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Career-minded high school students in New York State soon could be left without enough time in the school day to learn a trade unless major reforms gain support, local educators say.

Students who enter high school as freshmen next year will need 22 credits to graduate, and 18.5 of them must be in core academic areas, said Carolyn Bulger, director of career development services for Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

"If someone does everything right, there are still only 3.5 additional credits available in his entire program," she said. "The kids aren't going to be here (at vocational programs) if they don't have the time to be here."

The state Education Department will hold seven regional conferences on career and technical education in October and November, including a session from 9 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. Oct. 6 in the Grand Island Holiday Inn. Local educators said they will propose these solutions:

A fifth year of high school for students wishing to pursue a vocational diploma.

An option for students to pass required Regents courses, not by taking a standard exam, but by completing extensive projects outlining work they did in hospitals, plants, high-tech firms or other employment sites.

Allowing students to study English, math and other academic subjects not just in traditional classrooms but while learning trades.

Those ideas, and others, will be given serious consideration, said Jean C. Stevens, the state Education Department's assistant commissioner for work force preparation and continuing education.

"The whole issue of time and flexibility remains at the heart of this," she said. "Nothing is signed and sealed, and we're very serious about alternative views."

Requirements now being phased in will require students -- with the exception of some who are in special-education classes -- to pass five Regents exams to graduate. Advocates of career and technical education have long argued that the requirements don't leave students with enough time to learn a trade.

State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills and the Board of Regents have been reluctant to endorse major changes, saying that all students -- whether they plan to go to college, to work or to the military -- need a strong Regents background to succeed.

A proposal now before the Regents would enable students to learn English, math and science in the same courses in which they learn vocational skills.

But the upcoming conferences are an indication that the state is willing to take a broader view of possible changes, said Robert Bennett, a member of the Board of Regents from Buffalo.

"I think we have to be wide open on this," Bennett said. "As things stand now, there is almost no time for technical training unless a student is willing to spend a fifth year in high school."

He said students should be allowed to demonstrate their mastery of academic subjects by presenting in-depth projects analyzing work they tackled in automotive shops, research labs or computer repair shops.

"The specifics are something we have to define, and it has to be rigorous," Bennett said. "But there absolutely has to be a way to fulfill a requirement by doing something besides sitting at a desk and filling out an exam. There is more than one way to learn, and there is more than one way to determine what someone has learned."

James Klapp, director of vocational education for the Buffalo Public Schools, said career and technical students should be required to pass the five Regents exams but then be offered a fifth year of high school to pursue an additional Regents vocational education degree.

"I feel very strongly that it will happen," Klapp said. "It will make our students viable for employment throughout the United States."

Bulger said BOCES already has hired English and math teachers to better integrate those subjects into technical courses.

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