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BOCES training for Buffalo students is long overdue

Vocational education and training remain a curricular centerpiece in the preparation of high school students, as they make meaningful transitions into industries, trades and manual/manufacturing jobs in today’s communities. The relationship between working environments and schools is a vital connection to future opportunities for all students after high school has been completed.

Before 1900, little support existed for public education that would train students for specific occupations. And then, a young America looked at Germany, a world leader, as the model in vocational training.

Joel Spring, in his 2010 book, “The American School, A Global Context from the Puritans to the Obama Era,” writes: “Germany was both feared for its activities in world markets and admired for improving its educational system, which included vocational and trade schools.”

Naturally, America, with its competitive fire, promptly responded with the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917, providing for a differentiated curriculum and separating vocational training from academic training. Vocational education was born in America, and vocational training centers continued to grow from 1920 to 1940. A boom in factory jobs and federal construction projects ensued after World War II, spurring more vocational training centers in America’s cities, while agriculture and technology training centers were created simultaneously in the rural areas.

Fast-forwarding into the 21st century, vocational training for students with disabilities, in particular, works well as a modality because students are trained in schools and then placed in community work settings, often with the assistance of job coaches and teachers. In fact, in a recent Buffalo News item, this year’s anticipated influx of bilingual students, mostly from Lafayette High School and hosting a multitude of languages and ethnicities, will present unique challenges for BOCES instructors and staff.

BOCES officials affirm that the hands-on approach to vocational training would help bilingual students get past the English language barrier. Hence, the small group learning, simulated work experiences, supervised field work and even competitive employment are equally effective in meeting the transitioning needs of special education and bilingual students, and BOCES programs provide those learning opportunities. The BOCES emphasis on modeling and coaching are built-in, penetrating structures designed to encourage successful vocational training and growth potential, in effect, of all students. This is a new set of quality choices for bilingual students.

For students with disabilities, however, the BOCES component has been in place and successful for at least 25 years. Vocational education and transitioning services for students with disabilities are provided for in the Individual Education Plan (IEP), outlining goals and objectives for successful transitioning to postsecondary environments in work, school or training. Specifically, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 ensures by law that students with disabilities must have an individual transition plan to accompany and extend the IEP service after the high school years. The implementation of functional and vocational assessments should be made a staple in transitional planning for students with disabilities, and research findings support the effectiveness of these assessments.

Many students with disabilities meet success in vocational placements in trades like mechanical repair, building trades, culinary arts and plumbing. Observably, the increasing level of complexity and high technology demands in vocational education programs require that educators not consider these programs any less demanding on the intellectual and/or physical capabilities of students with disabilities.

In order to maximize and not exclude opportunities for success in vocational programs, students should participate in a variety of training placements, experiencing different job duties and identifying job preferences. Support from teacher personnel is critical to success, identifying job skills and creating relevant task analyses (a step-by-step method of learning). Even successful placements in community work settings require ongoing communications and follow-up interventions so that potential problems can be identified and corrected.

In addition, supported employment services are available for students with disabilities after high school and into the young adult years through the New York State Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities.

BOCES has successfully led the vocational way for all students in Western New York, providing presentations and trainings for teachers, parents and community members. As a positive result, BOCES now enjoys an earned reputation as the leader and innovator of vocational education programs. Unfortunately, the BOCES vocational option should have been accessible for Buffalo Public School students at least a decade or more ago, in my view. The bureaucratic layers of regulations and the inability of top leaders (on both sides) to agree on an equitable funding apparatus, persisting in pointless wrangling for years, impeded progress toward making BOCES the official, vocational partner of the Buffalo Public Schools.

Therefore, what is needed here is an ongoing, binding agreement with clear language on expectations between the school district and BOCES, ensuring cooperation now and into perpetuity, while offering a wide array of quality vocational choices and opportunities. It is long overdue: The curricular enrichment of all children depends on it.

Al Bruno is a special education and English teacher for the Buffalo Public Schools, primarily serving middle and high school students. He has worked as a Buffalo teacher for 18 years and as a vocational trainer and counselor for six years.