Career tech programs were going to be closed. SkillsUSA members took their concerns to the state capital and won. The story of how they got government to listen continues to this day.
Their district was going to take 17 teachers out of three schools and close programs completely, Victor Schiro remembers. “I understand that the teachers were going to be reassigned, but they were going to close the programs for the students. There would have been no career tech.”
But shortly before these cuts were proposed, the computer science instructor from Bloomington (Calif.) High School had attended SkillsUSA’s Washington Leadership Training Institute (WLTI). With his students, Schiro made a number of congressional visits, including one to California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
“She talked to us about career tech and her support for the Perkins legislation [which funds career and technical education]. There was no problem walking in and talking to her about the issues,” Schiro says. “I expected the ‘meet and greet.’ I didn’t expect her to make that kind of time for us.”
That open-door policy in Washington made a lasting impression. Upon learning that programs in his district were in jeopardy, Schiro realized that if he and his students didn’t say something, they might lose more than just programs. He took his students to a school board meeting, where they raised signs in support of career tech and made their feelings known.
“We’re one of the school districts in California that was threatened to lose our complete career and technical programs, but our district has turned around. We now have their support,” Schiro explains. “So we moved to the state level.”
And, move they did. With 14 SkillsUSA chapter members which included a California state officer, then-National Secondary Treasurer Frederick Flores and two advisors the Bloomington High School delegation set its sights on Sacramento. Using SkillsUSA Week as their opportunity to visit the state capital nearly 400 miles away, they planned, they prepped and they made appointments.
“Through this organization, I learned that you can talk to lieutenant governors and senators. SkillsUSA gave me the confidence to go to these meetings.” - Beatriz Calderon
The work paid off. Schiro and the students met for nearly an hour with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who discussed his support for career and technical education and SkillsUSA. Likewise, they met for an hour each with State Secretary of Education Richard J. Riordan and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell in their separate offices.
On the Senate floor, they met with the state’s majority and minority leaders and were presented with a proclamation recognizing SkillsUSA by their district senator, Nell Soto. In every instance, the students put forth their concerns regarding the future of career and technical education.
Talk to the students from Bloomington, and you quickly realize that they’re passionate about education issues, and they really do want to make a difference.
“You hear politicians say that we’re the future of America,” explains Beatriz Calderon, age 16. “If we’re the future of America, they have to sponsor this legislation [Perkins] and listen to us.”
Schiro says he and his students are constantly looking for opportunities to show career and technical education in a positive light. “We’re looking for their support. And, we talk about how California is going to deal with No Child Left Behind [No Child Left Behind Act of 2001]. Our goal is to push and support career and technical education.
“We saved the [teaching] jobs,” he adds. “And we saved the programs, and we now seem to be very secure in our district. We’re keeping the battle going. The students are very visible in the community, in the state, and we deal with our national legislators. We expect to do that again at WLTI this year.”
The students take these meetings seriously.
“We learned responsibility,” says Deyja Cortez, 16. “We had to be responsible for each other while we were there. We had to make sure we were all there on time as a group. If one’s late, we’re all late.”
They know the importance of being prepared for these meetings. “One of the things that we pride ourselves on in our chapter is that any student can step up,” Schiro explains. “We prep everybody, because you never know who may reach his or her hand out to a student.”
Benjamin Aceves, 15, never thought he could make a difference. He had only been a member of the SkillsUSA chapter for three months, and was only 14 when he was asked to the meetings. It didn’t take long for him to figure out just how important his participation was.
“For someone trying to have an impact on his or her state government, I would say go for it, because whatever kind of recognition you can get, you’ll need it,” Aceves recommends. “I think grownups are trying to take away things without letting us have a word. I think that’s why we need to be able to speak for ourselves.”
The buzz about the students taking their cause to the capital continues to build. Recently a state senator sent a staff member to observe Bloomington High after hearing about their efforts at the state’s distinguished school awards.
At the awards program, “we had five students there, and we were prepared to speak,” Schiro says. “The students will all tell you that they would never have done this without preparation or having seen that other people [government leaders] are there for you.”
Schiro ensures that his chapter does its best to be in front of the board of education as well as district and school site administrators.
In return, chapter members have been asked to act as student ambassadors for school tours with dignitaries. In addition, SkillsUSA students have been elected as the first high school representatives for the district’s Career Technical Education Partnership committee. This group decides the use of Perkins funds.
The students’ reaction to their influence is universal. They’re amazed at how simple it is and at themselves.
Calderon, for example, never thought a student like her would be meeting with Lt. Gov. Bustamante. “I’ve learned that through this organization, you can talk to lieutenant governors and senators,” she says. “SkillsUSA gave me the confidence to go to these meetings.”
SkillsUSA Champions | Winter 2005 | Volume 39, No. 2