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Learning new life skills is always a good idea

Back in my day, we called it “vo-tech.” These days, they have all sorts of fancy words for the classes that are structured toward skills-learning. It’s either a “technical center” or a “career center.”

But it’s the same thing. It’s a place where high school students can learn a skill. Some programs offer woodworking, auto mechanics, electrical classes, etc. There was a stigma associated with vo-tech classes 20 years ago when I was in school, and unfortunately, there still is.

I signed up for my first vo-tech class — agricultural sciences — in ninth grade. My father protested and called the school principal to get me unassigned from that course. In his mind, my desire to take vo-tech classes meant I wasn’t going to college.

That wasn’t the case, and I eventually convinced him of that. I took courses in the ag program for the rest of my high school years and loved every minute of it.

I learned to grow tomatoes from seed, how to operate a greenhouse, how to tell the difference between various types of milk simply by taste, and all sorts of other things that I still use today. I learned the ins and outs of re-planting timber forests, how to tell a T-bone from a porterhouse, and where to find the best produce in the area.

It was the kind of education everyone got 75 years ago when schools were sometimes nothing more than one-room buildings with a single teacher. My agricultural vo-tech education did not prepare me for college courses, did not help me land my first job or help me negotiate a raise later in life. But it helped round out my education in ways that more trigonometry courses could not.

Those courses allowed me to discover a love of gardening that I still have today. Vo-tech was also a nice break from the monotony of a traditional eight-hour school day. For two hours, I was elbow deep in dirt and loving it.

I expect the students at the Brookhaven Technical Center feel the same way about their courses. One class in particular was featured in the newspaper this week. Students in the automotive service and repair class are learning all sorts of things that will prove useful later in life, even if they go on to college.

They learn the basics of car care and repair by using professional tools to experiment on donated cars. It’s what they used to call “shop class” but on steroids. BTC has advanced equipment that gives students real-world experience working on autos. The program has even earned accreditation from the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation.

I wish I could have taken classes like that when I was in high school. Some students will likely leave the program and head straight to the workforce. When they do, they will be a step ahead of other job applicants. Others will go to college and find a career that has nothing to do with auto repair. But they will have a skill set that comes in handy, whether they are doctors or lawyers or small business owners.

“Not everyone is going to go to a four-year college, so what we do is try to prepare them for a skill in high demand, get them acclimated to those skills and move them on to a junior college where they can enhance those skills, or even step into the workforce straight from here,” said Trevor Brister, principal of the technical center. “Getting students into the workforce — that’s pretty much our ultimate goal.”

Thalial Lopez, a 16-year-old junior, wants to be a pediatrician — or a mechanic, she’s not sure yet.  But she’s not afraid of the work involved in the auto course.

“Most girls think this is for boys — they don’t want to get dirty. But I grew up in a house full of boys,” she said. “This makes me feel good. To just come in here and get your hands on the work.”

If nothing else, Lopez will learn whether or not she wants to be a mechanic. And she will have a new set of skills that will be useful for the rest of her life.

How can you argue with the desire to learn a new skill in a non-traditional classroom environment? Yet some do. Some parents are so focused on ACT scores, they lose sight of what’s best for their children. My advice: Let them take vo-tech classes if they are interested. It will teach them to be hard-working, well-rounded students. That looks great on any resume.

Publisher Luke Horton can be reached at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.