The vocational program created in part by Diane Culpepper at Winter Tech Park in Florida’s Orange County frequently attracts older students who are looking to change careers and gain new job skills.

Jan 15 2008

Proficiency and Paychecks

Florida school mixes technology learning with a dose of real-life experience to create ready-to-work graduates.

Florida school mixes technology learning with a dose of real-life experience to create ready-to-work graduates.

A single classroom in a central Florida career and technical center in a district of 175,000 students may not seem like it would make much of an impact. But one program at Winter Park Tech in Orange County Public Schools has been leaving its mark — and a well-designed one, at that — on its graduates and the local businesses that employ them.

WPT’s decade-old Digital Design class, in which students merge cutting-edge technology with good old-fashioned work habits, has been turning out impressive results, aesthetically and vocationally.

With record numbers of students advancing to higher education, and 1.2 million having dropped out from the class of 2007, it seems as if vocational programs have nearly disappeared from schools across the country. Yet WPT’s program has gotten stronger, proving that as long as vocational education remains current, it fills a vital need.

“Last year, every single student who graduated got hired in the field,” says Carol Jackson, who’s been teaching the course for the past eight years. “It’s wonderful.”

Responding to the growth in Orlando-area industries that demand proficiency in the latest design software, Jackson teaches applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator and QuarkXPress on a fleet of high-powered computers. The students come from a wide age range and an even more diverse set of backgrounds for the 1,200-hour program, which accepts applicants 16 years and older and usually lasts one and a half years. Tuition and fees cost about $2,300, and a number of students receive scholarships.

Not Just for Teenagers

“Last year I had a student with a master’s degree,” recalls Jackson. “And we frequently have students with undergraduate degrees. They come because they need hands- on training, not just liberal arts concepts.”

“My background is a little lengthier,” admits student Peggy Hamm, who worked for 28 years as a dental technician and dental salesperson. She saw her daughter through the district’s K–12 schools and now aspires to do photo and design layouts for a magazine or newspaper.

WPT’s Senior Director Diane Culpepper remembers one former landscaper who had injured his back and ended up in a homeless shelter. “He enrolled in the program, he developed confidence and his talent blossomed. It changed his life,” she says, noting that today he works as a security officer and freelance designer and that he lives in his own apartment.

The design program also attracts students earning their GED or high school diploma, thanks to a dual-track option allowed by Florida. “I was designing Adobe Photoshop projects at home, and I was really interested in the design aspects,” explains 19-year-old Michael Jimenez, who has been doing more advanced work in the design class.

Staying on Top of the Technology

Whatever their backgrounds, the Digital Design students enter a brave new technological world featuring the latest versions of the Adobe CS3 suite of Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign, as well as QuarkXPress 7.0, Final Cut Pro 6.0 and Adobe Acrobat and Dreamweaver.

Each student is assigned a desktop computer with an Intel processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM and a 465 GB hard drive. A networked Xerox Phaser 7750 provides professional-quality printing.

For photo shoots, students have access to a new podcasting studio complete with a “green screen” — the kind of electronic background that displays weather maps on TV — to which they learn to make changes using Photoshop.

Culpepper says the technological package impresses potential employers. “They appreciate that we’re teaching on industry- standard software and hardware. Sometimes we’re even ahead of the industry.”

“One of my students said, ‘I know I’ll probably be the low man on the totem pole and I won’t have a new computer or the latest software,’ ” adds Jackson. “But it’s always easier to move down than up.”

Jackson knows that won’t be the case for long and envisions her graduates having to assimilate to an ever-changing technological landscape. “I say, ‘The software changes every 15 minutes,’ ” she quips. “When I stop worrying about them is near the end of the program when they say, ‘I’m never going to know all of this.’ Because then I know that they understand that it’s a lifelong learning process.”

For all of the innovation she presents, Jackson says she is equally concerned with something more old-fashioned. “The hardest part of the course is owning the necessity of excellent work ethics,” she emphasizes. “Every day, we do everything that we can to model what we do in the workplace,” ranging, she adds, from the fundamentals of arriving on time and taking scheduled breaks to behaving appropriately.

Even these softer skills have a high-tech side in Jackson’s program. The students use a blog to discuss issues such as using proper language in the workplace and the importance of first impressions. This approach leaves more time in class for their design projects, which they create for actual clients.

Getting Real

“The thing that makes our program successful is that the students work for real-life clients on a real-life timeline,” says Jackson. “The beauty of it is that students have a deadline, as they will in the workplace, and they thrive on that.”

While some of the design requests come from other programs within WPT, most come from startup businesses and nonprofit organizations in the surrounding community, a clientele chosen so as to not compete with central Florida’s design and print industry. WPT students do the work for no charge.

“Most of the time they work in teams, so they’re practicing communication skills and not just design work alone,” says Jackson. “They communicate with the clients about their needs, target audience, budget and deadline.”

“I’ve been getting lot of creative feedback that’s helped get my own creative juices flowing,” adds current student Hamm.

The products that emerge range from display boards for a local nursing home to a package consisting of a poster, promotional e-mail and registration form for a nighttime golf tournament meant to raise funds for WPT’s educational foundation.

Another WPT student team recently created a poster and program for the world premiere of a play at the nearby Women Playwrights’ Initiative. In the play, Five Women in Havana, five strangers hunker down in a library during a hurricane. The poster, with its gray rendering of Cuba and radarlike storm swirl, presents the play’s title and its protagonists standing, in black silhouette, spread out around the island, isolated from each other.

“It’s a collage of women, country and storm,” explains Monicia Crowell, who worked on the project. “We had to really portray the women in their setting. I really like the outcome.” Her digital design education, she adds, should be helpful when she attends college next year to study journalism in her quest to work at a magazine.

Into the Workplace

Teacher Carol Jackson had a perfect record last year when every one of her students was hired in their field. “It’s wonderful,” she says of the program she has taught for eight years.

Keenan Ernde graduated from the program last spring and was hired by a large Florida store chain as one of four graphic designers in the company’s press shop. They design everything from weekly advertising flyers to large vinyl signs that wrap around the company’s trucks.

Learning to work with others and to have his work criticized has put him in good stead, Ernde says, and so has the adaptability he developed at WPT. “You always need to be up-to-date with what’s changing in the technology,” he says. “And when you run into snafus, you need to be able to design workarounds.”

Ernde’s boss, Gena Moore, notices the difference and credits WPT’s approach of working with real clients in the community. “Some college grads have come here and didn’t have the outside experience,” she says.

Recent WPT graduate Ignacio Alfonzo, meanwhile, works in the sign shop at Sea World, using Photoshop and Illustrator to rework the theme park’s maps — an extension, he says, of the design course’s emphasis on teamwork. “It wasn’t just about what I wanted,” he says. “At Sea World, if they don’t care for a layout or I get shot down, I have to start over and do it until they’re pleased.”

Getting Employment Advice

Digital Design students get an additional leg up on the field, thanks to the course’s active advisory board of design professionals. The group has grown to 30 members, including representatives from local heavyweights Sea World, Disney and the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, which provide opportunities for field trips, job shadowing, internships and — in some shops — eventual employment.

The board members also help keep the Digital Design class up to date. “They tell us what software and hardware we should use and what most matches industry standards,” says Jackson, who adds that she has taken their advice to heart.

“From the moment my students come into class, we make it clear they need a printed and digital portfolio, which they present before graduation. And they’re producing better and better portfolios.”

Mark Hughes, a board member and a senior designer for the neighboring Disney Event Group, reviews some of those portfolios and invites WPT students to job shadow. “One of the things I always tell the students is that they have a lot of freshness to offer,” says Hughes. “If they’re diligent enough to become good at the software and get jobs done fast, they’ll bring a lot to the table.”

It all adds up to increased employability, Jackson says. “When I graduated with a college degree, I wasn’t prepared for a job, not with the same confidence that these students have. I try to do in this class what I wish my college experience had been like.”

Getting to Work

More vocational and regular high schools alike are putting students to work in real-life situations, and making a positive difference in the process.

Much like Winter Park Tech, the Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School in Rochester, Mass., runs a cooperative education program that connects students from its 13 vocational shops (from traditional automotive, carpentry and cosmetology programs to CAD drafting) to more than 40 area businesses.

The students in the school’s graphic communications and design course handle 200 school and community printing orders every year.

Not far away, Shawsheen Valley Technical High School has its health technology students working at hospitals and nursing homes and its construction students building houses.

Even large companies like Kodak are bringing students into the workplace through co-op programs. The Rochester, N.Y.–based company mentors students who have completed 11th grade and offers paid positions in business support, technical and laboratory operations, and skilled trades.

Transforming Vo-Tech

The old-fashioned images of vocational tech students hammering away at junkers in the automobile shop or heading toward a plumbing apprenticeship have undergone a radical makeover. Vocational schools around the country are responding to the needs of a technology-intensive work world and the expectation that their graduates will get at least some college education.

Even the mission of these institutions has been retooled to “career technical education.”

That transformation is loud and clear at vocational techs around Massachusetts, where programs now include biotechnology, pre-engineering and Web design. And for many students at these schools, their training is a way station to higher education. According to state data, almost half of vocational tech graduates continue on to two- or four-year colleges, double the proportion in 1990.

The curriculum in their programs has also evolved. Plumbing students can take calculus, and the carpentry class at one high school built a copy of Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin while reading his book.

Last year, The Boston Globe highlighted an MIT senior who had gone through the biotechnology program at Minuteman Regional High School in Lexington, where she made recombinant DNA and learned to grow bacteria.