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Making a case for vocational schools at the high school level

Not every student is destined for college or even traditional college-track studies.

opinion-081As I listened to the announcement of the Hemlock Semiconductor plant about to settle in northeast Clarksville, and of the need for not only scientists and technologist but pipe fitters, electricians and other skilled trades, I couldn’t help but think once again of a glaring gap in high school education in Clarksville: vocational education.

Once upon a time “voke” ed meant studies in hairdressing, cosmetology, food service, and basic automotive.

I spent most of my life in New England, where trade schools exists in virtually every city. Not a “token” technology center or a single woodshop class, but an entire dedicated  school with a curriculum that includes at least six major trades and a courseload of “applied” studies in math, English and other subjects that are directly linked to both the physical training and base knowledgeable applicable to  real world jobs upon graduation. Students are bused to voke schools, not left to figure out how to get to an out-of-district school every day.

In Vermont, students board the school bus that runs their district; buses meet at predetermined transfer spots where students hop on the next bus to get to schools either across the city or in many cases other counties. It can work, if the motivation to make such investments are present.

I have watched 15-year-olds mastering CAD-CAM (computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing), 17-year-old chefs turning out gourmet meals, a cadre of teenagers mastering automotive repair including the complex electrical systems (car dealerships donate new cars to the schools for student to tear down and rebuild as part of their training). Building a home, from construction, electrical, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and plumbing, was a senior year requirement in the building trades. The builders were 17- and 18- year-olds.

More than that, I watched my own brother, Michael, shift  from poor elementary student to shining high school graduate in welding and metal fabrication, moving  straight from high school to apprenticeship and ultimately licensure at a fairly young age. It’s his responsibility to ensure that manufactured parts — some large enough to live in — are safe and structurally sound.  He began learning his trade at age 14. In a voke school. He makes what he calls “a damned good living.”

While I remain a huge supporter of higher education ( with two grandchildren attending APSU) and applaud all efforts to develop college programs to fuel new hi-tech and energy-saving green industries and the skilled workforce they require, I simply suggest that there are many other skilled jobs which could be fueled and filled by  a true vocational education at the high school level, and those graduates would emerge at 18 with specific technical skills and be poised for good-paying jobs and apprenticeships and then, perhaps, additional high level technical study; these voke grads could also fill needs across the state of Tennessee.

It baffles me that in Tennessee so many students must wade through college prep or white-collar business studies when they are more suited to applied subjects and specific training in 21st century vocational trades.

Vocational Schools, like magnet schools, have a specific role to play in our educational system. I would simply like to see that kind of education happening here, in Clarksville, Tennessee.



  1. This happening in Hartsville and appears to be successful. It takes a collaborative effort between the local government and higher education, both committing dollars, facilities and other resources.


    It’s a great idea, that hopefully will gain momentum. Tim Barnes, in another COL article, was very supportive of the TTC satellite campus we have here in Clarksville. Contact your elected officials and ask about this.

    Good Article Christine!

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