Prop 1D) in the past five years on 22 career and technical-education facilities at 12 schools. Seven of those are still in the design phase and are scheduled to break ground next year.

According to the district website, the “courses are offered in 15 industry sectors tied to local economic and workforce needs,” and they “provide high school students with skills necessary to succeed in post-secondary/college education, entry-level employment and/or career advancement. The instructional integration of academic and workplace skills provides career awareness and exploration, including paid and unpaid internship opportunities.”

The programs are taught by teachers with a minimum of five years of industry experience. Vandiver, for example, worked ten years as an intensive-care nurse before becoming a teacher. The seniors clustered around the computers in her classroom now have been with her for four years. In the spring, they’ll be the first class in the district to have completed a full four years of the Biomedical Innovations curriculum created by Project Lead the Way and adopted by the district when they were freshmen.

We have more technology than Pep Boys

Even with a new name, new curriculums, and updated facilities, many career and technical-education programs have been unable to shake the “VoTech” reputation.

“Those people out there still think we’re just a bunch of dirty people,” says 55-year-old Leonardo Zarate, who has taught auto -shop classes at Morse High School for 23 years.

We’re standing at the front of his classroom, where 25 boys and 1 girl sit at computer monitors taking a quiz entitled “Inspecting the Finish, Paint” from their I-CAR (Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair) curriculum. Zarate wears a gray-blue button-down shirt, khaki trousers, and a tie imprinted with images of Tweety Bird, Daffy Duck, Marvin the Martian, and other Looney Tunes characters.

“Parents want their sons and daughters to be doctors and lawyers,” he says. “They don’t want them to go into auto repair. But we’re the smartest people in town. We see a problem and we think about how to fix it.”

These days, he explains, auto repair and refinishing is technologically advanced and requires computer-savvy technicians. He emphasizes that his program is called Auto Body Repair and Refinishing Technology, and that it also addresses a range of academic subjects.

“This is where art marries science,” he says. “There’s chemistry in mixing the plastic fillers, the putties, and the sealers. In the paint-mixing, you have color, hardener, and reducer. There’s math. You have to know how much for supplies, how much for labor, and you have to figure your profit. There’s physics. When you’re welding, you’re fusing two metals. There are 13 different types of metal in a car. And there’s English communication, when you have to order your parts and materials. And when you’re talking to the customer, of course.”

For more on this article, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from around the web


monaghan March 12, 2013 @ 1:21 p.m.

This program livens up the high school curriculum for large numbers of San Diego kids who may not be college-bound -- a legitimate condition that was entirely ignored by the "high expectations" crowd for at least the last decade. Obviously, the workings are imperfect, as described here, but over time it can be improved and will benefit both students and local business and labor groups. It's the return of an old good idea after a long dry spell and the District needs to eliminate its present shortcomings and make it a showpiece.

Turning technical/vocational courses into graduation requirements for everyone is NOT a good idea, however, as those smart La Jollans and Scripps Ranchers realized last year. It's a mystery why the School District could not have figured that out on its own without sparking a middle class uprising and online petition to sink it.

Taking such an extreme step would have jeopardized the competitive admissions standing of college-bound San Diego public school students among their peers nationwide and ultimately it could have driven a lot of local families out of the public schools. It's possible the graduation requirement issue may return in future, as this may be yet another education "reform" fad similar to its "high expectations" predecessor -- ideas pushed in Sacramento and funded with private foundation and federal dollars in isolation from practical reality.


bvagency March 12, 2013 @ 2:37 p.m.

This is an excellent program for the large percentage of kids that wont go on to college. It provides training to ready these kids for a specific career. Unfortunately, not all school districts value this program. Sweetwater Union High District Trustees voted to issue pink slips to teachers in this program, thereby relegating it to possible elimination. This after the Districts Bond Program (prop o) spent tens of millions of dollars building classes specific to this education at numerous high schools.

Lack of vision, mis spending and ultimately lack of leadership will drastically impact kids in this program. Thank goodness the San Diego Unified district still sees value in it.


bbq March 13, 2013 @ 6:11 a.m.

As I am not sure I want to get into another running dialog on where we are screwing up in our educational system. As a Mechanical Engineer, I see a lot of Mechanically Illiterate People in our growing electronic world. I include my own three boys to a certain extent, which I take on myself, but like school and universities, have said for eons about General education we need well rounded individuals.
Well we have gone to the extreme where our students never get to understand the feeling of having a tool in their hands, weather its a wrench or a spatchula (sp), needle and thread, a musical instrument or how knowlege and training in useful skills.
The connection of hand to mind is a powerful teaching tool not only to learn a career but to foster a bond or desire to delve deeper into a subject or idea, really to create. Tools develop the ability to problem solve through logical progression, weather its bolt-washer- nut or flour-egg-water.
We do ourselves and our students, a disservice by not providing, supporting and in some cases requiring basic classes in these skills in our Middle and High Schools.


monaghan March 13, 2013 @ 3:54 p.m.

"The connection of hand to mind" IS powerful and important and should be part of children's lives. But the instruction needs to be excellent and the materials and tools should be first-rate. A retired physician friend makes wooden boats and travels once a month from his home in Massachusetts to practice wood-working with a Vermont craftsman. The work is more deeply satisfying to him than anything from his previous professional life. That's the kind of experience our students deserve.


bbq March 13, 2013 @ 10:36 p.m.

While I agree with your ideal, I will tell you two of the classes that affected my future the most were 6th Grade, combination of Home Econ/cooking, Wood Shop, Home Econ/sewing, Metal Shop and 9th Grade Industrial adventure, Metal, Wood shops, Automotives (rebuilt lawn mower engines) and Machine Drawing. These skills have never steered me wrong, I am an Engineer by trade but the basic skills and concepts are fundimental and transfer to life skills. Again well rounded individuals.


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!