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Vocational programs try to craft new image

October 23, 2006

READING, Pa. (AP) - The way Francisco Sanchez sees it, he'll have two solid options when he graduates in June.

Sanchez, 17, takes masonry courses at Reading-Muhlenberg Vocational Technical School. The senior has studied at the school for three years and will graduate with the skills necessary to take an entry-level bricklaying job.

Sanchez is undecided. He likes the thought of college but is equally taken by the hands-on labor of laying bricks.

"I'm out here learning something that I will benefit off of in the future," Sanchez said.

But despite their success in training students for the real world, vocational and technical schools still can't shake a decades-old stigma, said Gerard L. Cunningham, principal of the Reading-Muhlenberg school.

Since their inception in the 1960s, vocational schools have been looked at, by some, as places for students who weren't bright enough for college-prep courses, said Cunningham.

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But nothing could be further from the truth, he added.

"That $40,000 car you bought was not built by kids in the college-prep classes," Cunningham said.

Vocational education emerged about 40 years ago, with Reading and Muhlenberg creating their own vocational-technical school and the remaining 16 Berks districts creating two Berks County Vocational Technical schools, now called the Berks Career and Technology Center.

Of Berks County's estimated 21,800 high school students, roughly 2,900 take vocational courses.

About 1,150 of them go to the Reading-Muhlenberg school in Muhlenberg Township. More than 1,750 go to Berks Career and Technology Center campuses in Oley and Bern townships.

Districts are now encouraging their students to think about the future earlier, even in their freshman year, Cunningham said.

But Cunningham said he wonders if more students could be steered toward a vocational education.

"Eighty percent of the jobs out there do not require a four-year degree," Cunningham said, "but they require academic and technical training."

Jeffrey Manley, who teaches masonry at Reading-Muhlenberg, said students who put in the effort will leave the school with the tools necessary to go right into the job market.

That is one of the reasons Sanchez decided to go to the technology center

"I learned it was good money, and I like working construction," Sanchez said.

Hamill Dempster of Reading has thought about taking vocational classes since he was very young. Now a 17-year-old senior, he is studying property maintenance at Reading-Muhlenberg. He plans to get a job after graduation.

"I like working with my hands," he said.

The thought of sitting in classrooms all day was not appealing to Victor A. Mota.

The Reading High senior now spends his afternoons learning a host of trades, including electricity and basic carpentry.

"I don't like to sit around and talk," said Mota, 17. "I like to work on things."

Vo-tech schools can take a student's interest in hands-on work and make it into a career, said David L. Keehn, a teacher at the school.

"The advantage of a vo-tech is you take a student who has good abilities and teach them in their areas of interest," Keehn said. "They have a better chance of making above minimum wage coming out of vo-tech."

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