Second in a series
By TOM HONIG
Last week the Chamber of Commerce presented data about the local retail economy. The night before, the County Office of Education presented its first Regional Occupational Program Advisory Night -- an opportunity for business people to get involved in local career education.
The two events have a connection.
One of the problems that retailers have in Santa Cruz is that an astonishing 85 percent of retail purchasing by Santa Cruz residents goes outside the county. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one big explanation is that so many people -- 30,000 or more -- travel outside the county to go to work. They shop where they work. At the same time, local employers fret that they have jobs available for qualified workers -- but they can't find them here in town.
That's where the County Office of Education's ROP program fits in. Yes, it's vocational education, but with a big difference from the old days. Mark Hodges, director of the program, explained it this way: "We've come a long way from the vocational ed of the past. Our program gives kids a reason to learn and stay in school."
In other words, ROP actually blends vocational ed with college prep. Hodges explained it this way: "If I was going to learn to fly a plane and could choose to be taught by someone with a degree in civil aeronautics who hasn't flown a plane or some who has flown -- I'd choose the one who had actually flown a plane."
That's who teaches in ROP -- those with work experience who go through a special credentialed program. The list of available programs is impressive -- from agribusiness to web design, from athletic training to construction.
These applied programs don't subtract from scholastic programs. They add to it. For example, imagine a student trying to memorize biology concepts. Take that same student and put her in a sports medicine class and she'll be motivated to learn about injuries at the cellular level.
This, in a nutshell, is how education can help the Santa Cruz economy. It won't happen overnight. But the ROP program serves more than 4,000 students a year in some 40 different courses. Also, the program coordinates its programs with Cabrillo College, also an important institution in the preparation for jobs.
That's not to say there aren't challenges. Rock Pfotenhauer, a dean at Cabrillo College, shared with the audience a shocking statistic: that only about 10 percent of incoming freshman are college ready. The question is whether there's a solution.
These are challenging times for education, both here and across the country. Is occupational learning the solution? It's worth a shot.