A FEW hisses and grunts emanated from the tubes and valves at a lab at Edward W. Bok Technical High School.
The seniors in John Hutchinson's class were carefully monitoring gauges and twisting knobs at the hydraulic-pump station and the pneumatic-controls system - a classroom lesson that, someday, may be their ticket to a highly technical career.
"I'm trying to see how much pressure there is coming through the tubes," senior Donald Whitfield explained.
These students are part of the first graduating class to go through the three-year-old Academy of Process Technology at Bok, at 8th and Mifflin streets in South Philadelphia.
This is way more than shop class. Classrooms like this one have been designed in partnership with local businesses to teach Philadelphia public-school students the latest technology used in real careers with good paychecks.
The goals of the class, however, are loftier than just ensuring that these students have job options after graduation. These classrooms are part of a growing understanding in the school district - and among local businesses - that connecting lessons to "real jobs" helps students, especially those at risk of dropping out, to understand why they need an education.
"Work-related instruction and/or work experience have especially powerful benefits for low-income students, particularly males," said Laura Shubilla, president of the Philadelphia Youth Network.
Injecting real jobs into classroom work was one of the recommendations issued by "Project U-Turn" at the same time as the project's landmark dropout report. It's also been one of the concepts the Philadelphia School District has used in ongoing high-school reform.
The district provides traditional career-focused education through schools such as Bok, Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School, and Swenson Arts and Technology High School. In recent years, the district also has increased work exposure for students by adding more "small schools," including breaking Kensington High School into three learning academies.
Only two of the Kensington academies - the business and finance academy and the culinary school - are technically recognized as career-focused, said Mark Ornstein, assistant director of the district's Office of Career and Technical Education.
The third academy, known as Kensington CAPA, is an arts-focused high school modeled after the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), at Broad and Christian streets.
Ornstein said a "stigma" used to be associated with vocational training.
At one time, the students were taught "shop math" or "shop English," he said.
But the students in the district's career-focused schools also must learn advanced math and be able to read technical directions.
And they could graduate from these schools with more than a diploma: Students in many programs are able to sit for formal certification in an industry - just as they would have to pay to do so in a for-profit institution after high school.
"We saw an ad for a Bucks County Community College certification that cost $2,000," Ornstein said. "We give it to them for free."
Bok principal Arthur L. Melton said the Academy of Process Technology began at Bok when Sunoco officials found they had a need for operating technicians.
"They would test hundreds of people for math but would end up hiring no one," Melton said. Many applicants just didn't have the skills, he said.
So Sunoco decided to get involved and helped start a program training high-school students at Bok to be ready to work when they graduated, Melton said.
Since Sunoco's involvement, the school has developed partnerships with Coca-Cola and Philadelphia Academies Inc., to teach the students about the world of work.
The program instructor, John Hutchinson, who used to teach organic chemistry, said the students learn how to process raw materials, turning crude oil into heating oil or taking water and adding ingredients to turn it into cola.
Similarly, Lockheed Martin Corp. has been working with a number of Philadelphia high schools for about 20 years, said Shubilla. The company even created a formal, three-year apprenticeship program for city high-school juniors and seniors. After the program, students are certified as IT technicians - and are considered for full-time employment at Lockheed Martin.
"They're a great model of how this can work in schools," Shubilla said. "It's a flagship model of how corporations and schools and young people can work together."
She said Lockheed also had a self-interest - the need for new employees - when it got involved with the public schools. It now has partnerships with five schools.
Ornstein said the school district gets a $6.6 million federal grant to operate its career and technical programs, which include about 14,000 of the district's nearly 200,000 students.
He left a career in law because he wanted to work in education.
"You know that you're actually making a difference and there are reforms that are happening," Ornstein said. "It's something that is positive in the schools and in students' lives." *