May 21 2014 12:00 AM

Vocational programs survive the Lansing School District’s budget cuts for the new fiscal year, but they aren’t safe for the long run


After narrowly escaping being cut in the coming fiscal year’s budget, the longterm fate of vocational programs in the Lansing School District is still unclear.

The Career and Technical Education — CTE — programs, which train students in a variety of trade skills, have been shrinking since the 1990s. Fifteen years ago, the Lansing School District offered about 20 programs. That number has been whittled down to three.

Peter Spadafore, president of the Lansing School Board, said that more stringent academic requirements and lingering budget issues have made it increasingly more difficult for kids to enroll in vocational programs.

The CTE programs were originally on the table to help the district close a $6 million deficit for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. Among other things, the district cut almost 100 positions and privatized the district’s busing system. The district is now about $800,000 shy of a balanced budget, which the administration needs to pass before the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1.

“It can be disheartening,” Spadafore said. “I don’t think any one of my colleagues ran for the board to cut things, but we’re just trying to impact the student as little as possible.”

For now, that means leaving the CTE programs alone. But the programs aren’t safe yet. Spadafore said that the administration will have to consider reconfiguring or cutting programs as a long-term solution for next year.

The value of vocation
The three CTE programs still standing in the Lansing School District are graphic arts and print technology; culinary arts and personal services and health science.

Depending on the program, the classes can count for high school or college credits or employment certification.

“It’s not for everyone, but our kids walk away with something,” said Worsie Gregory, director of secondary education and academies for the Lansing School District. Gregory coordinates the district’s CTE programs.

“Some of our kids continue their education, like in junior college, but many of them don’t go to college. This gives them a set of skills to begin a career right after high school.”

Graphic artist William Watson knows how necessary those real-life job skills can be, both as an educator and a working professional. Two years ago, Watson taught basic layout and design courses at Lansing Community College, and he is awaiting an application to teach next semester. None of Watson’s former students had come from a high-school vocational program, and he certainly wishes they had. “I was very surprised when I started teaching,” he said.

“Some kids didn’t know how to use a Mac or how to delete a file.”

Watson said that if his students had learned design basics in high school, they could have achieved much more with their individual portfolios — a must in the competitive field of design. He said it would be detrimental to cut the programs and that the district should be expanding them instead.

“If you can expose yourself to a work environment before you start college, you can start right off with those job-based skills,” he said. “It’s a very competitive job market.”

Leaving the district
If CTE programs are cut or reconfigured, Lansing students interested in vocational training can choose to attend career centers outside of their districts. Many students in the Lansing School District already attend programs in the Eaton or Ingham school districts for programs not offered within the district, like construction technology or cosmetology.

Gregory said the cost to bus a child out of district is about $2,450. She said the cost per child in a CTE program is hard to determine because of the fluctuating enrollment numbers and varying costs. In addition to teacher salary, the equipment costs of the program vary from $6,600 a year for the visual communications program to $22,000 for the health program.

But Gregory said cost should not be the primary deciding factor in making these decisions.

“The environment can be very overwhelming for our kids,” she said. “They tend to struggle with being bused from the urban environment they’re comfortable in to a rural area.”

Denise Dehn, who teaches the culinary arts and personal services program, said that busing kids out to other districts affects their performance and opportunity.

“When you increase class size, there’s not as much one-on-one time and they don’t have the best access to scholarships,” she said.

Dehn said the 17 students she teaches this semester would be devastated if the program was cut.

“There are so many kids that are floating in high school,” she said. “This is an inexpensive way to learn what you want to do and get a leg up.”