For years, vocational education was considered a warehouse for academic underachievers, who found themselves segregated from their peers. At Rindge School of Technical Arts in the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, ninth graders had to choose one specific occupation, and spent half of their school time for the next three years in narrow-skill technical training. Since only a quarter of all high school students who major in a vocational area ever work in a related field, and the typical American changes careers several times in their working lives, such narrow vocational specialization is outdated and limits the future career projects of Rindge students. In order to succeed in the competitive global market, today's workers and citizens need a broader range of problem-solving and communication skills, which Rindge was determined to provide its students.
In 1988, Rindge introduced CityWorks, a program that revolutionized vocational education, developing out of the philosophy that students must be able to use their heads as well as their hands. CityWorks redefined Rindge's curriculum by integrating academic and vocational learning, and by linking the classroom education to community economic development efforts in Cambridge. CityWorks maintains some vocational school elements, such as experiential and applied learning in groups and team teaching, but then radically reshapes content to instill the same basic and advanced academic skills that all students must possess for higher education or for work.
Open to all ninth-graders at Rindge, CityWorks uses the City of Cambridge as student's laboratory and textbook. The youth learn about the City's industries and trades, services, people, neighborhoods, and architecture. Teachers help students re-create the city through projects including written journals, work logs, maps, photographs, oral histories, drawings, and models. They improve problem-solving skills by developing business plans, studying zoning and permitting, and arguing over which locations attract the most appropriate clientele. Students are inspired to do high-quality work because they must present their work to real audiences so that their projects can be implemented. For example, Ridge students helped design and build a multi-generational residence for senior citizens and adolescent mothers in Cambridge.
CityWorks also benefits vocational teachers, most of whom had been isolated in their shops, by teaming them with each other and with academic teachers to foster a cooperative teaching environment. The program offers an unusual opportunity for teachers to work together as colleagues and receive support as they embark on a new kind of teaching and learning. They debrief together daily, plan curriculum, and analyze what they and their students are learning.
Rindge teachers have discovered that their students are absorbing a broad range of problem solving and communications skills critical to success in the work place. Rindge ninth graders are passing their academic subjects in higher numbers than ever before, and their attendance rate is between 91 and 93 percent. In 1990, the Carl Perkins Vocational Education and Applied Technology Act mandated that all public vocational schools adopt an approach similar to that of CityWorks. School officials hope that CityWorks is just the first stage in a complete restructuring of the Rindge program for all grades, and that the program will be replicated in school districts across the country to entirely redefine the concept of vocational education.