Union Democrat staff

In line with a growing statewide emphasis on high school vocational programs, the Summerville Union High School District will now allow students to swap out vocational classes for certain other graduation requirements.

A state law passed in 2011, Assembly Bill 1330, permits high schools to substitute vocational classes such as welding for fine arts or foreign language graduation requirements. Summerville High's Board of Trustees voted Wednesday to take advantage of the new law, pertaining to programs referred to as, "Career Technical Education."

"The state finally is recognizing the importance of CTE and kids getting workplace skills," said Summerville High Career Technical Education Coordinator Tom Dibble. "We're able to say CTE's important and on a level playing field."

The district offers 13 Career Technical Education courses, including cooking, keyboarding, accounting, law enforcement and a beginning auto mechanics class. Two of the classes, photography and accounting, already fulfill graduation requirements.

Career Technical Education classes are focused on specialized skills and helping students prepare for trades, some of which they may enter immediately after high school.

Many students take both CTE courses and college preparatory courses, but career tech proponents say the programs boost graduation rates among students who might otherwise drop out.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has made Career Technical Education a priority, spearheading a "California Career Readiness Initiative" with career tech as its centerpiece and working to preserve funds for the programs.

Dibble and other Summerville High teachers noted Wednesday that allowing vocational classes to fulfill some graduation requirements will help students who struggle with foreign languages.

The new provision will permit students to substitute a Career Technical Education course for a foreign language or fine arts class, one of which is a graduation requirement.

Dibble also said relatively few students will be affected, since many take foreign language and fine arts classes to meet college entry requirements. Two years of foreign language is required of students entering University of California schools.

Summerville High Superintendent John Keiter recommended that the board reject the use of CTE classes for graduation requirements, explaining that the idea seemed to counter the school's goal of increasing enrollment in college prerequisite courses.

About 42 percent of district students take prerequisite courses for entry to University of California or California State University schools, according to Connections Visual and Performing Arts Academy Principal Diana Harford. The district would like to bring the number up to 50 percent.

Board member Randy Richter said options were needed for the other 50 percent of the student body. Fellow board member Dennis Spisak, noting that he's a "tradesman" himself, agreed.

"Not everyone's going to go on to college," he said. "I feel that we should offer both sides of the educational process to the students."

The board passed the new option Wednesday, with three voting for it and board President Cheri Farrell voting against. Board member David Marquez was absent.

A number of other high schools, including Bret Harte Union High School District, have already made Career Technical Education classes an option for graduation pursuant to AB 1330.

Bret Harte High Superintendent Mike Chimente said he didn't think the possibility discourages students from taking other classes.

"It's just another way for them to meet the requirements and acknowledge the importance of our CTE program," he said. "You're giving credibility to those as a legitimate life choice too."

Local schools have also expanded their Career Technical Education offerings - reflecting the belief that students should leave prepared for either college, vocational careers or both.

Sonora Union High School District, which runs a popular cosmetology program, added new culinary arts and agriculture courses this year. Summerville High School added an agriculture mechanics class and an agriculture business class. In the past, it has also offered carpentry and welding.

Contact Brenna Swift at bswift@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4529.