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Vocational Education Forum Reveals Challenges, Opportunities

March 16, 2006 — Representatives from business, industry and education met this week at the St. Croix Career and Technical Education Center, formerly the St. Croix Vocational School, to discuss challenges and solutions for providing a skilled work force to meet the needs of local industry.
The panel of experts — including senators, representatives from Hovensa, the Public Finance Authority, small businesses and other providers — discussed the topic, "Reforming The Impact Of Career And Technical Education On Students, Business, Industry And Community."
"Our purpose here tonight is to highlight the need for a skilled workforce," forum chairperson Alicia Farrelly said as she welcomed an audience of about 100 persons seated under tents erected in one of the center's corridors. Farrelly pointed out that computer and technical jobs are the world's fastest-growing industry and that students must be prepared for that market.
The forum was moderated by Janet Lake and Daniel McIntosh whose questions to the panel included their thoughts on the community's perception of the center and how businesses can provide input into the curriculum. The panel also talked about performance benchmarks to ensure students are qualified to enter into the workforce.
Kenneth Mapp, the PFA's director of finance and administration, suggested the center offer programs like hotel and restaurant management, health care, heavy equipment operation and others. But the community has to be willing to follow up with the resources to make the programs work, he said.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone added graduates should receive certifications to be more credible to future employers. Education Commissioner Noreen Michael said some businesses are saying they cannot find qualified people and that the center should fill those gaps.
Panelist Carl Christiansen, Small Business Administration project officer, said in his interaction with students he found they were most interested in managing credit, budgeting, investing and lending. Christiansen said the students should have a say in what programs the center offers.
Department of Education Coordinator of Vocational and Technical Education Roy Pemberton said vocational education still has a "negative connotation."
Several instructors talked about the challenges of having special-needs or modified instruction students in their classes. Frank Cousins, the boat-building instructor, said special-needs students are an "impediment" to the classroom environment, while masonry instructor Charlie Weaver said the situation is not so "cut and dry," noting that modified instruction students are some of his best students. Food and beverage instructor Bernita Thomas echoed Weaver's sentiments. She said 70 percent of students in the food service class have special needs.
Michael said the situation is "complex and sensitive" and teachers have to bring out the best in all students. "No one has the same capabilities," she said. The commissioner said the decision as to which classes a special-needs student would attend is determined by an Individual Education Plan (IEP) team.
Senator Terrence "Positive" Nelson, a former teacher at the center, said the IEP team is overwhelmed and sometimes makes mistakes in its assessments.
The forum, held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, may have provided a new career for one attendee. A young man in the audience told the panel he is a former student trained in aviation in the military and in private enterprise. He said when he returned to St. Croix, he could not find employment. Omer Erselchuk, Seaborne Airlines vice president, told him he was looking for qualified aviation personnel and the two made arrangements to discuss their options.
Denston Bacchus, another instructor at the center, emphasized the need for vocational education, saying 70 percent of students who graduate from high school do not go to college and "we want to educate that 70 percent."
Other panelists and speakers included Cecelia Knowles, Department of Education St. Croix district superintendent; Alex Moorhead, Hovensa vice president of governmental affairs; and Stefanie Samuel, St. Croix Career and Technical Education Center instructor.
The center is dedicated to providing high school students and adult learners with an opportunity to develop occupations or technical areas of their choice. Some of the courses offered are cosmetology and barbering, food and beverage service, diesel mechanics and welding.
The forum was jointly sponsored by the center and Pinnacle Services, which conducts a craft training program at the center in conjunction with Hovensa.
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