SMMUSD HDQTRS — In a city where almost 63 percent of the population has at least a bachelor’s degree, the words “vocational training” can take on a distasteful patina.

In Sally Chou’s view, people are looking at it wrong.

Chou, the chief academic officer of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, is spearheading an initiative called Linked Learning at Santa Monica High School, a program that gives students the opportunity to train for a career path before they even apply to college.

Beginning next school year, 20 juniors will have the opportunity to enroll in elective classes that introduce them to careers in computer studies or editing for commercial television.

The computer studies program, run using the Cisco Networking Certification Program, leaves the successful student with the certification needed for an entry-level position as a network technician.

There’s a stigma attached with workforce training, that it’s only for “those kids” that can’t make it in a college or university environment, Chou said, but that’s not what Linked Learning is about.

The program will offer a chance for kids to get interested in career paths so they know what interests them when they get to college and don’t waste their time or money.

It also helps them make connections between the sometimes abstract material they learn in classes like geometry and where that information comes up in their everyday life.

Studies show that students that participate in an industry-themed pathway that combines both academics and career technical education perform better, according to the Career Academy Support Network from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.

Furthermore, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in the next decade, 80 percent of jobs in the nation will require more than a high school degree.

Forty-five percent of jobs will be “middle skill,” meaning they need at least some post-secondary education and training.

Accessing that while still in high school opens doors for students, giving them the option to go directly to college with an idea of what they want to do or test the waters of the workplace immediately.

Either is better than getting an expensive degree from a four-year institution with no idea of how to apply it to real life, Chou told school board members Thursday.

“This is all about kids,” Chou said. “It makes sure that they make connections with what they’re learning and real life situations.”

The program or others like it aren’t entirely new to the district.

Students can already get into a “pre-promo” pathway offered at Virginia Avenue Park and Olympic High School. The program continues at Santa Monica College.

A similar concept in marine sciences emerged organically at Samohi under the tutelage of teacher Benjamin Kay.

Kay’s students take the lessons they get in class on the road, sampling water around Santa Monica’s beaches for bacteria.

“He’s not calling it anything, but he’s already got the environmental science aspect and he’s doing service learning,” Chou said.

The program would start small, but would grow as interest increases.

In 2013, Chou hopes to include three more pathways, including pre-engineering, environmental studies and “Allied Health,” which introduces students to a wide range of health-related fields.

As the programs grow, the focus will shift to increasing connections between the professions that students see in school and what’s available in Santa Monica.

City officials dubbed the town “Silicon Beach” at its State of the City address in January because of the burgeoning number of technology firms and venture capital companies that have set up shop in its sunny climes.

It only makes sense to take advantage of those resources for internships and work experience for high school students, Chou said.

Board members responded favorably to the concept Thursday night, although Boardmember Ralph Mechur raised concerns that with students still failing to acquire the base-level skills they need in reading and mathematics, it might make more sense to focus on those skills rather than adding extra classes.

“This is something we need to focus on, a way to engage students in a new way,” said Boardmember Oscar de la Torre.

In the end, the program will come down to allocating resources.

The first year, which will enroll 20 students in an Internet technology essentials course, will cost an estimated $31,000, and the second year with a total of 40 students will be approximately $59,000.

Much of the instruction costs will be covered by grant funding, approximately $39,000.

More funding would be needed for a “service learning” component, which would help students fulfill community service requirements with projects that connected them with activities or causes of interest, much like Kay’s marine science class.

That could run up an estimated $80,000 for teacher time and a new coordinator position.

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