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In an era of shrinking tax dollars, many school districts in America say they can't afford career education programs. Ceres Unified School District officials, however, believe that for the sake of students' futures and preparing a skilled labor force, schools like Ceres High School cannot afford to not offer them.

District officials and teachers recently agreed to take an 8.5 percent salary cut to stave off teacher layoffs and spare career education programs. Why are classes like manufacturing, metal shop and ag welding so important? According to Jay Simmonds, assistant superintendent of CUSD, students are more engaged when you can satisfy the age-old question of students: "Why do I need to learn this stuff?'

"It's exciting," said Simmonds. "This is about the 'why.' If kids understand the purpose of school, the better they'll do."

Principal Linda Stubbs agreed.

"Like I always say, give students options," said Stubbs. "For some kids, sitting behind a desk is not a good option."

Students may not necessarily be behind desks but Devon Chew's manufacturing students have more of a desire to learn academics.

"The academic side of these classes are rigorous, very high tech," said Stubbs.

Several years ago, Simmonds said educators went to local manufacturers - like Gallo Winery across the river - and asked how schools can better prepare workers for Stanislaus County employer needs. Many who do the hiring for plants complained that students who directly enter the workforce are not skilled nor have a good work ethic. CUSD crafted a program designed to teach mechanical skills, application of academics to the work world and computer aided drafting (CAD).

"We're in an ag industry area," noted Simmonds. "If you look around - Foster Farms, Conagra, Gallo - all these big ag plants that have these manufacturing positions everywhere from being the engineer to being the crop consultant, there's all these different pieces. It's not the typical farming process that it used to be."

Manufacturing requires skilled labor.

"All are saying we need kids with post secondary education," said Simmonds. "The complexity of the machinery has increased. Gallo's production lines are about efficiency and all computerized."

Stubbs said that in the last 10 years there's been more of a need for those with auto CAD skills.

Chew often calls upon Modesto Junior College professors to speak to students as they comtemplate life after high school.

"There are jobs out there but we remind them that the training starts here," Chew said. "We give them snippets of everything in this class," said Chew.

Students rotate every nine weeks through different subjects. Pairs of freshmen are now teaming up to build a working robot as Chew teaches ways to follow directions and determine what they want the robot to do. Students are also taught mechanical skills and given a look at the "path of direction" on how engines work.

Sophomores are introduced to drafting by computer.

"We teach them the mechanical skills before they go to work in a factory," Chew said.

CHS' vocational education program has evolved from it used to be less than a generation ago. Wood shop ended, said Simmonds, because cabinet making today tends to be pre-manufactured in plants back east.

Students' interests have also changed the program. "In the past couple of years fewer students have been signing up for agriculture. As a result, our FFA team kept dwindling and dwindling."

A number of agriculture teachers left for Central Valley High School after it opened. Simmonds said those teachers who left built up the ag program there; now Central Valley boasts five ag teachers and offers the animal science and floriculture FFA programs. Ceres High moved toward its mechanical and manufacturing program, one of which is ag welding.

Mike Patterson, himself a former FFA student, was hired to build the Ceres High program back up.

Simmonds acknowledges there is a perception in the community that CHS has trashed its ag and FFA program. Three ag welding classes are offered at CHS, including ROP welding.

"The reality is that FFA is alive and well here," said Simmonds.

The manufacturing classes are open to all students but mostly attract boys.

"It's about 99 percent male," said Chew. "In every class there's about two girls. I don't why that is."

Females are rare, too, in Mike Patterson's welding classes. Sara Macedo said she would prefer to take floriculture but it's no longer offered at CHS. She could have transferred to CVHS - the district is open - but wanted to remain in FFA on the CHS campus so is taking welding.

"It's fun," said Macedo of the class, who is working on a hitch cover for an FFA project. She is, however, thinking about a career in criminal psychology.

The fact that Macedo isn't planning to become a career welder "doesn't matter," said Simmonds. The goal of the program is to "keep the kids engaged."

Senior John Elwess, who have been in ag classes all four years, does plan a career in agricultural welding. After high school he plans to enlist in the Navy and sign up for the job of underwater welder.

"It does motivate the kids and some of these students need motivation," Stubbs said of the program. "They work harder to learn."

Patterson's goal is to "try to prepare my students for a career past high school. My biggest push is realizing that not all go to college. College isn't for everyone but education is still important. I encourage my students to get A's and B's. If we can get skilled labor, they're going to find a career, not a job. Job is an acryoym which stands for 'just over broke.' A career will give you room to grow."

CUSD strengthened the vocational education program by winning several state grants and obtained 50/50 funding for the rehabilitation of the mechanical classrooms. The state of California has provided $6.86 million to buy equipment and modernize the CHS shop buildings, including converting the old auto shop into the manufacturing and ag mechanics shop for $2.4 million on Feb. 2; renovating the metal shop for $2.4 million in March 2008; and converting the old wood shop to the manufacturing classroom for $2.06 million in the fall of 2007.