Robert Roehl is among a dying breed. He believes that up until his teaching position was axed over the summer during budget cuts, he was Nashville’s last public school teacher of what used to widely be known as “metal shop.”
For three decades, students from Roehl’s classes went on to get jobs like opening their own machine shops or working with local manufacturers. Using professional, expensive equipment, Roehl taught skills including welding, tool and die work, and forming metal.
Roehl was once part of a vocational team of teachers who made auto shop, wood shop, metal shop and mechanical drawing classes a first step for mechanics, carpenters, welders, plumbers, engineers and electricians.
So many students have shared so many shop stories for so many years — it’s hard to believe it’s over at Metro Nashville Public Schools.
“We used to have a whole auditorium full of vocational teachers and have meetings at the beginning of the year,” Roehl said. “We got to where we had just a handful.”
Over the years, he has seen the dwindling of vocational education courses he was accustomed to at the beginning of his career. Many of those offerings, Roehl says, have been replaced by a new wave of classes and programs that Roehl doesn’t think provide the same income and job security potential as careers in manufacturing do.
Roehl, who holds a Masters degree, has taught at five Metro high schools over the years including his most recent assignment at Hunters Lane.
After news was announced that teaching positions would need to be cut due to budget troubles, word spread at Hunters Lane that 19 positions would be slashed. Roehl immediately believed he would be among those asked to leave, and he was correct. He was told there weren’t enough students signing up for his classes.
Now he’s drawing retirement and trying to plan for the future. And he isn’t alone.
The local teachers’ union — the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA) — has publicly complained to the Board of Education that a disproportionate number of career and technical education (CTE) teachers were cut by the budget. MNEA President Erick Huth said five CTE positions, including Roehl’s, were cut over the summer in decisions made at the individual-school level.
MNPS was forced to cut more than 50 teaching positions as a result of a tight fiscal year, but the district typically experiences significant enough turnover each year so that very few of these cuts result in layoffs. However, this year, according to Huth, almost all the actual layoffs were of CTE teachers in areas similar to Roehl’s.
“One of the problems is that there wasn’t a good transition from the old comprehensive high school model that we had in place, which was barely functional at best… to the Career Academy model that we moved toward,” Huth said. “I know that existing employees and programs and facilities didn’t play much into the career technical side when we made the transition.
“I also think that there’s an over-emphasis on career paths in the current model that do not involve industry and trades.”
In Roehl’s case, Huth said, the time spent at the five different Metro high schools came as programs were added and cut. Roehl’s relatively narrow certification didn’t allow options very far beyond metal shop.
“I guess he’s kind of been treated as a dying breed, chasing what position was left,” Huth said.
District officials say position cuts were made by individual principals, and principals’ decisions were driven by student interest.
Maplewood High School Principal Julie Williams said her school cut the equivalent of half a CTE position over the summer for a construction program focused on electrical work. At Maplewood, Williams said, the most popular CTE programs are business and health science.
“We try to be responsive to student wishes. We cannot offer everything at every school,” she said. “Some of these career paths, [students] haven’t seen those jobs and they don’t know much about them.”
Shifting CTE sands
Though classes like those taught by Roehl are disappearing, they’re being replaced by other offerings intended to help kids gear up for life after high school. “Vocational education” is still thriving in subject areas like culinary arts, according to sources throughout Metro schools. But the real revolution in career and technical education (CTE) is happening as high schools are redesigned around career academies, and as programs are introduced that are intended to tie together vocational skills with traditional academic content such as math and English.
Students at career academies are able to choose a job-related focus — options span across music, construction, business analysis, mass communications, heath care and much more — and study their academic materials in the context of applications to their chosen professions. The curriculum itself is intended to be as rigorous as ever; the only planned difference is profession-focused contexts.
The Alternative High School Initiative (AHSI) is another major effort intended to, in part, help MNPS make strides in adding to its career-focused offerings. Many of the options available through AHSI include significant career components.
One AHSI program, Youth Works, teaches students in classrooms based at or near construction sites and introduces standard-based academic curriculum in the context of building applications.
Career academies, Smaller Learning Communities, AHSI programs – these offerings seem more complex than the old shop classes, for example, and they aren’t necessarily what some parents and community leaders have in mind when they argue that MNPS needs more vocational offerings.
Vocational education offerings were, many believe, at their peak about 10 years ago, prior to the administration of former Director of Schools Pedro Garcia. It’s no secret that plenty of Nashvillians want back what was formerly in place. But it may not be long before a contemporary concept of career-focused education replaces the memory of the many vocational courses offered years before.
Connie Smith, accountability chief for the Tennessee Department of Education, has stated repeatedly that MNPS must step up the quantity and diversity of career-focused educational offerings for Metro students. The DOE has asked MNPS to implement a broad slate of vocational course offerings.
An audit of MNPS completed last year by a DOE contractor found that the district needs to ensure that career and technical education teachers and academic teachers receive interdisciplinary professional development to align curriculum.
Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce education chief Marc Hill called the audit, which identified a shortage of CTE offerings, a “key finding.” The Chamber is a focused booster of career academies, having invested time and resources into the programs over the last few years.
“Increasingly, the line between academic courses and CTE courses is vanishing,” Hill said. “The traditional sort of shop and mechanical offerings that may be a more of a pathway to a very particular job are in many cases giving way to offerings that prepare students with a broader range of skills and knowledge. …The community is watching to see that staffing adjustments don’t affect the effectiveness of creating academies in students, which should be driven by student need and student interest.
Kids need options
But for Roehl, the movement in this direction hasn’t been positive. He believes the district has steadily worked toward driving every single student toward pursuit of a college degree immediately after high school, at the expense of training that could prepare those kids for profitable careers right after high school.
Careers in top-line construction or welding, Roehl said, pay far better than many of the options kids may have as a result of taking high school business classes. As Baby Boomers retire, national shortages in welding and other manufacturing trades are growing, he said.
Roehl noted that he has met several of his past students now working as welders and making far more than the salary of a typical Metro teacher.
“My ex-wife didn’t even have to start working until I started teaching. I worked my way through college welding,” Roehl said. “The skills that I’m teaching, they could go into many different directions. …Lots of kids go to college, then can’t or don’t get a job after.”
Roehl thinks plenty of options should exist for students. A good plan for some kids, Roehl believes, could be application of vocational skills in the workforce right after college then deciding what sort of education to invest in.
Maplewood Principal Williams would agree with Roehl that kids need options, and that CTE offerings are important. Recent renovations at Maplewood have reflected this, with equipment and facility ramp-ups in culinary arts, automotive technology, cosmetology and health sciences. CTE classes must be responsive to workforce trends and to student demands, she said.
But unlike Roehl, Williams thinks the district-wide changes in CTE have been positive. Career academies force kids to focus on specific areas, and the district is making progress in extending CTE options.
“We have an obligation to provide a variety of options for students. … Certainly not all students will want to go to a four-year college, but we do not want to send a message that one is preferable to another,” Williams said. “There’s progress to be made. We’re getting there.”