Shop Class, After Decline, Still Has Support

At the urging of her teacher, South Royalton School senior Lilly Lesmeister broke out the cutting torch.

It took some doing, and some help from shop teacher William Brooks, but after fumbling a bit with the mixture of oxygen and acetylene, Lesmeister sparked a flame and used it to heat a universal joint on a 1949 Dodge pickup she and her classmates were dismantling on the tarmac outside the school’s shop.

Lesmeister said she likes the work, which will help her if her car breaks down on the side of the road and which gives her a taste of more tangible results than a grade on a test or a paper. “Once we get this done, it will be a big sense of accomplishment,” she said of the truck project.

Class work like this has become an uncommon sight at Upper Valley high schools. Shop classes have been on the decline for at least the last two decades as funding has become scarce and public schools have been under pressure to prepare students for college. Most technical education in Vermont and New Hampshire has been shifted to a network of regional centers, and many high schools have sharply curtailed their shop programs, or dropped them altogether.

Whether that’s a good thing is a topic of debate. Not all students who could benefit from technical education can attend the sometimes-distant technical centers, and advocates of hands-on experience say that even college-bound students would profit from learning to hammer nails and turn wrenches.

Impediments A 2006 report prepared by the policy research arm of Dartmouth’s Rockefeller Center found that if the typical Vermont high school had the same career and technical offerings as the technical centers, participation in those programs would rise by nearly 26 percent. “It appears that the added time inconvenience of commuting plays an important role in student participation in a technical education program,” the report states.

“Some of these kids will end up spending two or three hours on a bus each day,” said Dave McFarlin, who teaches technical education at Woodstock Union Middle-High School. A student from a far-flung town in the high school’s six-town district faces long rides to and from school, then to the Hartford Area Career and Technical Center and back.

In addition, offering the full realm of technical courses would increase participation, the Rockefeller Center report says. Few schools are able to provide such a robust program, mainly because budgets are tight and school enrollments have been falling.

“While it’s not perfect, the regional career center model is what Vermont chose 20 years or so ago,” said John Fischer, deputy commissioner of education.

The state is considering ways to bring more programs to students, Fischer said, either through distance learning on the Internet, or through smaller satellite programs at high schools near the regional technical centers.

Brooks, who has taught at South Royalton for six years, said his program introduces students who might be interested in engineering or work such as welding, electronics, construction or car repair to the tools of the trades. He teaches introductory classes in construction, mechanics and woodworking, as well as classes in computer drafting and 3-D modeling.

With the support of administrators, he has taken over a small office and a computer classroom that were adjacent to the small basement shop classroom. The shop was flooded by Tropical Storm Irene last year, and was rebuilt to a much higher standard, with a second overhead door, new shop tools and a new dust collection system. It’s one of the smallest, but best- equipped shops in the state.

The value of applied classes in woodworking, machining or drafting is often lost in the current school environment, which prizes core academic subjects and measures success with standardized tests. But not all students learn in the traditional classroom.

“I think people learn differently when they use their hands, rather than sitting down in front of a computer,” said Brooks.

South Royalton students who take physics often venture into the shop classroom to work on applied projects, such as the University of Vermont’s annual “design task,” which each year challenges students to make a different device. Even students who grasp the theoretical aspects of science are helped by having to fit pieces together to make something, said Evan Ellerson, who teaches physics and chemistry at South Royalton.

“I wish they all had to take shop,” Ellerson said.

Hands-On Learning Technical education was in the national spotlight a few years ago with the publication of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford, who turned to motorcycle repair after becoming disillusioned by the work he was doing after receiving a doctorate in political philosophy.

“The physicality of it, and the clear specificity of what the project required of me, was a balm,” Crawford wrote in The Case for Working With Your Hands, an essay in the May 24, 2009 New York Times Magazine that was drawn from his book.

Crawford also noted that manual trades are among the more secure professions in the current economy. Such jobs can’t be sent overseas.

College Prep Prevails The countervailing argument — that a college education is the most certain path to a secure livelihood — has carried the day, and at many high schools, shop has suffered as a result.

McFarlin, the Woodstock shop teacher, said the program has been cut back from two full-time positions, one for middle school and one for high school, to a single teacher. There’s only a single class for high schoolers, although Woodstock sends around 15 students to Hartford.

“It’s basically because we’re college preparatory,” McFarlin said.

Rivendell Academy in Orford, which serves students in Orford, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire, was built without a shop a decade ago and sends students to Riverbend Career and Technical Center in Bradford.

Hanover’s shop program has grown smaller, teacher Dave Holloway said, but as many as 20 students sign up for his classes in engineering and design. He also teaches woodworking, automotive repair and architectural drafting, as well as a class on electronics.

Still, he reaches relatively few students. “I would say there’s 70 percent of the kids who never get down into my room,” Holloway said.

Like Brooks, Holloway is working on co-teaching physics and chemistry classes to emphasize the hands-on aspects of those subjects.

Joining shop with academics makes sense not only for the college-bound but also for students aiming for a technical career, Fischer, of the Vermont Education Department, said. The types of jobs for which shop classes used to train students now require more academic preparation.

“Those kids can’t go into a shop class and not be highly proficient in literacy and math,” Fischer said.

In Vermont and New Hampshire, shop classes have evolved, and advocates of hands-on experience said they think the classroom experience has to change, too.

“For some kids, a traditional classroom just isn’t going to do it,” Fischer said.

New Hampshire has moved introductory career and technical education to the middle school grades, said Kevin Shyne, who deals with technical and engineering instruction through the state’s Department of Education.

While many students move on to career and technical centers later in high school, some can still access shop programs at their high schools, he said.

“Every school has its own personality,” Shyne said.

South Royalton’s personality includes a shop program, and support for it runs deep, said Tim Murphy, a member of the Royalton School Board and a building trades teacher at Randolph Technical and Career Center.

“There’s a pretty broad range of opportunity for a small program,” Murphy said. Vermont still has a rural, land-based economy, he said, and the shop classes serve students who might want to participate in that economy without a full-on technical center education.

“We think it’s really important,’’ said Murphy.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3219.