ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Schools don't like to use the V word anymore - vocational, as in vocational education. Administrators say the word and the idea behind it is outdated, offering job-training courses only to students who are going straight into the workforce. The school district in Nashville is encouraging every high school student regardless of college plans to take three career training classes. Emily Siner of member station WPLN has the story.
EMILY SINER, BYLINE: In real life, Kiera Beard is a senior at Overton High School, but today in class she's a pharmacist.
KIERA BEARD: I need your name, date of birth - like, all these right here.
JUSTIN KIRBY: So my name is John Overton. August the 17th, 1951.
SINER: The fake patient here is Justin Kirby, who's in a pharmacy program at nearby Lipscomb University.
BEARD: Do you have any allergies?
KIRBY: Yes, the medication that I had the allergic reaction to is Zithromax.
SINER: The graduate students are leading the job simulation. They're helping the high schoolers count pills - or M&Ms - and measure solutions.
BEARD: The dosage form is liquid, right?
KIRBY: So pour that in there.
SINER: At the end of the school year, students will be able to take the national certification exam to become a real pharmacy technician right out of high school. That job pays, on average, more than $14 an hour. Ronda Bryant, a pharmacy professor at Lipscomb, says having that certification is instantly marketable.
RONDA BRYANT: Most pharmacists want a certified tech. It's a cut above because they have additional responsibilities and that's what people are looking for, so even someone who has pharmacy experience but may not have a certification - these students at John Overton may be more qualified to go in.
SINER: Being qualified for a job is the focus of what's called career and technical education, essentially vocational training for the modern workforce. More than 90 percent of public high school students across the country have taken at least one class that fits into this category, but most students in Nashville now take three. Its high schools offer dozens of career and technical education classes, including computer integrated manufacturing, health care administration and web design. Chaney Mosley oversees the district's career tech program, and it's the idea that some of these students will finish with their certificate in hand that gets him really excited.
CHANEY MOSLEY: When a student from our high schools graduates with one of those certifications and chooses to not immediately pursue higher education, that can be a game changer.
SINER: But Mosley is quick to point out career classes are not just for kids going straight into the workforce. Many of the classes also count for college credit and they try to create what he calls a college-going culture.
MOSLEY: I don't think it encourages students to not go to college. In fact, I would say it does the opposite. It lets students experience success and realize that they have a great potential for post-secondary success and career success in a related field.
SINER: And he says it helps them understand the importance of continuing their education, wherever that might happen.
SADIQ RAHMATULLAH: So we try to count a measurement with water.
SINER: Back in Overton High School's pharmacy class, was senior Sadiq Rahmatullah is learning how to distill fake medicine. He is planning to go to college he says. He might want to be a physician but now that he's taking this class, he hopes to work in a pharmacy during college.
RAHMATULLAH: You can earn money so you can pay your school bill. It's really a good opportunity for me. I don't want to depend on my parent because I need to depend on myself. So I can help myself and I can help my family too.
SINER: The district says ambitions like this are a change from vocational education of the past. Students aren't separated by who wants to go to college and who wants to get a job, they're all preparing for both. For NPR News I'm Emily Siner in Nashville.