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Reality TV influencing local vocational training

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

For over a decade television networks have pushed the boundaries of reality television far beyond the kitchens of home cooking shows with programs such as MTV's "Pimp My Ride" and Bravo's "Project Runway" and "Top Chef."

But does the vast appeal of reality television really determine the trends in vocational education?

John Michaels, guidance and placement coordinator at the Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative (LPVEC), believes that it does.

"In the past seven years, the culinary shows on TV have exploded, so has the growth of our programs . It really has been a direct parallel," he said in an interview with Reminder Publications.

However, Michaels was also quick to point out that reality television is not the only factor that can be attributed to increasing enrollments at the Career and Technical Education Center (CTEC) at the LPVEC.

"We have transformed the programs continuously with better instructors and equipment and the new school [located in West Springfield] is a better selling point," he said.

Enrollment numbers continue to rise at the collaborative, which includes seven member school districts: Agawam, East Longmeadow, Hampden-Wilbraham, Longmeadow, Ludlow, Southwick-Tolland and West Springfield.

Michaels noted that the most popular fields within the 12 areas of study - Automotive Technology, Carpentry, Cosmetology, Culinary Arts, Design & Visual Communications, Facilities Management, Fashion Technology, Graphic Communication, Health Assisting, Information Support Services & Networking, Landscaping Technology and/or Horticulture and Medical Office Technology are Automotive Technology (48 students) and Culinary Arts (47 students).

There are currently 431 students enrolled in CTEC, according to Anne McKenzie, executive director of LPVEC, about a 10 percent increase over last year. West Springfield and Agawam have continued to send the greatest number of students to the collaborative over the past two fiscal years. There are 77 West Springfield students and 72 Agawam students attending the collaborative this year.

"We encourage kids to seek all forms of education," Dr. Mary Czajkowski, Superintendent of Agawam Public Schools, said. "Not every student is going to want to go to college and if you look at the trades bio-technology and graphic design, that's what employers are seeking today."

She added, however, that she does not see the number of Agawam students attending the collaborative to rise far beyond the current 72.

Michaels said the LPVEC's biggest problem when recruiting students is the negative stereotypes surrounding vocational education.

"People look at those occupations where people work with their hands as having less value until you have to hire a carpenter," Michaels said. "One of the biggest challenges is the societal standard that this education is substandard."

Don Jarvis, interim director of CTEC, explained that in order to maintain Chapter 74 programs, the collaborative must document 70 percent positive placement -- students enrolling in post-secondary education, working within their field of study or enlisting in the military -- one year after each student graduates.

He noted that 60 percent of CTEC graduates enroll in post-secondary institutions and 40 percent stay within their field of study explored at the collaborative.

"We want to prepare the student for [the real world] with employability skills, entrepreneurship, safety and technology [skills] to better themselves in those fields," Jarvis said. "Just because you have a degree doesn't mean you're getting a job. Employers are looking at work experience. We're giving them some [so] they can actually talk the talk and walk the walk [in the workplace]."