Harry Jaffe: Help wanted for Construction Trades Foundation

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe

Vocational education has been the ugly duckling of public schooling for years. Allow me to apply the politically correct and cleansed moniker: "career and technical education."

Decades ago we all took carpentry, auto mechanics or home economics. Most school districts had at least one vo-ed facility where students could graduate prepared for jobs in the building trades.

"It doesn't get the kind of respect the core curriculum gets," Carol Randolph tells me. Randolph is chief operations officer for the DC Students Construction Trades Foundation. "We certainly don't get the respect we need."

The lack of respect, funding, teachers and students has put Randolph's foundation in jeopardy. Begun in 2002 as a vehicle for the D.C. region's successful developers and builders to fund construction education in DC Public Schools, the foundation's program has not exactly thrived. A few years ago it graduated 15 students. This year the number is nine.

At the foundation's annual luncheon on Wednesday, developers will celebrate their students and teachers, as well they should. As Randolph says, it's been "a struggle" to maintain the foundation's academy at Cardozo High School. But the program has also prepared graduates for jobs or college at a rate of 90 percent, according to its annual report.

But what began as five courses -- carpentry, plumbing, HVAC (heating and cooling), electrical and masonry -- is down to two. DCPS funds one carpentry teacher. The foundation forks over funds for the instructor in electrical classes.

The foundation started with good intentions, high hopes and contributions from the private sector. Randolph, who works for Miller & Long Construction Co., recalls touring Montgomery County's Thomas Edison High School of Technology in 2001. She marveled at its programs in construction, architecture and design.

"Why don't we have one?" she asked. Founding President John McMahon, chairman of Miller & Long, coaxed other builders and developers to finance the foundation. Their academy opened in 2005.

It has done well, in the bowels of Cardozo High. Students helped build a house on 13th Street in Columbia Heights, and it sold for $385,000. Net proceeds went back to the foundation, Randolph says.

But Cardozo cut math teachers and vocational instructors for English, leaving the academy with two classes. Meanwhile, the District opened Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High, equipped with the classrooms and tools that Randolph admired at Thomas Edison High.

So whither the foundation's academy?

The renovated Cardozo is scheduled to open this fall with better facilities for the academy's 126 students. Randolph is hoping the new principal will be more willing to fill its teaching slots.

But the foundation and its academy need more than hope. They need commitment -- either more teachers from DCPS or funds from the private sector.

The answer might be a charter school. If Marriott could help establish a Hospitality High, why can't the model work for builders and developers?

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonexaminer.com.

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