Music played in the background as students chatted. Water ran; someone’s hair was being washed. The smell of hairspray alternated with whiffs of nail polish. Ashley Thomas quietly approached her teacher holding a mannequin’s head, its hair matted with white goo. It stared blankly ahead while cosmetology teacher Christina DiPrinzio took a rat-tail comb and expertly pushed apart sections of the mannequin’s hair. She liked what she saw: Ashley had done an excellent job of applying hair color to the mannequin’s roots and received 100 percent in the grade book. Ashley attended Woodlands High School in Hartsdale, but this huge classroom—a fully stocked beauty salon with six washing sinks, 20 cutting/styling chairs, and three big hair dryers—was in Valhalla.
During her senior year, Ashley was bused five mornings a week from Hartsdale to Valhalla to take a BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) class. In the afternoons, she
returned to her home school and participated in classes there. Now that her two-year BOCES Career Services course is over, Ashley, 18, has earned her high school diploma from Woodlands, is enrolled in classes at Westchester Community College, and is planning to take the state’s cosmetology certification test.
Remember when public high schools offered classes like home economics and typing, auto shop and woodworking? Now these vocational, or non-academic, classes are all but extinct in public schools. Priorities have shifted in recent decades. More emphasis is put on academics, as schools see themselves as college-prep institutions. Relentless budget squeezes—prompted by rising teacher salaries, insurance premiums, and the costs of maintaining school facilities—also have made casualties of most vocational courses.
Social changes have taken their toll, too. White-collar careers—and the college educations needed to achieve them—carry more status than work that involves manual labor. But this overlooks the fact that not every student, by choice or by circumstance, is cut out for a white-collar career or college.
Enter BOCES (pronounced BO-sees), the big, publicly funded entity that provides education-related services that are shared by school districts throughout the county. Westchester taxes support two BOCES organizations: Southern Westchester and Putnam/Northern Westchester. Together they do work in a total of 53 school districts. They fill a host of education-related jobs and work with people of all ages providing, for example, special-education classes, teacher training, and school busing. BOCES even has a program for incarcerated youth.
If it all seems confusing, that’s because it is. One good way of looking at BOCES is to see it as a safety net; it provides services the school districts can’t pay for on their own. Instead, the districts pay a portion of the cost and share them.
BOCES first came to Westchester in 1948 with the aim of helping small, rural, or poor school districts. A few districts voted to hire and share the services of 13 teachers who specialized in areas like art, remedial reading, and physical education. Since then, BOCES’s budgets have grown to a combined total of roughly $200 million for the 2007-2008 school year. “BOCES has become essential to our viability, especially with all the federal and state mandates,” says Frances Wills, superintendent of the Briarcliff School District.
SWBOCES provides more than 65 services to Southern Westchester’s 33 participating districts. Its Valhalla-based Career Services Division—the one that Ashley Thomas enrolled in—gives a microcosmic view of what BOCES does: it aims to meet the need for the vocational education that local high schools have backed away from in recent decades. Its courses in areas like cosmetology, culinary arts, fashion design, carpentry, electrical work, auto mechanics, and commercial art serve much the same purpose that “shop class” used to: teaching real-life skills to students who want or need more from school than tradional academics.
Ashley is one of those kids. She was not having problems in Woodlands, but she wanted to get something else out of high school. “My dad always said, ‘It’s best to come out with a trade in case something happens,’” she says. Though she ultimately wants to become a teacher (she is majoring in education), Ashley plans to take the certification test for her cosmetology license this fall. Practicality plays a part in why many students enroll in these classes. Some students need to be able to pay their own way through trade school or college. (A tuition-based cosmetology program, for instance, can cost up to $15,000.)
“You get hands-on training plus academic credit; industry certification plus a high-school diploma,” says Career Services Director Linda Suarez. “It doesn’t get any better than that.” She mentions that some former BOCES cosmetology students are currently putting themselves through nursing school—by working in hair salons. But Career Services, whose classes are just for 10th to 12th graders, also can be seen as a safety net, a second chance, an alternative. “One size does not fit all in education,” says Lynn Sabia, assistant principal at Pelham Memorial High School.
Just ask Katherine Roche, whose son, Stephen, was an auto technology student at BOCES. “Stephen was lost,” she states flatly. “He just couldn’t find himself. He stayed back a year to see if he could pull up his grades, but he just couldn’t.”
Then, according to Stephen, his guidance counselor at Ardsley High School told him about the BOCES program. “She knew I wasn’t really interested in the classes at my home school,” he says. “She knew I was a hands-on type of person.” So he enrolled in BOCES and spent two-and-a-half hours of every school day focused on the mechanics of cars—engines, brakes, suspension, etc. “He did a one-eighty,” says his mother. “Within a month, he was so much happier.”
When he was a senior at Ardsley, Stephen worked after school at the Mini Cooper dealership in Greenburgh and at Westchester BMW in White Plains on Saturdays. And now he is going to college at SUNY Delhi, where he’s majoring in auto technology. His mother is thrilled. “He’ll be the first in our family to go to college!” she exclaims. “It’s a big achievement. He comes from two Irish immigrants. I came here when I was twenty-four with five-hundred dollars in my pocket.”
There is, however, a big difference between this form of vocational education and what used to be offered in high schools. BOCES deliberately incorporates academics into the class work; after all, its programs have to meet state requirements for English, math, science, and social studies. A student can receive English and science credit by taking cosmetology, for instance. The students have to write more than 10 three-page typed essays a year, covering topics like the history of wigs. For science—which includes lab work—students may study the chemical makeup of hair dye.
This approach really worked for Steven Brauman from Eastchester. He enrolled in the computer technology course when he was in 11th grade. While his reading comprehension was excellent, Steven had great difficulty with writing. He wasn’t keeping up with assignments at school and had trouble with large classes. “A class of twenty was too much for him,” says his mother, Rochelle Brauman, a former elementary school teacher. “He needed a different style of learning.”
She says computer teacher Joe Passaretti worked wonders. He noticed that, for instance, while Steven had trouble with writing assignments, he could fix a broken computer in a flash. So he might be assigned to write about…fixing a computer. “They taught to his strengths,” his mom says. Not only did Passaretti click with Steven on a “geek” level, he taught him what to expect in the workplace, giving him the confidence to look for a job. When Steven graduated, he started working for a computer store in Ardsley. He fixed computers and also worked in networking and sales. He has been living in his own apartment in Wappingers Falls for more than a year. Steven, today 20, plans to start his own computer and network repair business by the end of the year. “BOCES was inspirational,” he says. “They didn’t teach me so much about computers; it was more about soft skills and practical business responsibility.”
A lot of BOCES kids just don’t do well with a full day of academics. Once they enroll in Career Services, students spend half of every day in their academic classes and are bused to the Valhalla campus for a two-and-a-half hour BOCES class. “It’s part of a student’s day, but it’s a half-day off-campus,” Suarez explains. High schools have found that lackluster students can be more motivated once they start a Career Services program because they have to meet certain academic standards to remain. “The students know that if they don’t do well at their home school, they’ll be pulled out of this,” Suarez says.
Some BOCES staffers maintain schools don’t always encourage students to consider BOCES. That could be for budgetary reasons, as a district has to pay for every student who attends BOCES classes. But something else may be at work. There is a stigma attached to BOCES that makes some kids and parents shy away from taking advantage of these programs. “Unfortunately, in Westchester, most parents don’t want their kids to be plumbers or stylists, tradespeople,” says DiPrinzio, the cosmetology teacher. “They want their kids going to the top ten colleges, but that’s not always what’s best for the kids.” Wills, in Braircliff, states, “‘Vocational’ doesn’t ring well with a lot of people. But these kids come out and get a lot of very high-paying jobs.”
There may be another reason for the stigma: the belief that BOCES students are either slow to learn or have behavior problems. As one high-school student says, the BOCES kids from his school “are usually the troublemakers. They are kids who are failing, not because they aren’t smart, but because they don’t do stuff like finish their homework.”
Well, sometimes that is the case, but there is another component, insists DiPrinzio. “These kids are just unique,” she says. “You see the same kinds of kids in all the classes here. It’s the kids with the nose-piercings, the kids who don’t fit in.” Some, she says, have learning problems like Attention Deficit Disorder, but others “just don’t feel high school is relevant to what they want to do in life. They are bright, but in a different sort of way.” A lot her students go on to business college, while others open their own salons or work in retail.
A tour of Valhalla’s Career Services facilities is enough to make any Westchester taxpayer green with envy if his or her kids aren’t taking classes there. Each classroom is purpose-designed and stocked with professional-grade equipment. The cosmetology class is a working beauty shop. If you like to cook, the two culinary arts kitchens—complete with Culinary Institute of America-trained chefs/teachers—are a great place to learn. The two auto shop “classrooms” are in fact professional-sized garages, outfitted with the latest equipment (lifts, wheel balancers, etc.) as specified by dealerships that lend BOCES their expertise. One class focuses on car repair (assignments include tire rotation and computer diagnostics), while another is devoted to body work (everything from smoothing out dents to custom paint jobs). Fashion design is in a large, open room stocked with cutting tables, banks of sewing machines (basic and industrial), Apple computers, and dress forms in a variety of sizes. And, of course, there is a fashion show every spring. “They get excited about learning here,” DiPrinzio says. “Even if they do have a learning problem, they don’t see it as a problem here.”
Pelham freelance writer Carol Hall has written a variety of articles for Westchester Magazine on subjects ranging from “green” housing to animal shelters.