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PCC and High Schools Carve New Path for Students

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By Bonnie Darves

"We saw the high school technical academy as a chance to reach a group of students who needed a college experience right now to keep them in school."

–Russ Joki, superintendent, Tigard-Tualatin School District

Photo: High Schoolers Brian Tate and Karina Brown, two of the PCC Technical High School Academy’s first Class.

A largely ignored component of education reform, technical training, received a boost last summer when PCC launched its new High School Technical Academy. Offered in partnership with local high schools, the academy enables juniors and seniors to get a jump start on college credit while they earn their diplomas.

Best of all, students can take classes in a wide range of professional and technical areas, depending on their aptitude and interests. The academy offers more than 20 discrete programs, ranging from architectural drafting technology and international business to mechanical engineering and early childhood education.

Director Gert Bernstein notes that the academy really isn’t an alternative program. "We think of this as an option, not alternative education," Bernstein says. "What we’re really trying to do is prevent kids from dropping through the cracks, on the assumption that they’re not getting everything they need in the high school setting."

The program is intended to address under-challenged, rather than poorly performing students. Students who enter the technical academy must be "academically fit," Bernstein notes, and must take an ASSET placement test to determine their academic readiness. They take lower-level classes in math and English, if necessary, before entering the academy. Courses are offered at the Sylvania and Rock Creek campuses, and eventually will be offered at all PCC campuses.

Bernstein expects fall enrollment to top 40, with rapid growth in future terms as the word gets out. The enrollment includes students in the Building Construction Technology program at Rock Creek which is a partnership with the Beaverton School District.

To date, the Tigard-Tualatin School District has shown the most interest in the academy, and is actively promoting its programs on an individual student basis. The district also is picking up the tab for students who enroll either part time or full time.

Tigard-Tualatin Superintendent Russ Joki says, "We saw the high school technical academy as a chance to reach a group of students who needed a college experience right now to keep them in school. As a program, it’s giving students relevant, challenging learning. The program was President Moriarty’s idea, and we see it as another way Portland Community College connects to K-12."

Karen Twain, a Tualatin High School counselor, says she’s pleased to be able to offer the option to students seeking practical learning opportunities. "High school really isn’t for everybody. We have alternative programs, but they’re mostly for credit recovery. This is quite different." She’s convinced already that the technical academy is filling a need. "When you have 15 kids sign up in one term, you know there was a need," she says.

The academy’s computer software engineering program might further the career of one budding entrepreneur, Brian Tate. The Tigard High School junior, who enrolled at PCC last summer, is a self-professed computer whiz who has been operating his own consulting firm, Brightware Software, since he was 13.

He sees the program as a way to expand his already considerable knowledge base while he gets a head start on his associate’s degree, and eventually, a bachelor’s in computer science. "When I heard about the academy from my counselor, I was very interested. It seemed like the ideal thing for me," says Tate. "I’ve been into computers since I was 6 years old, and I plan to make my living in the field."

One of the academy’s other options, Fitness Technology, proved the perfect fit for Karina Brown. A longtime sports buff who excels in soccer, cross-country and track, the Tualatin High School senior was also the first girl to play on her junior high football team. Although Brown hasn’t decided on a career, she plans to work in the fitness field initially.

"I had planned to go to PCC anyway, but this gives me a way to get some of my credits before I leave high school," Brown says. "I only needed two classes to graduate, and I was thinking it was going to be sort of a wasted year until I found out about the technical academy."

Brown says she was a little nervous about making the transition to the college setting, but found the experience less intimidating than she expected.

PCC President Dan Moriarty says the college envisioned the program as a way to share resources in an increasingly challenging funding environment and address a startling statistic: 26 percent of Oregon’s high school students drop out, many of them for lack of challenge. "Ironically, the education reform bill, House Bill 3565, was named to call attention to the fact that only 35 percent of high school graduates went on to four-year colleges or universities, leaving 65 percent out of the equation," Moriarty says.

He notes that while education reform is making strides in the college preparedness area, the promised technical training option hasn’t received similar attention.

"The technical academy is a good start. It’s not for everyone, but it is an avenue for the many students out there who have other interests, and who might be more motivated if there were other options," say Moriarty.

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