Tracey Syphex, ex-offender, is now vice-president of Phax Group Construction and Design, LLC; managing partner with Phax Group LLC, a real estate development company; and the 2011 Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneur of the Year. He was a panelist at the Princeton Area Community Democratic Organization’s recent discussion “Trenton From the Grassroots.” He credited his turn-around to having learned a trade at the Mercer County Vocational Technical School.
Until the late 1990’s, Trenton High had its own vocational school, taught by professionals in their fields. Students spent three periods daily, for two to three years, learning commercial foods, auto body, auto mechanics, cosmetology, masonry, and a host of other trades. When I first started teaching there in 1981, I could bring in my dry cleaning, get my hair cut, have my lawn mower tuned, and get my car un-dented and repainted. My job was to help my special education students read and understand vocational vocabulary. In the process I became versed in unibody auto construction and the diseases of fingernails. One of my students learned welding and moved to Texas as a skilled worker. Nursing students earned certification. Trenton’s vocational program was impressive.
But the vocational school began to decline as state-wide testing increased. Students who didn’t pass the Minimum Basic Skills test were required to take remedial classes, and suddenly there was no room in their schedules for a three-period vocational course. Over time, vocational classes became filled predominately with special education students because they were not required to pass the state tests. Some vocational teachers chafed that they had not been trained to handle so many special ed kids.
In the school year1999-2000, the vocational school was closed, and much of its equipment disappeared. Rumor had it that the Mercer County freeholders had pressured Trenton to close its vocational school because it competed with the county vo-tech schools. Under a new superintendent, Trenton High was reconfigured into small learning communities (SLCs), all of which were intended to lead to a career but few of which offered hands-on experiences, and those only to seniors. The vocational building itself was divided into standard classrooms; only the shop housing cosmetology was spared. The Medical Arts SLC took in the vocational school’s nursing and cosmetology programs. Business and Computer Technology absorbed the former business courses and opened a huge duplicating room under the sponsorship of Xerox. A few students worked there each period, supervised by a Xerox employee. Applied Engineering offered computer-assisted design, but SLC’s like Law and Justice and Fine and Performing Arts offered no trade.
I myself joined the Medical Arts SLC but was never assigned to help students with vocational vocabulary. Medical Arts sent its seniors across the street to Saint Francis Hospital, where they learned various skills from the hospital staff. For two years, the nursing program continued at the hospital, but then it was decided that the student/teacher ratio was too costly and the program was discontinued. The nursing teacher retired in disgust. Of course it was costly; kids got certified! By 2006, Medical Arts had been moved to a building far from Saint Francis. No Child Left Behind forced everyone to concentrate on those high-stakes tests.
Do we need vocational education? Tracey Syphex was saved by his trade. Now he hires and trains felons who’ve been released from prison. Recently, the PBS Newshour’s “American Graduate” series has showcased the benefits of hands-on learning and internships. Businesses cry out that they need skilled workers. Vocational education—half a day with a professional—is costly, but so is prison and so are social programs to support the unemployed.