How to prepare students not bound for college

VERGENNES — The efficacy of a high school is often measured by the percentage of graduates that go on to study at four-year colleges.
To an extent, research suggests, this may be a valuable statistic to consider. The wage gap between those with a high school diploma and those with a college degree is ever widening and higher education is now considered a prerequisite to greater career opportunities.
However, in-state tuition for Vermont students at both two-year and four-year public institutions is among the highest in the nation.
At Vergennes Union High School, administrator Ed Webbley said he was keenly aware that the high cost of higher education causes many VUHS graduates to not continue their education.
“It’s a very hard struggle for families around here,” Webbley said in an interview not long before he wrapped up an eight-year tenure as principal. He recounted stories of recent graduates who are trying to save up money for Community College of Vermont tuition by working minimum wage jobs.
Webbley said there are also many other reasons that students choose not to go on to college (see related story).
“We do find an awful lot of kids that are anti-school,” Webbley said. He estimated that “about 12-15 percent of students have a strong cultural, familial resistance to higher education.”
Webbley also said that by focusing only on the number of students pursuing four-year degrees, people overlook other options that can prove both lucrative and fulfilling.
One main question that arises, Webbley said, is “what good can come of a young person’s career without college?”
Webbley spoke of several recent graduates who had secured apprenticeships in promising, well-paying fields such as plumbing.
Steven Sickles, who graduated from VUHS in 2012, has been in an apprenticeship program since graduation.
At 20 years old, Sickles is among the youngest members of a national plumbers union. Employed by a Burlington company, Sickles is part of an apprenticeship program where he works full-time and attends classes two nights per week during the academic year working towards his associate’s degree. In addition to union-set wages, Sickles enjoys health insurance, a retirement plan and free education through his union membership.
Sickles grew up knowing about the plumbers’ union, as his father works in the field as well. The younger Sickles enlisted in the military after high school, but he was medically discharged after sustaining an injury.
“I knew that I had to have an education in order to succeed in this world,” Sickles reflected. “There’s a lot of opportunity out there to do so, and the trades are struggling to get people.”
Sickles reported that he is very happy with his career choice, as it gives him the opportunity for career growth, employment both locally and around the country, and job security. However, he said he wishes that high schools promoted such apprenticeships more.
“It would be nice to see high schools offer students more options than just four-year colleges,” Sickles said.
Webbley echoed this sentiment
“We really have an inadequate tracking system to keep up with what everyone is doing,” he said. “We should track alternative plans so we can offer better advice to kids that don’t necessarily want to go to school.”
“Should Vermont invest heavily in an apprenticeship program?” Webbley added. “Yes, they probably should.”
Enlistment in the military is also an option that VUHS graduates pursue.
Kelsey Dobson, a 2013 graduate, joined the military last fall. Dobson went to U.S. Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina, and is still in training and awaiting transfer to Cherry Point, N.C., in August, where he will be working in aircraft maintenance.
“Back in Vergennes,” Dobson said, “I knew a couple of former Marines. I liked who they were as people and I wanted to be like that.”
He said that the military has been an excellent fit, offering him the opportunity to mature and grow as a person, and develop into someone like his role models. Dobson encouraged high school students not to limit themselves by expectations.
“Look at all facets, explore all options,” he said, “find what best suits you. And above all, find something that you’re passionate about.”
Dobson suggested that for him, the military offered him the opportunity to achieve those exact goals. He is currently unsure whether he wants involvement with the military to turn into a lifelong commitment.
“The experience has been more than I could have hoped for,” Dobson concluded. “Life is amazing right now.”
High school graduates have also found gratifying employment through completion of various non-college training programs, such as cosmetology school.
Sarah Bissonette graduated from VUHS in 2009 and briefly attended Johnson State College. In addition to pursuing her interest in art, Bissonette hoped to study alternative medicine, an interest inspired by her mother’s death following what she described as “an incredibly brave and painful battle with cancer.”
“I knew there had to be something out there, something natural to help ease the pain,” Bissonette said. The college environment, however, proved to be a difficult fit, and Bissonette began cosmetology school with O’Briens Aveda Institute in South Burlington immediately after finishing a semester at Johnson State.
“It was the best decision I could have ever made for myself,” Bissonette recalled. “The further into hair school I got, the more I realized this is my art, this is my form of alternative medicine.”
Bissonette recalled the sadness her mother experienced when she began to lose hair during radiation treatments, and how happy she was when the team at Shear Cuts in Vergennes worked to mask the hair loss.
“I feel if I can do that for someone, if I can make someone in so much pain feel so good about themselves just by giving them an artistic style I created, I have found what I am supposed to do,” said Bissonette, who has a home in Ripton with her partner, Aaron Paquette, their son and two dogs.
Admittedly, these young adults paint a deceptively rose-tinted picture. Despite the success stories of these recent graduates, the job market remains a harsh place for young adults without degrees.
Nationally, median earnings for young adults with a bachelor’s degree are 36 percent more than the median income of young adults with only a diploma or equivalent certification, according to a 2012 report by the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Thus, Webbley said that sending a higher percentage of VUHS graduates to four-year colleges has been, and continues to be, the school’s goal.
“We’re doing more writing, better writing, and more reading, closer reading, than we did when I got here,” Webbley said. “Within another 10 years, we hope that this school will be the school that has a completely individualized education plan in which kids have to prove that they can do something other than sit in a chair and take good notes.”
Although they did not go to four-year colleges, Sickles, Dobson and Bissonette seem to have followed Webbley’s advice to keep an open mind and to keep learning after high school.
 “You can’t become exposed to the realities of the 21st century … in a vacuum,” he said. Although learning comes in many forms, Webbley said that education of some sort is essential.
“You have to expose yourself to different ideas,” he said.

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