‘GPA arms race’ impacts career classes

Career-Technical Education classes have experienced a decline in recent years.
Career-Technical Education classes have experienced a decline in recent years. Infographic by Bryce Kroencke.

By Grace Richey and Kellen Browning,
Bluedevilhub.com Staff–

Parents and high-achieving students alike have been pushing for a greater number of rigorous academic courses over the last decade. Sometimes lost in the discussion, however, are the needs of students headed for a job or vocational program after high school.

According to Steve Smyte, chair of the Special Education department at Davis High, a great deal of the recent surge in difficult academic classes is “driven by parent desires, and the reality is, the parents of students in […] AP-type classes are very vocal in their desire to have those types of classes.”

“[We] keep upping the arms race in AP and honors classes, yet the voice sometime for the student who isn’t on that track isn’t heard,” Smyte added.

These students include both those not ready or willing to take advanced academic classes as well as students with disabilities.

Tommy Ruiz, a 2006 DHS graduate, struggled with Down syndrome–a developmental disorder that affects roughly 400,000 Americans–throughout high school and community college, where he majored in culinary arts.

Now Ruiz spends his days maneuvering around tables and restaurant guests as he busses down tables at Crepeville.

“I’ve been there for years,” Ruiz said. According to Tommy’s mother Stella Ruiz, it’s been eight.

“He has worked at Crepeville longer than anyone else working there now,” Stella said.

Like many students with disabilities, Tommy Ruiz was able to participate in most aspects of high school, and in particular “had great memories of being in plays and musicals,” Stella said.

However, Tommy Ruiz did not take advanced academic classes, and although he later majored in culinary arts, he found little support for his interest in high school.

“There was one cooking class; [class selection] was pretty limited,” recalled Stella.

Smyte is concerned that students in the special education program and those who are not planning on attending a four-year university are seeing their class options drastically decreasing.

“The issue with me is [that there are] students who are not on that four year track,” Smyte said. “Maybe you want to be in construction, maybe you want to be in culinary arts. The offering at this school, for those particular classes, are pathetic in my opinion.”

Smyte has noticed the recent neglect of CTE (Career-Technical Education) classes, which are geared towards preparing students for the workforce, which he suggests is directly related to the increased focus on academic courses.

Smyte believes that AP and honors courses are given more consideration than their practical counterparts. Graphic by Bryce Kroencke
Smyte believes that AP and honors courses are given more consideration than their practical counterparts. Infographic by Bryce Kroencke

“I do have an issue with us offering more AP and honors classes while our […] CTE classes are nonexistent,” Smyte added.

Another side effect of the growing number of weighted classes is a divide between students at different levels of academics.

“[When you’ve] taken so many honors classes, you haven’t really had the opportunity to interact with students with disabilities,” Stella said.

She believes that this gap hurts both types of students.

“I feel like for […] non-disabled peers, it’s such a gift to be able to experience and relate and therefore overcome all of these fears based on ignorance. It plays out for those with disabilities in the sense that there [are] less of their peers who understand them and have had that experience and are informed by it […] in the future,” Stella said.

According to statistics provided by Tessler, the growing divide is noticeable; there has been a significant increase in the number of weighted classes at DHS over the years, with a total of 16 AP and four honors classes offered during the 2003-2004 school year, compared to 19 AP and 11 honors for the 2013-2014 year.

The number of Regional Occupation Courses (ROP; now known as CTE), however, has remained steady, with only a slight increase from seven in 2003-2004 to eight this past school year.

The new Honors Designation Subcommittee has recently been formed to examine the proliferation of advanced classes and “define the criteria for which a course is honors,” according to head librarian Bruce Cummings, who also described the demand for more weighted classes as an “arms race.”

In particular, the subcommittee is trying to speed up the creation of new practical CTE classes; at a meeting on Oct. 15, members joined the school wide Curriculum and Instruction Committee to discuss a new introductory robotics course.

“This is extremely hands-on,” said Steve Harvey, a DHS math teacher and coach of the robotics team, at the meeting.

“The kids are literally building this robot from the ground up […] they get to use that to explore all kinds of different scientific principles […] and I would welcome kids from special ed to be involved,” Harvey said.

The subcommittee is also considering adding the honors designation to some CTE courses.

“Maybe they’re not so good at math but they’re good at art,” Cummings said, suggesting that this could lead to the creation of an honors art course. “If we look at some of the areas in which special needs students can succeed […] they ought to be able to succeed at the honors level.”

The new subcommittee and renewed dedication to providing technical classes gives Smyte hope that the school will improve its offerings for all students–not just the academically advanced.

“We want to go visit some other [CTE] programs in different schools and see if we can start incorporating some of those things,” he said. “I think that the teachers here are on board with this […] and the administration I think recognizes that we don’t have enough options for students who maybe aren’t on that four-year track.”

Smyte sees this process of brainstorming ideas from other schools as the first step in real change for DHS. But for the school to improve significantly, the district has to be fully on board.

“That first step is ‘what is out there.’ The second step is how can we bring that to our school and have that work for our community, and then the third step is to actually have the district commit the resources to have that occur,” Smyte said.

Smyte hopes that eventually all students–with disabilities or otherwise–will be able to study the subjects they are interested in.

Tommy would have enjoyed the Culinary Arts/ROP Food Service and Hospitality class, but it was not offered during his years at DHS. It’s been taken out of the course catalog due to “space limitations and the lack of enrollment,” CTE teacher Jeanne Pettigrew said.

Instead, Ruiz and his family had to work on their own to find a career. Tommy now works at Crepeville, as well as the Nugget Market and the Buckhorn Steakhouse in Winters.

At Buckhorn, he has been able to combine his love of the San Francisco Giants with his love for food service by working during the World Series.

“All those Giants fans are going to get really into it,” Ruiz said before the final game. “It’s going to be crazy.”

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