The man lay there on the table, completely unresponsive.

Lionell Jones, 19, checked for a pulse.

No luck.

No surprise, either: the man, or rather mannequin, was made out of plastic. Jones, an emergency medical technician trainee, was taking a test. What would he do if he found a person lying unconscious on the ground?

Jones inserted a breathing tube into the dummy’s mouth with gloved hands.

“If this guy started gagging right now, what would you do?” asked his Berkeley Fire Department teacher, Justin Ironside.

“Take it out immediately and use the NPA,” or nasal tube, answered Jones. Ironside nodded, and the student confidently slid the plastic straw up the doll’s nose.

Jones just completed the Emergency Medical Technician class at Berkeley Adult School, the second in a sequence of fire-science courses he began taking at Berkeley High, before he graduated in 2017. The EMT class, taught by a paramedic, is made up of Berkeley High seniors and recent graduates like Jones.

Once students complete the course, they’re qualified to take the EMT license exam. The hands-on experience they need with patients comes from ride-alongs with Berkeley Fire. The course is in its fourth year, and already many graduates are working on ambulances, according to BUSD.

Like other districts around the country, Berkeley Unified has boosted its “career technical education” (CTE) offerings in recent years. CTE refers to “pathways,” or sequences, of courses that build upon each other, preparing students for potential work in a particular industry, through internships, career preparation lessons, or classroom visits and mentorship from professionals. This school year, more than a quarter of Berkeley High was enrolled in these classes.

The move away from conventional academics might sound familiar to those who recall boys getting their hands greasy in auto shop classes or working with wood while girls learned how to thread needles and measure cups of flour in home economics.

But advocates for CTE take pains to dispel the idea that it’s a repackaging of old-fashioned vocational education. Those courses were shunned in the 1990s, when it became clear some students were being plucked for a college track, and others, often students of color, were being funneled into blue-collar careers at a young age, without other options being presented to them. (Vocational education has its roots in the class divisions of the early 20th century, and the segregation was criticized even then.)

Berkeley High graduate Lionell Jones waits with Fire Department mentor DeJuan Turner, who helps run the EMT training program. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Educators and advocates took a new tack, and began teaching students that anyone could, and should, go to college. More jobs were requiring higher degrees, too. And, in 2001, No Child Left Behind zeroed in on reading and math test scores, further renewing a focus on traditional academics.

Wyn Skeels, who runs BUSD’s CTE program, understands the desire to drop the wood shops.

Back then, “I understand it was really a tracked thing, and there were two Berkeley Highs going on. Instead of fixing that, we got rid of the voc-ed track…It’s all college prep, all the time,” he said.

Skeels said CTE doesn’t prevent anyone from going to college — in fact, pathways like the computer science sequence can give kids a leg up when they get there. CTE courses are typically electives supplementing regular college-prep classes, and they always include academics, some more extensively than others.

But by giving students exposure to industry while they’re still in high school, the district hopes to equip them with the skills they need to get a job straight after graduation, or to seamlessly continue the pathway at a local community college, if they want, or need to.

“We want our students to be able to afford to stay here,” Skeels said. “I know our parents are very much concerned about, ‘How do my kids move out of my basement and live in the Bay Area?’ Wherever possible, we want to land our students high-wage, high-growth, regional employment.”

The fire-service and emergency-response program, called B-STEP for Berkeley Safety Training and Education Pathway, is one of the most established CTE sequences in BUSD. The district and BFD have long worked to add a third step in the pathway, a paramedic training class at a local community college for B-STEP graduates, as BFD requires its firefighters to be paramedics.

Another long-term BUSD pathway, focused on biotechnology, was born out of an agreement between the city and Bayer HealthCare when the pharmaceutical giant expanded its footprint in Berkeley in the 1990s. Berkeley High’s computer science and digital media classes, a law and social justice course, and others, fall under the CTE umbrella too.

Most CTE courses are at Berkeley High, but Longfellow Middle School has a new “makerspace” too. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The district is also preparing to launch new carpentry and stagecraft programs, and robotics engineering and electronics classes, all housed in a new “fabrication lab” at the school in the fall. Those programs will move into the large space recently vacated by Berkeley Community Media, creating a home-base for an engineering and design pathway, and opening up opportunities to partner with universities and companies.

“People are so shocked when they understand Berkeley High has never really had engineering,” Skeels said. “It is really like a giant liberal arts college next to one of the best engineering programs” at Cal.

“Lots of students are really excited. I know of one 3D printer at Berkeley High. A lot of neighboring schools give access to these tools. We’re changing that. We haven’t had, until this year, a place for that to happen,” said Skeels, who’s worked at Berkeley High since 1997, with a short stint away to work in finance. He began as an English and history teacher, then headed up a BHS “small school,” where he got excited about incorporating work experience. He dove into researching the possibilities, and the district created the CTE position for him two years ago.

“We want our students to be able to afford to stay here.”

“I got more passionate about this kind of work,” Skeels said. “I love social studies, and I majored in English, but I also understand how expensive college is and how critical student loan debt is.”

The state has been on his side, pushing districts to ramp up CTE programs, and providing grants that help them to do so. Programs must correspond to one of 15 industry sectors, ranging from agriculture and natural resources to fashion and interior design. Districts like BUSD pick and choose which make sense in their local markets. In the Bay Area, that can mean preparing students for a wide variety of roles in the tech field, where high-wage jobs abound but are often inaccessible to local would-be applicants who aren’t trained for them.

Labor shortages in several industries helped give rise to the CTE movement, said the California Department of Education.

There is a “need for skilled and technical labor in industries such as construction, manufacturing, green energy and information technologies,” said Donna Wyatt, director of the department’s Career & College Transition Division, in an email. “The current workforce is rapidly approaching retirement. There are not enough skilled individuals to meet the growing needs of these industries.”

Berkeley Unified built its program on a matching grant from the state, totaling about $1.4 million over three years, Skeels said. “Berkeley was in a unique position,” and was able to match that amount with facilities bond money, Skeels’s salary and other expenses, he said.

However, that state grant program is expiring this summer, and districts like BUSD were worried about how they would keep up their shiny new programs and continue to meet state expectations without the support. For the first time, schools and districts are being held accountable to the state for college/career readiness, through the new California School Dashboard. CTE pathways are part of the evaluation.

Now, Governor Jerry Brown has signed his final California budget, which maintains state support for CTE. The budget approved Wednesday includes an ongoing $150 million extension of the CTE grant program, a paired-down version of an Assembly bill, which had bipartisan support, that would have guaranteed $500 million for the program.

“This is good news for CTE, as there is now dedicated funding for CTE, but not at the levels we have seen over the past three years,” Skeels said.

A robotics team made up mostly of Berkeley High students, who work with UC Berkeley mentors, won first place at the international First Robotics competition last year. Next year, BHS will offer CTE robotics engineering courses. Photo: The Bay Orangutans

In Skeels’s view, it’s been impossible for districts to establish sustainable CTE programs with only a few years of support, given new budget crunches and increasing pension obligations.

The state budget also has $150 million for K-12 workforce development facilitated through community colleges. Skeels said it’s unclear to educators how exactly that funding can be used, but he hopes to work it out through his existing relationship with the Peralta Colleges.

BUSD has also received a minor amount of federal funding through the Perkins Act. When Skeels began his job, BUSD was being audited by the federal government, which found a number of violations related to CTE.  A state webpage shows those issues are now resolved.

One of the findings illuminated an ongoing challenge in BUSD and beyond. The audit said BUSD needs to establish more “coherent sequences,” courses that go deeper and deeper into a subject, that students take in a logical order. Berkeley’s system was too haphazard, the 2016 report said.

Getting kids to use all their limited electives on one string of related classes can be a hard sell, and, some educators believe, a trade-off with a well-rounded education.

“We want kids to explore,” Skeels said. “The state really wants us to do this vertical alignment, where kids get into a pathway and go through three classes in a sequence. We will be graded on that, and that’s the focus.”

Berkeley High students get front row seats to fire fighting

After saving the mannequin’s life, Lionell Jones joined his Berkeley Fire Department mentors to go help out some actual living people.

After “staging” near Civic Center Park, where a person was reportedly in the middle of a mental-health crisis and had set a shirt on fire, the crew learned they were no longer needed. The firefighter at the steering wheel switched paths, to the Kaplan Test Prep office downtown, where a young woman had been stuck in an elevator for an hour. The men tried a few different tactics, eventually freeing her without damaging the building.

Students like Jones “are literally going on whatever crews go on. We keep them at a distance, but they’re right there,” said Assistant Fire Chief David Sprague. Whether they end up pursuing the career or not, “We’re exposing them to fire science — how fires start, how to put fires out — all things useful in life. They get to handle tools and ladders, and learn basic safety. They leave high school with CPR certification and an EMT license.”

It was Jones’s first day riding along in the fire engine, an “adrenaline rush” for someone who was first drawn to fire science by his love of cars — and by a friend who’d recommended the Berkeley High class.

He quickly discovered the course also involved hardcore chemistry, and a lot of new terminology. But he stuck with it, continuing after graduating, even while also juggling a job at a hotel.

“We show these homegrown kids [the career] is tangible, if you have the right personality, the right drive, and the willingness to learn and serve other people,” said Victor Quilici, a BFD captain. “If you get into gangs and drugs, you’re off the path.”

Berkeley High graduate Lionell Jones experienced an “adrenaline rush” the first time he rode in a fire engine. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Berkeley High graduate Lionell Jones experienced an “adrenaline rush” the first time he rode in a fire engine. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

For Jones, it’s not just voice of these mentors, but his father’s also, that rings in his head, as he keeps up the challenging work.

“My dad tells me this every day too, to never set up for failure,” Jones said.

With B-STEP, his opportunities to succeed are greater than they would be otherwise.

“For many of us it was a lot more scattered. You absorbed information when you could, you found mentorships, but we have laid it out for them. You could literally save three to five years by having a direct path,” said firefighter DeJuan Turner, who leads B-STEP from the BFD side and mentors some of the students.

The department can’t afford to wait those three to five years either.

“We have had a recruiting challenge forever,” Sprague said. The assistant chief is a rare BFD member who grew up in Berkeley, but he said departments throughout the Bay Area are populated heavily with North Bay natives, as some rural schools there never cut their vocational programs. Some firefighters say it’s important to have some employees with a history in the community, as they perform sensitive tasks, often in people’s homes. The requirement that Berkeley firefighters be paramedics, as BFD has its own ambulances, drains the recruitment pool even further.

“Berkeley Fire has had a recruiting challenge forever.”

The heavily male-dominated department (at 8% women, it’s actually better than the national average, according to Chief Dave Brannigan) has a program targeting potential female recruits too.

Jones said his EMT class is about half male, half female.

Berkeley Unified is proud that CTE demographics reflect, more or less, the general Berkeley High student body, though white students are better represented. According to figures shared by BUSD with Berkeleyside, white students make up 40% of CTE students and 35.7% of the general student body. Latino students represent 23.7% of CTE and 26.2% of BHS. Black students make up 14.4% of CTE and 18.3% of BHS. The Asian population is about 8% of each.

How to avoid racist tracking systems

School districts have a fine line to walk. How do you recruit students of color for CTE pathways with the goal of opening avenues into white-dominated industries, while avoiding reverting back to a racist tracking system where students get segregated into vocational classes?

For one, these are, ideally, pathways into well-paying modern jobs demanding high skill levels. Firefighting is “no longer blue-collar,” said Sprague, who said all his colleagues are constantly engaged in continuing education.

And, “no matter what the CTE class is, there are transferable skills — how do you show up on time, and of course getting your resume set up,” Skeels said.

There is a small gender gap in Berkeley CTE as well, with male students making up 55.6% of the CTE program, but 48.5% of the whole student body.

Still, these figures are remarkable in certain pathways. Computer science courses, for example, look quite different than the pretty homogenous fields they’re leading to.

Renderings for the brand new engineering and design fabrication lab at Berkeley High. Photo: SVA Architects/BUSD

Companies, tech and otherwise, have an interest in supporting CTE programs, which can help them cultivate young, diverse, entry-level talent.

Chevron, for example, supports a wide range of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education efforts around the Bay Area, from teacher training to after-school programs and curriculum development.

“In addition to helping  the communities where we operate — these investments help us,” says Chevron’s webpage on the initiatives. “Tomorrow’s Chevron engineers are today’s schoolchildren.”

Are these investments from corporations giving them undue influence over curriculum, then? Are high-school internships provided by local companies simply cheap labor for employers?

“Those are good questions to ask,” Skeels said. “Are we letting industry drive education? It’s more that we want our students to be employable, to understand what the world looks like and make informed decisions. No, we’re not branding.”

Even with “ins” at local companies, CTE students have to work hard to succeed in their chosen fields.

When Jose Mendoza started at Berkeley High, he waited anxiously for his junior year, when he could start taking biotech classes. The 2007 graduate had cousins he admired who’d gone through the pathway and landed jobs “fresh out of high school.”

The courses, and a hands-on, paid summer internship at Bayer, lived up to the hype.

“The teachers were super awesome. They had field experience and understood exactly what we needed to learn,” said Mendoza, now 29.

“Are we letting industry drive education? It’s more that we want our students to be employable.”

Mendoza followed the pathway to a final third year at Laney College, to get his certificate in bioscience. What’s now called Biotech Partners — the third party overseeing the CTE program at BHS and other schools — gave students professional clothing from JC Penney, made everyone open a bank account and conducted mock interviews.

Even with the preparation, however, Mendoza was startled by the difficulty of college-level coursework and of finding a job. And then he graduated in 2008, when even the professional connections he’d built were losing their own jobs.

What followed was a period of temp work, unemployment, a nasty graveyard-shift gig, a great start-up job and more unemployment. Then, he found the job he has now and loves at Bayer, where he helps ferment cells that will eventually be manufactured into a hemophilia drug. It’s still night-shift, but this time it’s by choice.

It wasn’t an easy road after graduation, but Mendoza maintained a strong work ethic, and credits the Berkeley High classes with much of his success.

“I do more of the stuff I learned in high school daily than I did in that year of community college,” he said. “Literally one of the first things I learned, how to use a micropipette, I still do this year.”

Some of his peers “used the program as a stepping stone to go to college. I didn’t even apply to colleges. I was like, this is what I’m doing,” he said.

“My Plan B was state college, but I wasn’t going to go very far. I didn’t have the means,” said Mendoza, part of the first generation of his family to get a higher degree. “I would have done that, and then God knows what.”

Student Lionell Jones observes as firefighters try to release a woman stuck in an elevator in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Can techies teach?

Across California, there is a shortage of teachers qualified for CTE classes, according to the state.

“CTE teachers must come to the classroom with a high degree of industry knowledge. However, they also need professional development in instructional design, effective teaching practices and classroom management,” said the Department of Education’s Wyatt.

There are new mechanisms in place for classroom teachers to get CTE credentials — and streamlined processes allowing professionals to teach classes.

In high-paying fields, it’s not easy persuading many to give up cushy or cutting-edge jobs for a classroom.

Others are looking to do just that, but assume there are barriers. One of those was a former Microsoft engineer who found more fulfillment volunteering as a mentor with Berkeley High’s robotics club, Skeels said. She thought the only way to teach was to get a traditional single-subject credential, so she was pursuing a career as a math teacher even though she wanted to teach coding.

“I’m like whoa, you don’t have to do this!” said Skeels. “Within two weeks, we had her CTE-credentialed.”

The main requirement for that license is industry experience, though once they’re in the classroom, they “have to work backwards to clear that credential” with courses on instruction and pedagogy, Skeels said.

The push to get professionals in the classroom could be concerning for experienced educators, who say teaching requires extensive training and skills beyond content knowledge.

“Whenever possible, we do get our own teachers” CTE-credentialed, including about eight last year, said Skeels.

The industry experience requirement can be a hurdle for long-time teachers, but some can qualify.

Ira Holston, a veteran Berkeley High math teacher, pieced together long-ago work with a computer company, experience teaching computer science courses, and some years of attending a regular professional gathering with other computer teachers and Professor Dan Garcia at UC Berkeley. It still took a year to assemble the paperwork, said Holston.

“It’s a weakness of that program. If you’re going to pursue this and you’re already a teacher, or in industry, someone has to pay you to do it and help you through it,” he said.

Once a teacher has a CTE credential, districts can add certain courses and qualify for new funding sources.

In some of his courses, Holston brings in volunteer tech professional from the TEALS program, like Khan Academy’s Pamela Fox. They teach early-morning classes with help from Holston.

For professionals who want that experience, it’s a sweet deal. “They get to be teacher without anything teachers in America have to do — like grading and disciplining,” Holston said. “They’re good teachers, but they don’t have that eyes-in-the-back-of-their-head thing. That’s the cool thing — they don’t need those skills, I’m there.”

Holston and his students benefit greatly from the volunteers’ smarts.

“They’re clearly at a whole different level than I’ll ever be,” said the teacher. “There’s a reason these guys get paid a lot of money — they have to stay current and it’s hard stuff. That’s not what I get paid to do.”

It’s been an exercise in humility for the math teacher, who’s used to knowing course material in and out, and always having an answer for his students.

In a field moving as quickly as coding, and one that’s bewildering to many adults who didn’t grow up attached to smartphones, even those tech professionals might meet their matches in some self-taught Berkeley students.

But, for the teenagers who can use CTE courses, Holston said, “If they really throw themselves into it, really do their own projects, then continue that into junior college and an internship, they’ll be off doing that amazing thing our society respects quite a bit.”

Top photo, of Lionell Jones taking an EMT test with Justin Ironside, by Natalie Orenstein.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...