STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's turn now to education, where policymakers from President Obama on down say it is the job of schools to prepare students for college, or for the world of work. If that's the job, do parents think schools are doing well? In a recent survey by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, most parents said yes, with one exception - a big exception. Many said schools did not sufficiently prepare young women for the world of work.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez has this report.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: 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. Masonry, on the other hand, intrigues her.
I like it just because it's like building stuff, and I'm a kinesthetic learner. I learn with my hands. So I'm going into the Navy; like, I can be a mason.
That's right. Kyrah is thinking of joining the Navy as a certified mason, right after she graduates from Buchtell High in Akron, Ohio; and no one is more supportive than her masonry teacher, Matt Simpson.
MATT SIMPSON: Kyrah, where's my 90-degree square?
SANCHEZ: Today, Simpson is having Kyrah and her classmates work on a mock-up foundation for a house they're building.
SIMPSON: I need everybody on this side so we all know what we're doing.
SANCHEZ: Inside the huge, cavernous warehouse that's both a classroom and a storage facility for building materials - lumber, bricks - and heavy equipment, there are no desks; just long tables covered in chalk-like dust. A cheerful man in his early 30s, Simpson is a product of Akron's public schools. He skipped college; went on to make six figures as a mason, and a contractor, before he started teaching at Buchtel. So he agrees with Kyrah: College isn't for everybody.
SIMPSON: When I was in school, that same thing was beaten into me too also - you had to go to college, you had to go to college. So I needed to figure out, if I'm not going to go to college, I'm not also going to work at McDonalds. So what am I going to do?
SANCHEZ: Students today face the same question, and it's especially frustrating for young women, says Simpson. They face more hurdles, both real and perceived. Women, after all, are still a tiny minority in good-paying trade like plumbing, welding and masonry. Kyrah says people even tried to talk her out of enrolling in the masonry program. Some thought learning how to lay brick was crazy.
KYRAH WHATLEY: But I said it doesn't matter 'cause any women can do anything as a man can do.
SANCHEZ: But who tried to talk you out of it?
WHATLEY: My mother, a couple of friends, and then they was like, that's a boys' class. I was like, I don't care.
SANCHEZ: Kyrah says Buchtel High has given her what she needs to do well after high school. But when NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health asked parents in a recent survey if schools were sufficiently preparing students who don't go to college for the world of work, parents of girls were more likely to say no than parents of boys.
Christianne Corbett is not surprised. She's a researcher at the American Association of University Women, where she studies gender equity in education and the workplace. In this economy she says, girls and boys need more than a high school diploma.
CHRISTIANNE CORBETT: We've seen, over time, more and more jobs do require some sort of higher education; and just 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 fair even as well as men with just a high school degree.
DAVID JAMES: Huh. High schools, as we know them, are already obsolete.
SANCHEZ: That's David James, Akron's superintendent of schools. He says even career-certification programs in high school aren't enough.
JAMES: 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 get some additional training in any career that you choose.
SANCHEZ: 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 come in. Kyrah is lucky to have a caring teacher advising her, and the support of the woman who raised her.
BONITA CLARK: I'm Bonita Clark, and I'm Kyrah Whatley's great-grandmother.
SANCHEZ: Mrs. Clark wasn't crazy about Kyrah wanting to be a mason, in or out of the military. But she remembers the day Kyrah came home really excited with a brick that she said she had made at school.
CLARK: She says, what do you think about me being in masonry? And I told her, Kyrah, if that's something you really want to do, then you do it. I always told her, don't let anybody ever discourage you from doing what you want to do.
SANCHEZ: Mrs. Clark says she just wishes Kyrah had gotten better advice from teachers and counselors about other options.
CLARK: They should have more - more one-on-one with the students, especially the ones that show potential. Now some kids go to school - I know - and they ain't caring one way or the other; all I want to do is get out of school. But they need somebody to encourage those kids.
SANCHEZ: Absolutely, says schools superintendent David James. But he says parents and students also have to take more responsibility preparing for a career. Parents, after all, have the greatest influence when it comes to their daughters' and sons' choices.
JAMES: It isn't all about academics in a kids' life. It's also about those social and emotional supports in order to give that kid the grit and determination to be successful.
SANCHEZ: 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.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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