Established in 1906, Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School has been a school-to-work school virtually all of its life.

In its early days, Boys Tech, as it was known then, specialized in a brand of vocational education that fed students directly into waiting jobs in one of the city’s many blue-collar industries. The nature of work has changed, however, so the school itself is retooling.

“It used to be that we had the large industries where there were jobs available,” explains Chuck Howard, who coordinates the school-to-work program at Milwaukee Tech. “Then the economy changed, and the industry jobs moved out of the area.”

The school’s mission now is to prepare students for a changing job market where they will be required constantly to learn new information. “Statistics now say that the average person is going to change jobs five times in their careers,” says Howard.

“I want to give [students] opportunities for whatever they want to be in life,” says Principal Marguerite Guy. “If a [student] decides he doesn’t want an apprenticeship, I want him to be able to go on to college.”

While some juniors and seniors participate in apprenticeship programs, the school is using its some 20 business partners in a variety of ways. Some larger companies make financial contributions while smaller firms allow students to “shadow” their employees. Students who work on the school’s year book, for example, were teamed up with staff members from the Milwaukee Business Journal.

One of the biggest changes students and teachers at Milwaukee Tech have experienced is in the way classes are taught. There is much more emphasis on integrated learning and team teaching. A math teacher, for example, works with shop teachers in developing lesson plans.

“We’re putting more of an emphasis on getting our academics to complement our shop classes,” says Howard, adding, “It’s a struggle.”

However, Guy says she is beginning to see positive changes: “Once teachers from mathematics and shop get together, they find that they have more in common than they think.”

Staff development has become a large part of the school-to-work process at Tech, with teachers being encouraged to show how information can be applied to practical experiences rather than simply rely on textbooks.

More than 1,700 students attend Milwaukee Tech, which offers 15 specialties, including architectural drafting, chemistry, carpentry, electronics and plumbing.

As the school district continues to decentralize financial management, making individual schools more responsible for budgeting and finding additional resources, principals will be increasingly required to look to the business community for support, says Guy.

For example, she notes that Milwaukee Tech has a highly regarded printing program but can’t afford to purchase much of the high-tech equipment that is now used on job sites.

“It’s very important that the business community begin to connect with us in a stronger sense and help us to produce who they want to see as their future employers,” says Guy.

Curtis Lawrence is a freelance writer and director of the Journalism Graduate Program at Columbia College Chicago.

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