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Teaching Skills That Kids Can Use

By Jack Powers

Published: September 15, 1995

Bushwick High School here in Brooklyn, New York is like a lot of inner city public schools: the building is old and creaky, the classrooms are packed with too many kids, and security guards roam the halls maintaining order and keeping the bad guys out. Peek in on most classrooms and you’re likely to see work going on much the same way that it did a hundred years ago when our modern assembly line model of education was developed.

As magazine publisher and education visionary Chris Whittle has noted, take a person from 1895 and put him in a 1995 office and he’d be utterly lost. Bring him to a modern supermarket or shopping mall and his head would start to spin. Put him in the middle of a high school classroom and he’d be completely at home. Too often, the school has stayed the same while the world outside has changed dramatically.

In Bushwick and in every other big city school district, the neighborhood and the students have changed, too. Left behind in the decades-long middle class flight to the suburbs, today’s students are mostly minority kids, many from broken families. Some are newly- landed immigrants just learning English, others have already been in trouble with the law. They struggle through a bureaucratically-crafted curriculum that often bears little resemblance to the world they’ll encounter once they graduate.

Except in Mr. Wisotsky's class. Joel Wisotsky is a science teacher at Bushwick who came across some old offset presses in a storeroom and turned them into a top-notch printing program that today graduates students who can go right from the 12th grade into a paying job in the graphic arts business.

When I first met Joel a couple of years ago, his “computer lab” consisted of a small Mac locked inside a steel cabinet behind his offset presses. He was lobbying the Board of Ed for $100,000 to expand his desktop program. He got the money with very few administrative strings attached, finagled some surplus gear from other schools, and built a real Macintosh-based publishing shop that takes students from keyboarding to computer graphics to desktop publishing and out to final film, stripping and the press.

Joel’s goal is to give the kids real world skills. On the computers, he teaches Quark, PageMaker, Freehand, Illustrator, PhotoShop VideoShop and other desktop technologies. As important, he teaches the fundamentals of camera work, stripping, imposition, and platemaking, and students get to take some of their work all the way through to the press. Motivation is high and all of the program’s seniors graduated on time this year, a significant figure in a school system where over a third of the high schoolers need more than four years.

The result is that tenth and eleventh graders know more about hands-on print production than many Mac-bedazzled art directors, and twelfth graders know enough about workflow and getting the jobs out the door that they are offered positions in printing and prepress companies right out of school.

The program has consistently won awards as the “best computer-based high school program” in the New York City school system. A dual enrollment link with New York City Technical College gives seniors 18 free college credits while they are still in high school. Scholarship and attendance rates are among the highest at Bushwick, and discipline problems among the lowest. Local firms and the Association of the Graphic Arts are becoming involved, offering advice, jobs and internships.

Wisotsky’s work has been such a success that Bushwick principal Jose Fraga is expanding the program by 400% next year, and the scramble is on for more computers, updated software, a better color printer and new tools for digital photography, CD-ROM mastering and World Wide Web authoring.

The Publishing Program at Bushwick High School works because it’s got a priceless asset in Joel Wisotsky, an old fashioned teacher who works like hell to keep his curriculum relevant and his students focused. It works because the kids are challenged to master specific technologies like the Macintosh, the light table and the offset press. It works because it opens students’ horizons to a dozen different careers in the printing and publishing industry.

Thankfully, the educational bureaucracy has not interfered much in the Bushwick program. Wisotsky has downplayed the labels “vocational” or “occupational,” terms which draw the wrath of central office educationists who insist that every teenager prep for a four year college, but he hasn’t received a dime of additional funding in the last three years. In fact, New York City’s schools politicians have decreed that high schoolers need a third year of science instruction, eating into the valuable shop time needed for technical education.

Vocational and technical education has always been looked down upon by the college crowd. We all remember the “voc-tech” students in high school who took shop, fixed cars and built things with pipes and wires. But everybody doesn’t go to college, and the world needs people to run the equipment, fix the machines and do the production work generated by all those creative types in ivory office towers. Wisotsky’s graduates may not all become Madison Avenue art directors, but they will have interesting careers, fulfilling work and probably make more money in the long run than most people without production skills.

Let’s raise our sights for technical schooling, in our business and in every field. Instead of calling it vocational or occupational instruction, call it high technology education. Get the schools to spend time thinking about turning out computer-literate production workers in place of some of those Comparative Lit or PoliSci majors. Most important, get involved with your local schools, and make sure they know what the world outside needs. There are precious few Joel Wisotskys in the world; it’s up to all of us to help them do their jobs.\\



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