Kyrah Whatley, 17, is confident she can become a mason after finishing high school. But around the U.S., many parents think schools are not adequately preparing girls for the workforce.
Kyrah Whatley, 17, is confident she can become a mason after finishing high school. But around the U.S., many parents think schools are not adequately preparing girls for the workforce. Claudio Sanchez/NPR
Kyrah Whatley, 17, is a bright student with pretty good grades. But the thought of spending two to four more years in a college classroom is depressing, she says.
Masonry, on the other hand, intrigues her. "I'm a kinesthetic learner. ... I learn with my hands," she says.
That's why Kyrah is thinking of joining the Navy as a certified mason right after she graduates from Buchtel High School in Akron, Ohio.
A new poll from NPR, the Harvard School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds that the majority of parents feel their child's school is preparing students for college. But 4 in 10 say that schools do not sufficiently prepare students who will not attend college — and parents of girls are even more likely to be concerned than parents of boys.
No one is more supportive of Kyrah's decision to pursue a trade than her masonry teacher, Matt Simpson. There are no desks inside his classroom — a cavernous warehouse that doubles as a storage facility for lumber, bricks and heavy equipment.
A cheerful man in his early 30s, Simpson is a product of Akron's public schools. He skipped college and went on to make six figures as a mason and a contractor before he started teaching at Buchtel. So he agrees with Kyrah that college isn't for everybody.
"When I was in school that same thing was beaten into me, too. ... You had to go to college, you had to go to college," Simpson says. "So I needed to figure out, if I'm not going to college, I'm not also going to work at McDonald's, so what am I going to do?"
Many Trades Remain Male-Dominated
Students today face the same question, and it's especially frustrating for young women, Simpson says. They face more hurdles, both real and perceived. Women, after all, are still a tiny minority in well-paying trades like plumbing, welding and masonry.
Kyrah says people tried to talk her out of enrolling in the masonry program. Some thought that learning how to lay brick was crazy.
"But I said, 'It doesn't matter because any woman can do anything ... a man can do,' " Kyrah says. When her mother and some friends tried to talk her out of it — telling her it was a boys' class — her response was: "I don't care."
Kyra says Buchtel High has given her what she needs to do well after high school. But when NPR, Harvard and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation asked parents if schools were sufficiently preparing students for the world of work, parents of girls were more likely to say no.
Christianne Corbett, a senior researcher with the American Association of University Women, is not surprised. Corbett, who studies gender equity in education and the workplace, says girls and boys need more than a high school diploma in this economy.
"We've seen over time more and more jobs do require some sort of higher education," Corbett says. "A high school degree really is not enough for individuals to support themselves and their families, and women are paid less than men at every level of education.
"So when you take that into consideration, women with a high school degree don't fare even as well as men with just a high school degree," Corbett says.
David James, Akron's superintendent of schools, says even career certification programs in high school aren't enough.
"High schools as we know them are already obsolete," he says. "You may come from Akron Public Schools with a certificate in welding and may get a job. But if you want to move up, you're going to have to go back to school. So when we say 'college and career ready,' you're going to [need] to get some additional training in any career that you choose."
For many families, though, more education and training beyond high school is a huge financial hurdle. Some question if it's even worth the investment. This is where career counseling and guidance comes in.
Seeking More Guidance On Non-College Options
In Kyrah's case, she has a caring teacher advising her, as well as the support of Bonita Clark, her great-grandmother, who raised her.
Clark wasn't crazy about Kyrah wanting to be a mason, in the military or otherwise. But she remembers the day Kyrah came home really excited with a brick she said she had made at school.
"She [asked], 'What do you think about me being in masonry?' I said, 'Kyrah, if that's something you really want to do, then you do it,' " Clark says. "I've always told her, 'Don't let anybody ever discourage you from doing what you want to do.' "
But Clark adds that she wishes Kyrah had gotten better advice from teachers and counselors about other options.
"They should have more one-on-one with the students, especially the ones that show potential," Clark says. "Now, some kids go to school, I know, and they [don't] care one way or the other; all they want to do is get out of school. But they need somebody to encourage those kids."
Absolutely, says James, the schools superintendent. But parents and students also have to take more responsibility preparing for a career, he says. Parents, after all, have the greatest influence when it comes to their daughters' — and sons' — choices.
"It isn't all about academics in a kid's life," he says. "It's also about those social and emotional supports in order to give that kid the grit and determination to be successful."
And when schools and parents work together, James says, the hurdles kids face may not all come down — but they're a lot easier to jump.