As District students make the transition to in-person learning, conversations about educational inequity continue to center on how to most effectively close the achievement gap and redirect youth along the best path to academic and professional success.

For Charles Boston, that discussion cannot happen without the inclusion and expansion of vocational trades programs within the District’s public and public charter schools. A ballot measure Boston recently submitted would obligate the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) to make such changes to the citywide curriculum.

“The programs that exist have too many barriers. Our parents and grandparents had 10 to 15 schools [with vocational training] in their neighborhoods,” said Boston, a one-time D.C. State Board of Education candidate, in reference to Phelps ACE High School, McKinley Technology High School and IDEA Public Charter School.

If Boston’s ballot measure passes, titled the “Elizabeth Davis Education Equity Pathway Policy Act of 2022,” it would allow District students to take fewer traditional credits in exchange for coursework in the allied health, agricultural, environmental and professional trades. Additionally, schools would have more flexibility in providing courses and work-based learning opportunities for students between the 6th and 12th grades.

Boston, who named the ballot measure after the late Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth Davis, submitted it to the DC Board of Elections shortly after her funeral last month. Boston said the ballot measure, formerly named the Vocational Technical Education Graduation Pathway Policy Act of 2020, developed from conversations with Davis about the lack of educational opportunities for young people and research about previous attempts to re-institutionalize trades-based education.

“High school is too late and middle school may be too late,” Boston said. “We need something by the fifth grade to plant the seed. We need to be real about what’s going on. Neither of the District’s vocational high schools are associated with the Frederick Douglass Bridge. You don’t see students going into the trades and they’re [leaving school] unprepared for college and careers.”

OSSE did not return our inquiry about the degree to which the office, or Deputy Mayor Paul Kihn, would embrace a curriculum that prepares middle and high school students for careers as a tradesperson.

However, vocational training has been credited with providing people with practical skills, exposing them to highly-specialized equipment and allowing them to explore career opportunities before moving on to acquire a certification or degree.

Even so, the focus on college preparedness has precipitated the exodus of vocational courses out of U.S. high schools over the last 30 years.

But as college costs increase and mounting debt continues to cripple millennial and baby boomer college graduates, youth who follow them have heeded calls to pivot towards trades-based education. For some, this shift reflects a desire to accumulate income earlier and circumvent years of postsecondary work for white-collar careers with stagnating wages.

Over the last few years, the Career and Technical Education [CTE] Office for DC Public Schools [DCPS] has coordinated programming at the middle and high school levels designed to prepare students for various careers. DCPS offers more than 50 CTE programs with career education pathways at 17 high schools.

A dozen of these schools, including Ballou Senior High School, utilize the NAF College & Career Academy program model. Programs of study include: architecture, aerospace engineering, civil engineering, culinary arts, electrical technology and HVAC.

But Boston, a tradesman with experience in returning citizens workforce development, believes that the status quo remains inadequate. He cites the Washington Metropolitan High School, an alternative educational institution which closed during the 2019-2020 academic year, as an example of how the system failed students. Advocates say prior to its closure, hundreds of youth achieved success after flunking out of traditional public and public charter schools.

Davis counted among those who stood on the frontlines to save Washington Metropolitan. In reflecting on her work, Boston said others must take up the baton which Davis left behind, especially for those students who lose hope early in their educational journey.

“I don’t want Elizabeth Davis’ legacy to disappear,” Boston said. “I found out a lot of [returning citizens I worked with] never got past middle school. A lot of them are reading on a fifth or sixth grade level. I’m trying to figure out where the breakdown occurred.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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