James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Today Deb Fallows has the next installment, on an innovative high school called CART, or the Center for Advanced Research and Technology. It's a public charter high school that students attend for half of each school day, spending the other half at their regular high school. While at CART they get an immersion in a variety of career skills. You can read more in Deb's report here.
As Deb points out in this item, innovations in "career technical education" have been a recurring and positive theme through our travels around the country. This is the field that was once dismissively called "vocational ed" or even "trade school." Now it seems increasingly promising as a way to connect students not immediately bound for four-year colleges—because they can't afford it, because of family obligations, whatever reason—with the higher-skilled, higher-wage technical jobs today's economy is opening up, and that are vastly better than the minimum-wage retail/food-service alternative.
Here are some examples from Georgia, northern California, and Mississippi to go alongside this one in Fresno. And as I'll discuss further in our next installment, these developments are a natural complement to the Opportunity@Work initiative that the New America Foundation announced yesterday. (For the record: I've been involved with New America from its start, originally as its board chairman.)
I learned recently that Hugh Calkins, a lawyer and educational-reform leader, had died early this month at age 90. He was very well known in Cleveland, where he raised his family and spent most of his career, but I think his achievement and character deserve wider notice.
Calkins's early years were as complete a sweep of meritocratic successes as you can imagine. He was born in Newton, Mass., and went to Exeter and then Harvard. He studied engineering, was president (editor) of the Harvard Crimson, graduated early, and enlisted in the Air Force. When he was out of the service, he went to Harvard Law School, where (like Barack Obama many years later) he was president of the Harvard Law Review. Then he was a law clerk, first for Learned Hand on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and later for Felix Frankfurter on the Supreme Court. Not yet married, he decided to move to and start his career in Cleveland, on the hunch that he would find it more satisfying to be fully engaged in the life of a "large representative city" like this.
A tribute from Calkins's law firm, Jones Day, gives an idea of his day-job accomplishments as a long-time partner and head of the firm's tax practice. A site set up by his family lists more of his range of achievements, notably including his 61 years of marriage to Ann Clark Calkins and raising their four children.
I met Hugh Calkins, and came to admire him, in strange circumstances. In the late 1960s, when Calkins was in his mid-40s and I was in my teens, he rose to sudden prominence at his alma mater, Harvard. I had just become president of the Harvard Crimson when he was chosen as the newest–and youngest, and first Midwestern, and by a million miles most "progressive"–member of the Harvard "Corporation." The Corporation, formally known as the President and Fellows of Harvard College, is the ultimate governing authority for the world's brand-name university. (I see that Harvard's official site now embraces the body's name, saying that "The oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere is the Harvard Corporation.") Now it is larger, but then it had only five members, so one forceful new person could make a big difference.
The university at the time, like many others institutions and like much of the country, was all but blowing up. Poor Harvard president Nathan Pusey, a distinguished leader with the sensibility of a bygone age, had absolutely no idea how to deal with student and faculty protest over the war in Vietnam and other sources of turmoil. Hugh Calkins—who had opposed the Vietnam war and earned a place on Nixon's enemies list, who was serving on the Cleveland school board, and who had been involved in a long effort to improve finances and standards in Cleveland's over-crowded schools—represented something entirely new. Yale already had the smooth president Kingman Brewster; soon Harvard would have the smooth new president Derek Bok. But for a while in 1969 and 1970, the closest thing this institution had to a smooth conciliator was Hugh Calkins of Cleveland.
The Crimson ran a profile at the time, "Who Is This Man Hugh Calkins?" I think I wrote it, and I know I did the reporting and interviewing of Calkins, but it's all a sixties-era blur. What I remember is the difference he made. It is embarrassing to quote oneself as a teenager, but for the record:
In the first week of the strike, Calkins talked about dissent and ROTC and all the other issues for two straight nights on television. He ate breakfast with students in the Houses and told them about ROTC. When he saw posters in the Yard giving some students' version of what he said, Calkins trotted over to the Crimson to type out a reply and explain why the poster version was a distortion.
With a somewhat disturbing energy and bounce, Calkins has spoken in House dining halls and appeared with SDS members on panel discussions. A few other Corporation members have tried the same thing on a smaller scale. But now, at the beginning of May, there are probably no more than five or six undergraduates who could give an accurate description of what any of the other Fellows looks like.
Who is this man Hugh Calkins, and why is he now so present on our campus?
That era passed, for the university, for the country, for Calkins himself. By 1984, when he was 60, he had become the senior figure on the Corporation and reached the end of his term. Through much of the rest of his career, his passion—apart from his family—was public education. He taught math in inner-city Cleveland middle schools. This former president of the Harvard Law Review went back to John Carroll University to get a teaching credential after retiring from Jones Day, and continued his teaching work. Eventually he founded a charter school and ran an organization called Initiatives in Urban Education. In the words of his son Andy, from an email letting me know about his father's death, "He cared deeply about injustice, poverty, the rule of law, and the right of every child to a high quality education."
I mention this because Hugh Calkins was a person of enormous talent and opportunity, who kept deciding to apply his energy, his abilities, and his leverage to the public good. It is an example worth noting. Sympathies, and admiration, to all of his family—including one of his daughters, who by chance* is now the principal of the public elementary school our children attended (before her time) in Washington D.C.
There will be a ceremony celebrating Hugh Calkins's life and achievement in Cleveland on September 13. My wife and I hope to be there.
* Although we did not realize this connection until long afterward, by chance we sort-of owe our marriage and thus the existence of our children to the indirect influence of the Calkins family. My wife Deb and her sister Sue grew up in a very small town on Lake Erie. Ann Clark Calkins was interviewing candidates for Radcliffe/Harvard from northern Ohio and ended up steering them there, which is the only way my wife and I would ever have met.
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Earlier this week, I wrote about the work that Raj Shaunak and his colleages at East Mississippi Community College, outside Columbus, had done to prepare people in a historically poor, under-employed, and under-educated part of Mississippi for the higher-wage jobs that new industries were starting to offer. This was part of a trend we've seen across the country, notably in the South: that of high schools, universities, and community colleges addressing the common concern that a sub-par U.S. work force is an impediment to manufacturing's revival and overall growth.
For us, the EMCC story was closing the loop for earlier reports on the work that Joe Max Higgins, Brenda Lathan, and others had done to get the jobs there in the first place, and the efforts of the (public) Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in preparing young people of diverse backgrounds for better opportunities.
I've heard back from Raj Shaunak, and with his permission I quote his note. The names he mentions won't matter to anyone outside his area. But it matters (in my view) that he wrote to include them. Communities and networks of this sort are what distinguish the areas we've seen that are improving their economic and political/ cultural prospects. Raj Shaunak writes:
Thanks for taking the time to tell the story of the Golden Triangle, and Mississippi. It indeed is an American story....
There are many team members who do the daily hard work of navigating individuals in their chosen pathways, tremendous industry experienced faculty and trainers, and above all a tremendously enlightened President (Dr. Rick Young) who believes at his core that the mission of EMCC is to raise all boats in our region. He provides us guidance and support and has afforded me the freedom to execute that mission.
Another very important person who is truly visionary is Dr. Malcolm Portera. Dr. Portera is a West Point MS native, is the past president of Mississippi State University, University of Alabama, helped recruit Nissan to Jackson MS, Mercedes to Tuscaloosa Al, and was crucial with Yokohama. The President of Korea invites him personally for consultation regarding U.S.-Korean economic development joint ventures.
Dr. Portera conceived of Center for Manufacturing Technology Excellence (CMTE) training facility in 1997, sought and got state, local and business involved in funding the state of art training center that we are housed in presently. He is man who is helping Joe Max and me raise $40 million for the Communiversity [above].
Thanks for shedding a positive and realistic light on our region. It indeed is an oasis, but the passion and commitment are replicable elsewhere. We just need more Joe Maxs, Harry Sanders, Brenda Lathans, and numerous other civic and business champions.
It's one thing to draw high-skill, high-wage jobs to a place that has historically lacked opportunities. It's something else altogether to find people qualified to fill them. A local answer to a national question.
In our previous chronicles of economic, industrial, and educational recovery in the "Golden Triangle" of eastern Mississippi, my wife Deb and I discussed the roles of Joe Max Higgins and Brenda Lathan in helping attract major modern industries to the region, and of Chuck Yarborough, Thomas Easterling, and others in helping build the (public) Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science, which got started in the 1980s with the guidance of then-governor William Winter. Links to some of those previous reports, and a Marketplace broadcast from the Golden Triangle, are at the end of this piece.
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But when you bring thousands of high-wage, high-skill jobs to an area with very low median income, poorly ranked schools, and a history of farming and low-end factories rather than advanced manufacturing, you raise another question. Where are companies going to find the right people to do these jobs? Sure, lots of people need work. But the ones who have been laid off from packing houses or "cut and sew" minimum wage garment plants, or have not held steady jobs at all, may not be ready to run a billion-dollar modern steel mill or an Airbus helicopter factory.
This is where East Mississippi Community College, or EMCC, comes in.
In many stops before Mississippi, we've been impressed by the emphasis on, and seeming success of, programs for "career technical" education. For example, the Camden County High School in far southern Georgia—or, with a different emphasis the Elementary School for Engineering in Greenville, South Carolina. Back at the dawn of time, when I was in high school, "vocational ed" had a patronizing, loser tone. Today's "career technical" programs, in contrast, aspire to help people avoid the minimum-wage service-or-retail trap with better-paid jobs as skilled repair technicians, in health care, in construction and design, in advanced modern factories, in law enforcement, and in other "living wage" categories.
Many of these schools operate on an (admirable) public-good principle. They have no way of knowing where the students they're training will end up working 10 or 20 from now. So they proceed on the belief that it will be better for the region to have a larger pool of better-skilled workers. (That way, some large corporation might open a branch there, and new startup businesses might arise.) And it is obviously a plus for the students to have more skills and options, whether they stay nearby or leave.
EMCC's current ambitions are more targeted. The good jobs are coming to its "Golden Triangle" region, thanks to the efforts of its promoters. The big new factories have already brought in thousands of higher-skill, higher-wage jobs. An enormous plant from Yokohama Tires, now under construction, will bring more. The challenge is to prepare local people to qualify for them.
This is the challenge Raj Shaunak has undertaken.
Raj's family is Indian; he was born in Kenya; and as a teenager he moved with his family to England, where he went to college. I will refer to him as Raj because that is how everyone seems to know him locally. When he picks up the phone he says slowly and in a deep voice, "Rajjjj ... " or "This is Raj..." His accent is an arresting combination of UK-Indian and Mississippi-Southern.
In 1972 Raj paid a visit to Mississippi to see his brother, who was then at Mississippi State University in the Golden Triangle city of Starkville. He ended up staying and building a very successful manufacturing business with other family members.
In 1989 the family sold the business, and Raj was freed from workaday economic concerns. On October 31 of that year he dramatically threw his wristwatch into the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway outside Columbus, and began the next stage of his life. (Me: "Raj, could I call you at 11am tomorrow?" Raj: "Jim, I have no watch, call me when you would like.") Two years later, he was teaching adult-education courses and math. By 1994 he had begun what is now his major commitment: "workforce development," or preparing people in the community for the jobs that the economic development commission was trying to attract.
Here is what the results look like in practice:
• EMCC has brochures, billboards, ads, and other publicity (like what you see above) all over town, letting people know about its programs.
• Students who enroll go through what Raj calls "skills-based pathways," whose details I won't go through now but are suggested by some of the charts below. The essential point, according both to Raj and to the students I spoke with at EMCC (and alumni I met at several factories), is that students are first assessed to see what they know and what they don't; they're brought up to speed in areas of weakness; and they're exposed to the skills, practices, and disciplines required in modern industrial work. These include precision measurement, ability to read graphs and blueprints, "lean manufacturing" procedures, teamwork and flexibility, trouble-shooting, "continuous improvement," and all the other traits you've heard about if you've visited any advanced factory in Japan, Europe, China, or the US.
• In the EMCC training facilities, students work on real versions, or sometimes scaled-down models, of the machinery and products being made in the local factories. I saw them dealing with real engines from the nearby PACCAR factory, and real computer-controlled machine tools.
• I heard about but didn't see working models of the Yokohama Tire assembly line, preparing candidates for the 500 jobs the company plans to offer when the first stage of its new facility opens up. As part of its comprehensive training deal with Yokohama, EMCC hopes to prepare as many as 5,000 candidates for those positions. "What happens to the ones who don't get hired?" Raj asks, anticipating the question. "They will have much higher skills, and they will be more marketable—either when Yokohama opens its next phase [another 500 jobs], or anywhere else."
"We cannot guarantee a job for anyone. We are in the business of training people to be part of a qualified pool of applicants. We're trying to move people from dependence to enterprise and independence."
Also as part of the Yokohama deal, all of the company's own direct hires—"its engineers, its PhDs, its technicians, everyone except the CEO!" as Raj put it—will also go through an EMCC program.
• As a public community college, EMCC's tuition and fees are low. For instance, an initial skills assessment for the Yokohama program costs $50. Some other courses cost $120. According to Raj, about half the students don't end up paying anything themselves, because of various benefits for veterans, dislocated workers, etc.
• There may be an underside to EMCC and the programs it is carrying out; I didn't pretend to be launching a detailed investigation. But at face value, the people I asked—students at the school (without Raj or other officials present), alumni in the factories (some 1/3 of whom had been through EMCC), people around town—all described it as a plus. Just before our visit the state's Lieutenant Governor had come to town to praise Raj and others at EMCC for what they had achieved.
• Mississippi has the highest proportion of African-Americans of all states, at around 38%. In the Golden Triangle, the balance is roughly 50%+ white, 40%+ black, with Asians, Latinos, and others making up the rest. All the classrooms, cafeterias, libraries, and also factory sites I saw were racially mixed—if not exactly in the 50/40 proportion, then with a much larger black presence than mere tokenism.
Raj, by the way, seems to enjoy and make the most of his "other" status on the black-white racial grid. He works very closely with Joe Max Higgins, a white, Arkansas-raised sheriff's son featured in this previous installment. I heard him on a call with Higgins, who was in a rush (as always) and had to hang up. "Joe, Joe, you never have time for the brown man," Raj said, obviously using a familiar joke line between the two.
A few weeks ago Raj took me for catfish buffet at Lion Hills, a former private (and segregated) country club that has now become a EMCC dining center and golf course, and a training facility for its restaurant-management, chef-training, and "turf management" programs. He worked his way through the racially mixed group of diners and students there, seeming to slightly code-shift his accent from group to group. Bonus note: in most big U.S. cities where I have lived, "How are you?" is a pro-forma question to which no one expects a real answer. In this part of Mississippi, people treated it as an actual query, deserving an extended reply. Thus Raj worked the room with a series of several-round discussions with all the people there.
Does any of this matter, the industrial-recruitment efforts and the training of a work force? People in the state think it does. "The industrial boom in the Golden Triangle happened because leaders in the Golden Triangle made it possible," Tate Reeves, the lieutenant governor, said at local event in April. "When you are competing for businesses, you have to have the infrastructure, you have to have the quality of life, you have to have the land," Raj told me by phone this week. "But most places that are competing have those things. We now have a critical mass of trained and trainable workers. Companies have told us that this makes the difference."
That is more than I intended to write, and more than you may have wanted to read. But it is a sign of why Deb and I have found it so enlightening—and overall encouraging—to see how communities around the country are working to improve their economic, cultural, and educational prospects. We all know the problems Americans are facing, in Mississippi and elsewhere. But I'd had no idea that people like Raj Shaunak were making this kind of effort in this kind of place.
Recently she has spent a lot of time at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), in Columbus, Mississippi. MSMS is a public, residential high school for students from across the state, about which Deb will be reporting in detail soon. But before the day ends, we wanted to note a moving presentation by MSMS students this evening in a historic cemetery in Columbus.
The Emancipation Proclamation officially took effect on January 1, 1863. But in this part of Mississippi, the 8th of May has been celebrated in the black community as Emancipation Day. It was on May 8, 1865, that Union troops arrived from across the state line in Alabama and effectively put an end to slavery.
For the last few years MSMS history teacher Chuck Yarborough (above, center, talking with his students before tonight's performance) has organized 8th of May presentations in Columbus's historic Sandfield cemetery, where many of the area's prominent black residents were buried. This evening's program alternated songs by the Voices in Harmony choir from MSMS, with re-enactments of African-American political, religious, and business figures from the decades after the Civil War.
Here is student Terence Johnson, in the role of Robert Gleed, who served in the Mississippi State Senate during Reconstruction, fled to Texas with his family to avoid persecution for his political prominence, and was eventually buried back in Columbus at this same cemetery.
Johnson and other student re-enactors and singers after the performance.
Student Mamadou Fadiga, who is headed this fall to Vanderbilt, by the grave of the person he portrayed, entrepreneur Jack Rabb, and Rabb's wife Gillie.
Student and choir director Tylicia Grove, opening the presentation with her poem, "An American Thing." Its refrain was, "It's not a black thing. It's not a white thing. It's an American thing." It's our thing.
Back to the school after the show:
Our partners from Marketplace were there for the performance; I hope and assume they'll have some of the music and sound for their report. It was an American thing.
1) "Vocational ed is 'discriminatory.'" From a reader in New York City:
My late husband was for 36 years a teacher of physics at [a public high school in NYC]. According to him, vocational ed has been considered by the "educational establishment" to mean minority education, and thus is objected to by these high-minded folks. In other words, vocational ed is "discriminatory."
Thus in NYS it has been phased out, and, in its place, all students are required to take, e.g., four years of science in order to graduate. Since most of them cannot handle physics or chemistry, the standards have been dumbed down in order to get a passing rate.
From a society that has traditionally prided itself on "equality," we have become worse than Europeans about class differences....
So, yes, vocational ed is a good idea, and I notice in NYC that some high schools are offering "career" alternatives, thus avoiding the stigma of the phrase "vocational ed."
2) Learning comes from doing things, as much as thinking about things. From a reader in Pennsylvania:
Thank you for your follow-up post about Camden County High School. It was more impressive than this article in Slate, which combines support for alternatives to college with the elitist assumption that the trades are mostly for below average students:
My grandfather, who trained workers during World War II for the war effort (including, I think, teaching some women to be machinists), complained about the prejudices of his fellow educators, who thought all bright students should go to college. He said the trades needed smart people. CCHS sounds like a model he would have approved of.
I certainly approve. I think education in hands-on work should begin in middle school with skills for daily living, including cooking, parenting and child development, sewing, wood shop, nutrition, sewing, gardening, personal finance, small gas engine maintenance and repair, house and apartment maintenance, art and music courses, basic auto maintenance, and health. Students should come out of middle school ready to tackle algebra and more advanced science classes and be pursuing a combination of academic preparation and hands-on study, but they should have learned enough life skills to feel they could cope.
A lot of problem-solving skills grow out of the experience of doing things rather than thinking about things. I'm convinced some of the students [the Slate author] is so dismissive about could find strengths if exposed to a wide range of skill-building classes in middle school, when students have a lot of energy, want to become more independent, and are wondering about their futures. The students who need remediation might not need quite as much assistance in life if they have life skills to help them cope with particular academic subjects that frustrate them.
Sure, we don't all live in Lake Wobegon. But below average shouldn't mean a student gets an inadequate education and critical trades shouldn't be filled with below average students who became plumbers or carpenters. CCHS sounds like a good educational model for the school districts where the children aren't all above average.
3) Fewer people with military experience means fewer people with practical skills. From a reader in the Southeast:
For many persons, vocational or technical training occurs in the military. Perhaps this accounts, partially, for the smaller number of persons with these skills, since proportionately, the number of persons with military technical training has gone down over the years.
(Electronics Technician, US Navy, 1978-1984)
4) "I wish more parents would consider their sons' and daughters' gifts and interests." From an administrator in a well-known East Coast public school system:
Having worked in the trades for many years prior to and during attending graduate school, I know how important it is to have opportunities for people who are not “college material.”
I wish more parents would consider their sons’ and daughters’ gifts and interests when they help them to plan their transition from high school. I also think that schools tend to be highly disrespectful of the intelligence, interests, and abilities of those students who are more geared toward tangible, practical work than to working with abstractions. When I worked in the trades I met some of the brightest people I’ve known. I also have friends who work in the trades and make much more money than I do, with a Ph.D.
I wish our education system would realize how very, very expensive it is for our society to continue to turn out students who are not equipped for the next step in their careers, whether that is college or work in the trades. Young people without a viable life plan, without a source of competency and pride, are very vulnerable to all sorts of potential downward spirals. Also, stagnant 20-somethings who end up settling into their parents’ basements don’t contribute much to the tax base, and don’t always maintain the best pro-social lifestyles.
Sorry for the excess verbiage here, I know I’m “preaching to the converted”. I just don’t seem to hear a whole lot about this here in the very much status-conscious [BOS-WASH East Coast] area. It really bothers me to see so much talent and potential wasted. I’ve seen a lot of really great kids who really didn’t get much of a shot at their dreams because of this bias.
I work at Davis Aerospace Technical High School in Detroit. It is a Detroit public school. The most impressive aspect of the school is that there is a full, four year, aviation program that is a fully integrated part of our comprehensive curriculum.
Students can graduate with a pilot's license, paid for by the Detroit Public Schools. Our Flight Instructor takes students with good grades and a demonstrated interest in flight, and trains them to be pilots. This year, we will graduate three licensed pilots from our class of 40 graduating seniors. Several others will have substantial flight hours to put towards a license at a later point.
Additionally, we have a full Airframe and Powerplant maintenance program. Students begin in a general maintenance course in ninth grade, and then choose Airframe or Powerplant in 10th and 11th grade, to study in depth. In senior year, they can continue studying and then take the certification test. I don't know yet how many certified mechanics we'll be graduating this year, but hopefully it will be many. Students can also take an optional aviation welding class.
This is all at a comprehensive high school, where aviation technical education is integrated into the curriculum. We also offer arts, Spanish (I'm the Spanish teacher, actually, and I've just begun work at Davis this school year) and a full slate of academic classes....
At the end of this year, our flight instructor is retiring, and some of our maintenance staff may as well, but hopefully our school will be able to find another instructor and take off again next year. This program is a critical one which provides high-quality education to students who can use it to get well-paying jobs that can't be outsourced.
Here is a Detroit Public Schools video showing the school's flight instructor and several of his students. Seriously, devote three minutes to watching this, and see if it doesn't affect your view of the innovation and commitment underway in places or systems usually written off as struggling or troubled. I found every bit of this, from students and teacher in their respective ways, touching and encouraging.
Most of our students don't come to our school to learn to fly or work on airplanes. There is still a sizable minority of students who come for that (I would imagine that we are one of the few DPS schools that draws kids from the suburbs for our program) including some who commute hours in each direction. However, the majority of our students now attend because we are a DPS school with small class sizes (my largest section is 24, our largest academic class right now is only 32, many classes are in the 15-20 student range) and a fairly good academic and disciplinary/behavioral reputation. There is little violence and there are no gangs or gang influence.
There is certainly more that can be done to strengthen the technical program going forward, and ensure that it's appropriately funded, equipped, and staffed. We could probably do more to attract students. A big billboard over the 94 or the 75 freeways that said "Learn To Fly A Plane For Free In High School" would probably go a long way towards making our student body more sustainable and aviation-focused.
I do think, though, that what we do now is incredibly worthwhile for our kids, in both the aviation and the comprehensive parts of our school, and I think the blending of our dual curriculum is an important example of a possible way forward for other schools in other places.
Finally, about the picture at the top of this item:
Boys basketball is our only sport, and we had a school-record four wins this year! Our small student body means we usually don't stand much chance against 1000-kid comprehensive schools, but the Aviators always play with heart.
Two days ago I mentioned what my wife and I had seen this month at Camden County High School, in southernmost Georgia. There all students, in addition to regular academic subjects and 20-plus AP offerings, are enrolled after freshman year in one of five "academies" emphasizing specific occupational skills. This approach used to be called "vocational ed," is now known as career technical education, and is designed to equip students, whether or not they are headed for college, with skills that will give them options and leverage for higher-paid jobs.
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I am no one's idea of an education specialist, but from my book More Like Us onward I've tried to follow the ways American institutions equip people, or hamper them, for the endless process of reinvention and adaptation that is American economic and social life. College education is obviously valuable in its own right and, usually, as a path toward better career options. But not everyone will start or stay in college. The importance of skilled technical jobs, from machinists to construction engineers, is they're generally interesting in themselves, they're less likely to be outsourced or "de-skilled" than even some white-collar work, and they are better paid than retail or low-end service work. Everyone recognizes this when we look at, say, the successful apprenticeship programs in Germany. The news, for my wife and me, was the rise of such efforts in American schools.
Readers weigh in on this and related points
1) Another thing that Boomers must answer for. A reader writes:
I think many baby boomer and younger parents in this country don't take vocational training seriously because that's not what we were steered into and the college path has now become the norm. Too many feel that a vocational career isn't important/rewarding/prestigious. The large majority of my high school graduating class had parents who were only high school graduates. Earning a living was paramount and college wasn't available to them. They pushed us into college "to be something".
Now we are seeing how difficult it is to find a great electrician or plumber or auto mechanic. Luckily my husband and I finally found great ones, but only after much searching and asking neighbors for recommendations.
My dad was a tool and die maker. He made parts for the space shuttle and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, among other things, working predominantly in platinum and gold. I regularly see want ads for people in this trade, and just recently found our local community college has expanded its curriculum to fill these positions.
Probably the best thing about having a dad who worked with his hands was how much I learned from him. I know my way around tools and am able to fix most things without calling for help.
I am not saying vocational training shouldn't include college. Higher education needs to be formulated around the requirements of society. We need educated auto mechanics, electricians and plumbers.
2) The era of collars is over. A reader originally from southern Georgia writes:
As an educator myself now--I completely agree with the [Camden County] approach. College isn't the option for everyone--learning trades could change early gives more people a chance to thrive.
The era of the "collars" is over.
I wish I didn't go to school where vocational and "college prep" were segregated.
3) Finding someone to teach what I know. James Walker, a metalsmith in southern California, writes:
Yesterday [on Marketplace] you mentioned trade schools and I wanted to say that I believe they need to be emphasized a lot more in the school system.
Although I spent several years in college, I've made my living as a metalsmith, which derived from an apprenticeship I served while going to college. The area I chose in the metalsmith's world (repair, restoration, preservation of non-ferrous metals) is specialized enough that I draw work from around the country, with no advertising -- just a web site with examples of what I do.
I wish young people could realize that the trades and crafts are alive and well and offer many opportunities. For years I've tried to find someone to teach what I know, but I guess we live in a different world now.
I wrote back to James Walker to get permission to name him and his company. He added, about a specific project:
I would also like to mention a pet project of mine, Operation Rediscover, which seeks to foster a grass-roots involvement of people locating, caring for and sharing information about bronze plaques and memorials.
Over the years I have often been asked to restore them, since their surface inevitably disintegrates from the weather, sunshine, pollution, etc., making them hard to read. It is a shame to see that happen, so to help deal with the problem I developed a simple process to preserve them and published it as an eBook, which people can download for free from my blog "Operation Rediscover."
I feature stories about bronze plaques and memorials and another free eBook action plan that has specific step-by-step things people can do. A few days ago I also posted an essay/review of The Monuments Men, which has similar (though way more advanced) goals to mine.
4) Scholarships for technical training. I got this note from Marty Stockdale of Florida, who has set up a foundation to provide scholarships for high school graduates who want to pursue further technical training.
I am the Founder & President of The Stockdale Foundation. Our motto is: A Bachelor's Degree may not be for everyone - Success is.
Each year we provide scholarships to current-year high school graduates who plan to continue their education at a vocational/technical/trade school, as well as fire academy attendees.
It is our sole focus and since 2009 we have awarded 14 scholarships totaling $31,200.00.
I called Marty Stockdale to ask if I could share his information, and about the background of his scholarship. He said that he set it up in honor of his daughter, who was ready to pursue non-college career training after she finished high school but was then killed in an accident. "There are so many young people who could do so much, with some help," he told me. He would of course be happy to hear from others interested in this cause. You can find more about his program at his site.
5) How unusual is Camden County? Did my wife and I just happen to find the school in Georgia that had gone furthest with the "career academy" approach? I asked around yesterday, and the answer is Yes and No.
No, CCHS is not unique in Georgia, where many other schools have developed internal "academies" of their own. But Yes, it is unusual, in that most schools have a "Pull-Out" model, where they take students away from the main high school at certain times of day for courses at a technical center. CCHS is unusual in its "Wall-to-Wall" approach, of having everything about one large, integrated campus be built around its component academies.
Earlier this month my wife and I spent about a week, in two visits, in the little town of St. Marys, Georgia, on the southernmost coast of Georgia just north of Florida and just east of the Okefenokee Swamp. It's a beautiful and historic town, which is best known either as the jumping-off point for visits to adjoining Cumberland Island National Seashore or for the enormous Kings Bay naval base, which is the East Coast home of U.S. Navy's nuclear-missile submarine fleet and which is the largest employer in the area.
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St. Marys is known to our family for its complicated and often-troubled corporate history, which I described long ago in a book called The Water Lords and which we'll return to in upcoming posts. But it also highlights an aspect of American education which we've encountered repeatedly in our travels around the country and is well illustrated by the school shown above, Camden County High School, or CCHS from this point on.
CCHS is the only high school in the county, drawing a total of some 2800 students from the cities of Kingsland (where it is located), St. Marys, and Woodbine plus unincorporated areas. Each year's graduating class is around 600 students. Its size gives it one advantage well-recognized in the area: it is a perennial athletic powerhouse and has won the state football championship three times in the past 10 years. It also has another advantage that I recognized from my own time as a student in a single-high-school community: it creates an enforced region-wide communal experience, across class and race, rather than the separation-by-suburb of many public schools. This part of Georgia has relatively few private or religious schools.
As a matter of statistics, the CCHS student body is more or less like the surrounding area: about one-quarter black, most of the rest white, and small numbers of other ethnic groups (including from Navy-related families). About 40% of the students qualify for reduced-price lunch, the main school proxy for income level, and about 60% go to post-high school training of any sort. Each year, a small number go away to out-of-state schools, including selective ones. In 2001, only 50.5% of the school's students graduated from high school. Now that is up to 85%, a change that Rachel Baldwin, the CCHS Career Instructional specialist who showed us around, attributed mainly to the school's application of programs from the Southern Regional Education Board. CCHS has the best AP record of high schools in its part of the state.
That's the background. Now what struck us, which was the very practical-minded and well-supported embrace of what used to be called "vocational education," and now is called the "career technical" approach.
In practice what this means is dividing a large, sprawling campus and student body into six "academies," with different emphases. One of them is the Freshman Academy, to get the new students acclimated. ("I don't know if you've seen ninth graders recently," one person there told us. "But some of them look big and old enough to be parents of some others. It's a big range, and it helps to have a special place for them.")
The other five academies each have a "career technical" emphasis. After freshman year, all students enroll in one of the five. While they still take the normal academic-core range of subjects, they also get extensive and seemingly very-well-equipped training in the realities of jobs they might hold.
A few examples:
- In the "law and justice" curriculum, which is part of the Government and Public Service Academy, a former Navy-Kings Bay NCIS official named Rich Gamble (right) trains students in conducting mock crime investigations, and preparation for testimony in court.
On the day we were there, he had staged a mock robbery, in which the perp grabbed a cashbox from an office, ran through the hallways, and dumped the box as he was escaping. (The students acting out the scenario wore their white CSI lab coats, so other teachers would know what they were up to.) Then Rich Gamble divided his students into three teams to investigate the crime -- making plaster casts of footprints (below), taking evidence, filing reports, preparing a case. "We emphasize a lot of writing," he said. "I give them issues where they have to defend themselves, in very few words, because courts don't like you to waste words. Some of these papers are as good as any written by NCIS."
In the Engineering and Industrial Technology Academy, students design and build doghouses and other structures, which they sell in the community; do welding (and compete in state and national welding competitions); run an auto-repair shop that handles county vehicles; do extensive electrical work, and other activities I'll suggest by the photos below. Wood-frame construction:
Inside the wood-and-electric shop:
This same academy also includes computer-aided design and robotics programs, under the direction of Fred Mercier. The houses in the first photo are ones his students had designed and built, sitting on top of a 3D printer they use. The contraption in the second is part of the school's entry in a national robotics competition.
3D printer above, catapult-throwing arm for robot (with Fred Mercier) below.
(These photos show young men, but that is happenstance of where it was feasible to take pictures. The academies are diversified by gender and race.)
In the Health and Environmental Sciences Academy, students were preparing for certification tests by administering care to dummies -- in this case, representing nursing-home patients.
There is more to show, including from the other two academies: Business and Marketing, and Fine Arts. CCHS has an industrial-scale kitchen and catering facility, overseen by a former Navy chef. It has a very large auditorium, where students not only perform plays, dances, and concerts but also learn to build scenery and make costumes. I'm running out of time, and you've got the point by now.
Here is why we found this interesting and surprising. Among the non-expert U.S. public, the conventional wisdom about today's education system is more or less this:
- At the highest levels, it's very good, though always endangered by budget cuts and other problems;
- At the lower ends, it's in chronic crisis, for budgetary and other reasons;
- And overall it's not doing as much as it should to prepare students for practical jobs skills, especially for the significant group who are not going to get four-year college degrees. Sure, the Germans are great at this, with their apprenticeship programs and all. But Americans never take "voc ed" seriously.
I'm not trying now to address all levels of this perception, and one high school doesn't prove a national trend. But what struck us at Camden County High was its resonance with developments we have seen elsewhere,: schooling explicitly intended to deal with the third issue, serious training for higher-value "technical" jobs. This is theme that John Tierney has previously discussed regarding schools in Maine and Vermont, and Deb Fallows about South Carolina. "Non-college" often serves as a catchall, covering everything from minimum-wage-or-worse food-service jobs, to highly skilled hands-on technical and engineering jobs that may be the next era's counterpart to the lost paradise of assembly-line jobs that paid a family-living wage in the Fifties and Sixties.
"In the past, we've encouraged all kids to go to college, because of the idea that it made the big difference in income levels," Rachel Baldwin told me on the phone this morning. She then mentioned a recent public radio series on the origins of success, and said: "The recent evidence suggests really goes back to something like 'grit.' I think you are more likely to learn grit in one of these technical classes. The plumber who has grit may turn out to be more entrepreneurial and successful than someone with an advanced degree. Our goal has been getting students a skill and a credential that puts them above just the entry-level job, including if they're using that to pay for college."
And oh, yes: What the weight room looks like for a state-champion football team.
Thanks to all at Camden County High. And Rachel Baldwin has written in with a closing thought on the career-technical/traditional-academic balance:
As a naval community, Camden County appreciates the phrase “a rising tide raises all ships.” Our AP students at CCHS thrive in Career Technical options (we have more than 20 AP course offerings), along with students who would be considered traditionally “vocational” in the past. Our administration and faculty, believing in "all ships rise," recognize and provide strong support for both achievement at higher academic levels and meeting the new technical demands of the workplace.
Now two transition notes. First, about over-correction in language. A reader writes:
I read with great interest your articles on the "Frenchified" pronunciation of Beijing as Beizhing during the 2012 Olympics. A similar phenomenon appears to be affecting announcers talking about Sochi this year. I've heard several referring to "Soshi", the latest being the ATC TV critic Eric Deggans just this evening (just a little after 5pm EST). [JF note: didn't hear it the first time through, but link is here and embedded below. In the intro you hear the host, I believe NPR's Audie Cornish, say Sochi. Then about a minute in we get Soshi.]
Does the softer fricative just sound more "foreign"? In the case of Sochi, there can be no confusion based on spelling!
Here is the NPR player:
I think there is something to the theory that when in doubt, Americans instinctively class up a foreign word by making it sound "French." I am no expert in the Slavic world, but through the magic of this delightful site I will assert that сочи, the name of the Olympic home city, is pronounced with what sounds to English speakers like more a ch- than a sh- sound. Listen for yourself. It's on the Internet, so it must be true.
Second, and on an entirely different scale, an update about Robert Gates. Last week, as part of an Iran-sanctions reader, I linked to Mike Lofgren's criticism of Gates's tenure at DOD and his book. A professor at Texas A&M, where Gates was president for four years before he came back to DC to succeed Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, writes in to disagree. This note comes from John Nielsen-Gammon, who is the Regents Professor at A&M and also the Texas State Climatologist; I've quoted his scientific views before. Since he is criticizing Lofgren by name, and Lofgren was directly criticizing Gates, it seem fair to use Nielsen-Gammon's name too (as he agreed). Here goes:
Been busy and just now saw your reference to Mike Lofgren's piece on Robert Gates. I followed the link and was reading the piece with a combination of alarm and skepticism, unsure of how much I should take Lofgren's words at face value (having not read Gates' side of it yet), when I came to this paragraph:
[Lofgren writes:] "In between the two Bush presidencies, Gates became – quelle surprise! – dean of the newly-minted George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Later he was president of that university. This is not the place to exhaustively examine the subject, but Gates's tenure at Texas A&M is another example of the corrosive effect of the revolving door between political operatives in government and the American university system. While these persons' fundraising prowess based on their extensive network of rich contacts as well as their ability to wangle federal education grants may benefit the university in the short run, the intellectually corrupting influence of such operatives, along with the growing dependence of universities on a cadre of politically motivated government elites, poses a long-term threat to the academic independence of higher education. One need only look at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the bleaching tub of the self-perpetuating American political oligarchy, to see the danger."
[Back to Nielsen-Gammon:] At last something of which I have personal knowledge, with which I could gauge Lofgren's credibility. I've been on the faculty of Texas A&M University since before Gates arrived.
Gates was surely designated the first Dean of the Bush School (no "George") of Government and Public Service because he was both a friend of the George Bush family and a veteran of governmental affairs. His appointment was met with understandable concern among the faculty there, who saw the political appointment of a man with no higher education experience.
However, in his two years as Dean, he showed himself to be a fine academic administrator and one of the best Deans in the University at working with faculty to further the academic mission of the School.
When it was time to hire a new President in 2001, it came down to two men. The overwhelming preference on campus was for Robert Gates, based on his track record at the Bush School. However, many on the governor-appointed Board of Regents were in favor of sidestepping the search committee's recommendation in favor of sitting Sen. Phil Gramm, a former economics professor at Texas A&M. In this instance, Gramm would have represented "the revolving door between political operatives in government and the American university system". Eventually, in a split vote, Gates was chosen to be President, and the campus breathed a collective sigh of relief that we had avoided having the office of President of the University become politicized.
As President, Gates inherited a broad but ambitious plan to move the University forward into the top ten of public universities by the year 2020. He chose to focus on four key objectives, including "elevating the faculty", and was responsible for expanding the size of the faculty by over 400 members at a time when public spending for higher education in Texas was becoming a hard sell in a conservative state. He oversaw the beginning of construction of the campus's first building dedicated to liberal arts amid outside suspicion of what "liberal arts" stood for. His continued focus on the quality of the education Texas A&M provides its students and his strength of character to fend off harmful political interference, contribute to him being widely regarded as one of the greatest presidents in the history of Texas A&M University.
Offered for the record. Also on the subject of Texans in the news, congratulations to my friend and one-time employer* Rep. Lloyd Doggett. He is a Democrat who was elected from Austin in 1994 (after losing a U.S. Senate race to the same Phil Gramm and being elected to the Texas Supreme Court) and has survived a series of hostile gerrymanders since then. Now he is leading a House effort against the poison-pill Iran sanctions bill. Greg Sargent has the story here. Good for Rep. Doggett and those working with him.
* Back in the mid-70s, when the 20-something Lloyd Doggett had just won a seat in the Texas State Senate, and my wife had just begun linguistics graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin, I worked as an aide/gofer on Lloyd's legislative staff. I wasn't there long, before joining the then-startup Texas Monthly, but nonetheless I take credit for, or at least pleasure in, his subsequent attainments.
“One half dream; one half plan.” That’s how one student described his life at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina.
Dreaming big at the Governor’s School means Broadway, Hollywood, Carnegie Hall, Pulitzer, Pritzker. Planning big means half of every day in practice, rehearsal, studio, workshop, training, rewrite, instruction, all alongside standard high school academics.
The 240+ South Carolina students are a natural match with this very specialized residential school. They steep in their identity and passion as young artists. (There are 5 arts tracks: dance, drama, visual arts, music, and creative writing.) “You’re a dancer from the minute you get up in the morning,” is how the dance teacher describes her students. “This is how I think of myself. Dance is the place I go to work through my issues. I am comfortable here,” say the students about themselves. They are so mature and accomplished that it is easy to forget they are teen-agers, until they start talking about prom, or offer their alternate self-description as “quirky”, or mention how they really, really miss the puppy at home.
The Governor’s School was founded as a summer program in 1980, by musician, teacher, and reputed force of nature Virginia Uldrick. Her vision was to create a non-traditional arts conservatory. The county and city of Greenville won the derby for permanent home for the expanded, school-year campus. They donated more than 8 beautiful acres, the former site of the Furman University men’s campus, which overlook the now bucolic Falls Park and Reedy River. The 27 million dollar campus, which is named for Uldrick, opened in the fall of 1999 to its first class of juniors. You can reach the school by road, or much more fun, by the Swamp Rabbit Trail along the river and leading up to a (locked) gate at the bottom of the campus hill. It’s a five-minute walk to the Peace Arts Center, Spill the Beans (Coffee! Ice cream!), and all the other offerings of Greenville’s revitalized Main Street. The school’s first encore is already underway—a major capital campaign for a new visitors center, which will include a gallery and gardens.
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The students, juniors and seniors (and sophomores, if they are dancers), are admitted from all around the state, from tiny towns like Little River, population 9000, to larger ones like Greenville and Columbia. Some arrive with impressive portfolios or experience in the Governor’s School summer programs. Others are “discovered” in the old-fashioned way through the deep digging and travel by admissions outreach. I asked the veteran teachers about changes in the students that they have seen over the course of their own careers. Now, they said, they are finding fewer kids with experience and their own sense that they have artistic talent. This means that recruiters today have to look more for the potential and less for the proven. The reason? Budget cuts, they said, which means less of the arts in schools and less exposure for the kids. Chilling.
A tour around the school is an experience. There are multiple dance studios, a performance hall, art spaces for silversmithing, ceramics, a brass foundry, studios for drawing, music practice rooms, a computer lab for graphic design, a gorgeous library, ad lib practice areas. I’m sure I have forgotten others.
Seeing the spaces in use is another experience. In the stage theater, a student violinist was playing for her peers and a guest artist (one of a guest artist series, who was visiting the campus and was performing himself that evening), who was critiquing her performance. We tiptoed into an art room, where a 70-something male model, clad only in running shorts and with astonishing musculature that you had to wonder how he could be for real, stood statue-still while students drew. We stopped in at a practice session preparing drama students for upcoming auditions in Chicago. One young woman was performing her piece of Desdemona for the drama teacher and fellow students. The teacher was tough on her, describing the changes he was looking for, and instructing her to “try it again” at least 3 times before we slipped out. She was tough right back, which convinced me that what another student described as the tough love approach of their instructors was true. “They break you down and build you back up,” he said.
You have to wonder about the stress level in such an intense living environment for high school kids. Lots of talented or accomplished kids have an awakening when they get to college that they’re no longer top-dog, or “everything and a bag of chips” as a writing teacher here described it. For these kids, the realization comes earlier, and it is accompanied by the rigors of their pre-professional endeavors. I saw and heard a few things about their reactions.
Several kids talked about synergy, rather than competition. They described how they’re all driven toward the same goal, and they can feed off that sentiment. ”You feel it in the air,” one described, “to do something great.”
I can’t pretend to know if this is actually pervasively true, and I would guess that the reality is more complicated. Theirs is a tough competitive environment where comparisons are unavoidable and at least some of the rewards are part of a zero-sum calculation. And the kids are, of course, unique. One says she thrives on stress and does well living on the edge. Another says the stress is intense and she has to find a way to keep her balance.
I asked about another sign of stress, eating disorders. The topic is out in the open, was the answer, and it has to be in a school with lots of ballerinas and actresses. Addressing this begins preventatively, with teaching awareness of a healthy lifestyle. That is accompanied by a watchful eagle eye, and backed up by a confidential “honor system” so friends can bring up concerns about friends to the counselors and advisors. “Of course it happens,” the administrators told me, and they need a strong support system around it.
There are two more interesting data points about the make up of student body and the challenges of the admissions work, which are food for thought.
First, gender differences: some 63% of the students at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities are girls. The gender ratio imbalance is most remarkable in dance and least remarkable in drama. The school reports that it seeks to build a balanced class in as many respects as they can, but a reality sets in. “If you need a bassoon player,” one told me, “you hope you find a boy, but it will probably be a girl.”
The A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School for Engineering, the public school in inner city Greenville, which I wrote about here, is 57% boys and 43% girls.
And second, socioeconomics: about one third of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, an accepted proxy for poverty status. I was told that the school attracts mostly lower and middle class students. The school is a harder sell to kids from wealthier families, they said, who don’t want to give up their rooms, cars, and TVs.
So where does this all lead? A reminder, the school graduated its first class a dozen years ago. But already, the recognition is flooding in. National Merit finalists, Presidential Scholars in the Arts, 100% acceptance to colleges or professional schools, including RISD, Juilliard, Guthrie, Eastman, Peabody Conservatory, award of all sorts. Interestingly, several students and teachers alike told me that there really is no pressure on the students to make a life in the arts. If you want to be a rocket scientist after all, that is fine. Last year 109 students earned 26.5 million dollars in scholarship offers, which breaks down to an average of a $243,000 offer per student.
Besides dreams in progress, there are already dreams realized. Patina Miller, a graduate in 2002, won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in Pippin on Broadway. Danielle Brooks plays Taystee in Orange is the New Black. Liza Bennett is an actress in 12 Years a Slave.
And other dramatic wins fall within in a less celebrated spotlight. I heard a poignant story of one Govvie, as students are called, a young clarinetist who couldn’t afford his own instrument. When a local patron, fond of the school, heard of the need, he dug from his attic a beautiful clarinet, which he gave to the young man.
Perhaps the biggest accolade so far is returned to the school: one young woman told me effusively, “I love my school so much. I love the challenges. I feel at home while I’m here.”
To contact the author, write DebFallows at gmail.com. Photos by Deborah and James Fallows.
Here is the "reinvention and resilience" theme I will try to deal with in this post and in coming days: What is the combination of planning, public choice, private character, historic legacy and "path dependence," plus accident and sheer blind chance, that can put a community on an improving course -- more jobs, more opportunity, more satisfying life choices for more people -- rather than the reverse?
Yes, I know: thousands of scholars have written millions of words on just this question. The image at right is about one famous early attempt, which I described long ago in our pages. The chance that my wife and I will discover "the" key to community success or failure as we go from place to place is exactly zero. But -- as has been the case over the years as we have lived and traveled in Asia, Africa, and Europe -- we keep coming across interesting examples with provocative implications, and I'll introduce another of them here.
When we were in Burlington, Vermont, I mentioned the puzzle of the local Internet company Dealer.com. Inside its headquarters, you would have thought you were in Mountain View. When you stepped outside, you were looking not at Highway 101 but at Lake Champlain, now perhaps with ice floes. How did a company like this end up so far from the tech-world ecology that spawns startups in the familiar SF-Seattle-Boston-London-Shanghai centers? We know that it's a virtual world, and in theory you can do high-value work anywhere. But in practice most of today's highest-value collaborative work takes place in clusters, where people are drawn to be with others of similar training and interests, where one successful firm gives rise to spinoffs, where communities evolve to provide the services, comforts, and daily experiences each group values.
In Burlington's case, we heard about all the efforts to help a tech cluster emerge -- and about the enduring importance of IBM's having established a major research center in nearby Essex Junction more than 50 years ago. IBM itself employs only half as many people locally as it did at its peak, but as I described last fall it seems to have made a lasting change in the economic and educational life of the area. Tech-trained families came north for IBM. Many of their children stayed in Vermont, or came back after traveling; some started tech companies of their own. Dealer.com employed some of them -- and, we were told, its recruiting had a specific emphasis. It looked for people with the same tech or business skills that would count in the Bay Area or in Boston -- but who also had some family-tie, recreational, temperamental, or other reason to be interested in the outdoorsy Vermont life. (Since then, by the way, Dealer.com has been acquired for $1 billion. When the Northeast thaws out, we'll go back to ask them about how this affects their sense of Vermont-based localism.)
A similar puzzle arises from the tech company, Esri, that has transformed the economy of Redlands, California -- and that is our partner, providing mapping software*, in this American Futures project. The puzzle, again, is why -- and why here?
Redlands had traditionally been an orange-growing town, and a university town, and a medical center for adjoining mountain and desert communities, and for a while the preferred bedroom community for officers from nearby Norton Air Force Base. But none of these prefigured the emergence of an engineer-heavy "Geographic Information Systems" company, which is the niche Esri occupies and leads worldwide.
Esri was founded more than 40 years ago, by a husband-and-wife team, Jack and Laura Dangermond, who had grown up in Redlands and decided to come back after graduate school at the University of Minnesota and Harvard. It started to emerge as a major economic force by the early 1990s. This was fortunate timing for Redlands, to say the least. At just that time Norton Air Force Base, which during its Cold War heyday had been a very sizable bomber, missile, and defense-research center, was being shuttered as part of the Bush I/Clinton-era rationalization of surplus bases. The Norton population had by definition been transient. But many of its officers and their families chose to stay or to return when they left the Air Force, and even during their active-duty years in the town they often played a big role in civic projects. The removal of Norton could have been a serious problem for the regional economy.
Apart from helping the area through the base-closing bump, the continued growth of Esri has meant thousands of new tech-industry jobs in a city where that represents a large share of the professional work force. Plus new demand for restaurants, entertainment, local retail, and other attributes of cities that seem economically alive -- and museums, concerts, and other markers of healthy civic culture.
Much more than the now-absent Norton, Esri has also changed the human look of the town. Through much of the 20th century, Redlands's ethnic makeup had been an Anglo/Latino balance. Among the whites, there were large groups of Dutch immigrants and their descendants (as in Holland, Michigan); Mormons (whose forebears settled the area in the 1840s and 1850s before being recalled to Utah by Brigham Young); and Dust Bowl-era emigres from the Plains and South. Among the Latinos, nearly all were Mexican and many of those were from families that had been in the area for several generations, having first come north after the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s.
Those were the blocs that mattered, Mexican and mixed-Anglo, when I was growing up. Now, a big tech company means that the faces on the street and at the parks and in the schools include far more people from China, India, Uzbekistan, Nigeria, Russia, Israel, Belarus, Ethiopia, New Zealand, and most other countries you might name. This change de-parochializes a community in countless ways.
The company has made another mark on Redlands, as some of the pictures here may suggest. Jack Dangermond's parents immigrated from Holland (the one in Europe) and ran a popular plant nursery in town. Jack Dangermond's first degree was in landscape architecture, and he and Laura have planted and landscaped so extensively for so many years that they have made Esri's campus and some other public areas in town a kind of arboretum / jungle retreat.
Like any big economic force in a small place, Esri engenders some complaints -- like Microsoft (or now Amazon) during its boom times in Seattle, like various tech companies in SF these days. But in frequent return visits to Redlands over the years, and in asking again in recent weeks, we've heard many fewer cavils about Esri's influence than recognitions that the town would be profoundly poorer and worse off if the company had not been started there, or if it had left for a more mainstream headquarters with a larger natural pool of potential tech recruits.
Which leads us back to why the company began here, and why it hasn't left. Esri is still privately held by the Dangermonds, and run by them. While they are major public figures within their tech community -- for instance, Jack is the on-stage impresario of the vast annual User Conference, which draws tens of thousands from around the world -- they otherwise lead a press-avoiding life. The few times I have tried to ask them the "Why here?" question, their answers have boiled down to "Where else?"
Their reaction has been a version of the answer from Captain Bob Peacock, with which I end my article, in the current issue, about his very different hometown of Eastport, Maine. Bob Peacock had lived all around the world, so my wife and I asked him why he had come back to a hard-pressed, microscopic settlement on the farthest eastern extremity of America. He tossed off the answer as if it were self-evident: This is where he was from, it was where he knew people, it was where he wanted to be.
Something similar seems to be the case with the founders of this company in Redlands. This is where they were from and where they wanted to be, so they felt lucky to be able to make it all work here. And on the practicalities of recruitment: as with Dealer.com in Vermont, they could conduct a certain kind of targeted search. Their ideal candidate would have the right sales, tech, or design skills -- but would also be looking for the virtues of smaller-town rather than hip-big-city life: bigger houses with broader lawns, 5-minute commutes, good public schools, lower costs.
What does this mean, as prescription, for anyplace else? I don't know. I realize that you can't make a formula out of hoping that a locally raised couple goes off for schooling and then decides that the right place for a tech start-up is back home -- and decades later becomes a big international success. But an increasingly powerful impression in our travels is how much these local loyalties -- plus local ownership, and the sense of "local patriotism" we have felt in places otherwise as dissimilar as Sioux Falls or Burlington or Redlands or Holland -- really matter in the fate of a town.
Next up, some illustrations of how, exactly, the software produced in Building Q and its environs has made its mark around the world, plus helped us in this project. Then more about the future of the endangered citrus industry, and the next themes beyond that.
Meta-point for weekend reflection: When we were doing similar prowling through small-town China, the prevailing world view was, "Hey, China is really happening!" So the creativity we saw even in remote Gansu or Ningxia could seem to fit a larger pattern.
The prevailing world view about America in recent years has been, "Hey, we're screwed." We are intentionally looking for successful smaller cities. But if you thought things were going well in America, the kinds of things we're seeing would back up your point.
*To clarify: Esri, like Marketplace, is a "partner" in, but not a "sponsor" of, this project. For Marketplace, this means that we're covering some of the same places together. For Esri, it means that the company is providing software and long hours of guidance on using it, but not any direct financial support.
Also: I did not know Jack or Laura Dangermond while growing up, but our families were friendly, as part of small-town life. My siblings and I spent countless weekends being deployed to Dangermond's nursery to buy bushes, trees, ivy, sod, fertilizer, vegetable seeds, or other items for use in our yard.
Yesterday I argued that the narrative of turning points -- the big choices that built an individual, a family, a community, a nation -- plays a big part in our sense of future possibilities. If you think that you and your people are better off for the hardships you've seen, you face new hard times one way. If you think you're on the wrong side of a long, Buddenbrooks/Downton Abbey-style slide from past glory, you view them differently.
For our latest American Futures town of Redlands, California, a very important part of the local narrative was awareness of the Founding Fathers and Mothers who had set up the small-town counterparts to the National Mall or Central Park. How many small Sunbelt towns have whole histories written about their philanthropic heritage, like the one above? (Which I have with me at home, and will quote from further soon.) Or a promotional documentary like the one Redlands produced for its 125th anniversary last year, which was as earnest as anything from the Frank Capra era in drawing connections between the wisdom of our forebears and real-world choices today?
Two reader reactions on the larger implications of this local story. First, from a resident of Claremont, California, which is only half as far from Los Angeles as Redlands is, and is at least twice as well known:
I think more than just "forefather foresight," generally, must be acknowledged as a reason why Redlands does not resemble most of the south-of-San Gabriel-Mountains sprawl: the presence of the University of Redlands, and the consequent effect on income, education, citizen participation, desire for amenities, willingness to spend public funds on unselfish things like preserve orange groves, or buy up hillsides, or build more high schools, etc.
The other city in this range that uniquely does not resemble the others is Claremont. I don't think it's coincidental to this uniqueness that the Claremont Colleges are located there.
Yes, I agree. Claremont is a "university town" in a way few other places in the West can match, because not one but eight colleges and graduate institutes are based within its small borders. These include Pomona (where I almost went to college), Scripps (where my sister did), Harvey Mudd, and on through the list. Redlands has never been university-centric in the way Claremont is, but it has always been university-influenced, by its small, liberal-arts-oriented University of Redlands.
There is no surprise in saying this, but the more we've traveled the more we've been reminded of the economic and cultural throw-weight of local colleges and universities. (As John Tierney has often discussed in this space, for instance about communities in Vermont and Maine.) Their short-run effect, in bringing in students to boost local demand, matters much less than the long-term changes they can work in the character of a community. That is, attracting a different kind of person to live there and change the kind of place it is.
That effect is obvious when we're talking about big, famous university centers -- Cambridge, the Bay Area sweep of Berkeley through Palo Alto, Pasadena with Caltech. It has made a crucial difference even in little Redlands. Half a century ago, in the 25,000-population town I remember from school days, Redlands tried to be more than just a sunbelt boom town by bolstering its still-strong orange-growing industry with a mix of higher-end industries and jobs:
It had the university, which because it was especially strong in music, drama, speech, and performing arts, bolstered the local cultural community;
It was the nicest nearby bedroom community for giant Norton Air Force Base, and many of the colonels' (etc) families who lived for a few years in Redlands had broader international experience;
In much the way Sioux Falls is increasingly the retail and medical center for the rest of South Dakota, Redlands, on the edge of the Mojave, was a medical center for vast desert communities. This was what drew my parents to the city when my dad finished his time as a Navy doctor; some of his patients came from 100 miles away.
It had a high-tech defense-contractor community, in the form of Grand Central Rocket which later became part Lockheed Propulsion. Thus some of my school teachers had come to the area as Okies during the Dust Bowl and Depression. And some were scientists, or their spouses, who had come from the East Coast or Europe to work at Grand Central.
These days Norton is closed and long gone; neighboring Loma Linda has an enormous Veterans' hospital and university medical system to compete with Redlands doctors (though many of those families live in Redlands); Grand Central Rocket is no more, and the Lockheed site has been the subject of a drawn out toxic-waste lawsuit; and the University has faced the challenges of other small non-famous liberal-arts colleges.
Now what helps the city retain its character -- and live out what it considers its local narrative -- is the software company Esri, which is our partner in this project. Even 20 years ago, few people would have imagined that a locally owned, privately held, globally dominant software company could bring thousands of engineers and designers from around the world and work in this small city, but that is what has occurred. We asked about the causes and ramifications, and will go into them soon.
But the look-and-feel implications are already obvious. About a week ago my wife stepped into a Redlands coffee shop that would have fit in perfectly in Brooklyn, Berkeley, or West LA. "Those people over there are from the university," another local shop owner told her, pointing to one group of customers. "And the ones over here are from Esri."
Now, on the policy implications, from our old friend Mike Lofgren. As a reminder, he is a long time Republican Congressional aide, and author of The Party is Over. He says this about the turning-points narrative:
On the development, infrastructure, and the process of community growth and decay: It has something to do, as you say, with “stories we tell ourselves,” but I think in a more direct and ideological fashion than that phrase implies.
It is remarkable that much of our present infrastructure – or perhaps it is better to describe it as the mental image of what we think a city should be – dates back well over a century. Some of it, like streetcars and interurbans, is no longer with us precisely because of business decisions that were partly ideological. But think of all that remains – urban parks like Central Park or Boston Common, the stately campuses of long-established public universities, public buildings like those surrounding the Mall in Washington, the Brooklyn Bridge, the New York subway – all were constructed long ago as collective enterprises that transcended the now-sacrosanct goal of immediate private profit.
The free-market fundamentalist ideology that has dominated public debate for the last 35 years has attempted to obscure all of this by projecting onto the past a fantasy vision of the United States as a sort of Ayn Rand utopia before it was spoiled (depending on the point the ideologue is making) by the New Deal, the Great Society, or the 2009 Stimulus. Much of this is historical distortion owing to ignorance compounded by partisan bias, but public purpose in development goes all the way back to George Washington and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the National Road.
We actually fought the battle over the Stimulus before, on a tragic scale: politicians in what eventually became the Confederacy were opposed to “internal improvements,” because they intuitively understood it would hasten the end of their system of feudal slavery.
I suspect, however, that some of this false projection is not just ignorance, but rather a mendacious attempt at dominating the present by changing our collective perception of the past, in the manner of Stalin airbrushing Trotsky from photographs.
A particularly egregious example is Amity Schlaes’ The Forgotten Man, a cherry-picking polemic which “proves” the New Deal was a failure that prolonged the Great Depression. Quite apart from the overriding fact that the United States survived the depression with its institutions intact while many democracies did not, it is hard to think of America as a better place if it were to lack projects like TVA or the Grand Coulee Dam, not to mention the hundreds of post offices and other public buildings such as the National Gallery, as well as jewels like Shenandoah National Park.
To tie this all together -- the WPA, historical architecture, local consciousness, purposeful narratives -- here is a snapshot of a watercolor on our dining-room wall by the Redlands artists Janet Edwards. It shows the WPA-built local post office, now of course up for impending sale.
The inscription inside (where I once worked as a mail sorter and letter carrier) said that the building was dedicated only a few months after FDR took office. Things moved quickly in those days. More on the power of personal, local, and national narrative soon -- in fact, next year. New Year's greetings to all.
It's been a very long day of interviewing and visiting, and before an early start tomorrow and some "real" reports on this next American Futures stop, here's a shot from one of the moments that makes the reporting life worthwhile.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
Early this morning Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal (and team) and I got to talk with Ben Cook, head of the Hangar 24 craft brewery in Redlands, California, about how his little company has become one of the fastest-growing startups in its field. Five-plus years ago, when I first began visiting, Hangar 24 was a two-person operation in a wasteland adjoining a tiny airport, very far from any big city. Now it employs more than 130 people, has had annual growth rates of between 50% and 100%, and is expanding its footprint all over the West. More of its background on the airwaves and in this space soon. (That's Cook on the right, Ryssdal in the middle, local guide on the left, at the H24 brewery.)
A few miles away, my wife and I visited the Grove School, a local charter school that, among other things, operates its own student-run farm. A locally owned grocery store had just sent in an order for fresh lettuce, which the students were picking -- and which we'll look for in the store tomorrow.
Meanwhile other students in the school were working through their math problems:
This is a different range of activities from what I recall of my school days here. My wife Deb, who has reported on schools in Eastport, Sioux Falls, Burlington, and elsewhere will follow up here. Signing off now, and getting ready for tomorrow's interviews and reports.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
I was preparing one last "substance" post on Holland, about the gay-equality initiatives that have run into trouble from the city government and the leadership of the church-affiliated local Hope College. I talked about the resulting controversies with many people including (at the New Holland Brewery) with the mayor.
But many people have written in on that very theme, so for now I'll wrap up with their letters and some others on larger themes from this small town. At the end of this post, a preview of where we are headed next.
'I won't live there.' I got a lot of messages in this vein:
I'm a graduate of Hope College, magna cum laude in [XX subject in the late 1970s]. I know the area well. I have some Dutch ancestry. My sister is [an official] about 30 miles north. I know Holland and western Michigan and Dutch-American culture from the inside.
I grant all the excellent qualities you have written about --hard work, ingenuity, social cohesion, and a sense of an America very different from DC or NYC.
I won't live in Holland, and when my own children [three ages 15-19] have looked at colleges (or will), I never suggested my alma mater.
My reason: the social narrowness of smug Dutch-American culture. Athough there is a very significant Latino population in Holland, it has not successfully challenged Dutch-American Christian Reformed hegemony. That hegemony will allow no compromises.
You alluded to this smugness when you mentioned the failure of the gay rights initiative(s) there. I wouldn't want to raise my children in this atmosphere, and I don't want my children going to college in it. The hateful things that were said during that discussion give evidence of the smugness of that culture.
I live in Connecticut now (outside New Haven), and there's a lot wrong with CT. But we experience far more cultural, religious, and racial diversity here. It's not perfect, but we're working on it.
Holland has many fine qualities. But it's suffocating for many people, including me. Do mention the numerous people from Holland, and Western Michigan, who have fled the cultural suffocation.
'I won't live there, either.' To give another sample:
It's interesting how a brief visit imbues one with all sorts of ideas about a place. I'm sure you've received a lot of letters from residents or locals; this is another one (although now I split time between Evanston/Chicago and Wuhan, Hubei, PRC.
You got the local money part right. It's the underlying provincialism and Calvinist ethic that one has to be there a long time to understand. A corollary article might be "What's it like to be an outsider in Holland?"
It gets pretty insulated. Having grown up there, I'm now a "FIP", as in "fucking Illinois person". There's a long list of similar story lines.
It gets real small in Holland. You saw it at its best. [As below]
The equality struggle. From a filmmaker nearby.
As you and your wife continue your journey, I wanted to be sure you are aware of the non-profit Until Love is Equal. (I doubt many Hollanders will bring it up.)...
While the efforts of this Grand Rapids-based group have been determined and well-intentioned, I don't believe the council has taken any action on the issue as a result of ULIE's campaign. I do believe, however, that the campaign's message and media campaign has helped generate fresh dialogue among Hollanders (and surrounding communities) about the average experience of gay citizens in their city. Or maybe not. Could be worth asking?
Yes indeed. We actually heard about ULIE while there, and the controversy over the city's rejection of its measures came up repeatedly. Especially we heard this from some international business people who were concerned that it would mark the city as intolerant and thus make recruiting to Holland a harder sell for professionals they were trying to attract from bigger-city America or overseas.
Why a Dutch-American community could be less tolerant than the original Holland itself. Also on this theme:
I live in Grand Rapids and it is a bit embarrassing that they cannot figure this out in a region that wishes to emulate their [Netherlands] homeland (as they often proclaim.) We have asked what does it say about being billed as a welcoming community when their leaders out and out reject LGBT as full citizens worthy of protections.
Grand Rapids enacted protections for their LGBT in 1994. MIchigan has more than 20 other cities that have followed since...except Holland. The council rejected its opportunity even after their civil rights committee said overwhelming this was a real problem.
And racially divided. A reader born and raised there writes:
I truly do believe Holland is a unique city, and one ripe for study -- especially after coming to college and getting a better perspective on how most cities of Holland's size operate economically and socially.
Growing up in Holland, I was a bit of an outcast politically (not just in the town, in my family, too). So I was highly critically ofHolland's political and religious climate. Now I appreciate more fully how valuable an experience it was to grow up in such a diverse climate -- diverse politically, economically, and racially. And now I unabashedly love the city.
Holland's racial divisions is an issue I would encourage you to pay special attention to. I attended Holland public schools, and by the time I got to Holland High School, there were discussions amongst friends and teachers about the drastic "white flight" experienced by Holland public schools over the past few decades. Of course no empirical study exists, but if you look at the number of students Holland public schools lost -- mainly to schools within driving distance of Holland public (Michigan is a "school of choice" state) -- and look at the changing racial composition of the schools, while also considering Holland's struggle with some pretty serious gang activity in the late 1980s and 1990s, I don't think "white flight" is too strong a term.
When I was thinking like a DC policy person, what was the biggest surprise from the time my wife and I spent in Holland? It involved immigration, in a way I would not have expected from what is now our favorite lake side, Dutch-themed, manufacturing-intensive, brewery-and-university-rich small Michigan town.
(Today's photo theme includes windmills in Holland, precisely because I've tried to establish by now that so much else is going on in what some visitors experience as a kitschy "Tulip Time" resort. This is the windmill outside Russ's Restaurant, whose main sign is shown lower down.)
During the time we were in Holland, just before the Syrian blow-up, the big political story out of DC was how the Republican party would position itself for or against an immigration-reform bill. Would the Rubio "soft" line prevail, or would he have to backtrack from anything that seemed like amnesty, and so on.