Is the WASL steering kids from vo-tech classes?

For 17 years, Jerry Helm has taught two three-hour carpentry classes at Sno-Isle Tech Skills Center in south Everett.

The routine has been as second nature to him as pounding nails.

Next fall could be different.

Just 39 students have signed up for his construction trades classes, rather than the typical 48 to 54.

Carpentry is not the only class hit by low enrollment. Computer-aided drafting and business management classes are being eliminated altogether, and a proposed aircraft service technician course didn’t get enough students to get off the ground.

Other trade classes also face declining enrollment but have enough students to offer two courses a day.

The low enrollment could force the vocational and technology campus just south of Boeing to drop one of the two carpentry classes.

“It’s right on the edge,” said Steve Burch, director of the skills center.

The plan, for now, is to offer both classes, but if more than one student has a change of heart between now and Thursday, the center could cancel a class.

Burch doesn’t think a lack of student interest is the reason behind the decline. He believes new graduation requirements for students who fail the math WASL are keeping potential students away.

“The math WASL definitely had an impact,” he said.

This spring, there were 1,366 applications to enroll next fall at Sno-Isle. Last year, there were 1,515.

Three years ago, Sno-Isle had nearly 2,000 applications and an enrollment of more than 1,000. This year, enrollment slipped to 836 and could dip even lower next year.

Traditionally, there has been about a 20 percent attrition rate among students who accept invitations to enroll in Sno-Isle in the spring and those who actually show up in the fall.

Many students who have been accepted at Sno-Isle could end up staying on their home campus to take extra math classes next fall.

A state law passed in 2006 requires students who have not passed the math portion of the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning to keep taking math classes until they graduate. Statewide, more than a third of seniors have not passed the math WASL.

Sophomores and juniors won’t know until June how they fared on the math WASL. Many of those who accept invitations to Sno-Isle could find out they failed the math WASL and be forced to take a math class at their home school.

Sno-Isle is by no means alone in its concern. Career and technical education courses have seen a 2.4 percent drop in enrollment among high school students over the past three years and the decline has reached 4.9 percent at the state’s 10 regional skills center. At the same time, overall high school enrollment increased by 2.8 percent.

Burch is confident Sno-Isle’s enrollment will rebound.

In the long term, the center will be expanding space and adding programs. Construction will begin early next year on a $24 million building that will add programs in auto body collision repair; aircraft service; cosmetology; heating, ventilation and air conditioning maintenance and installation; and low-voltage electrical wiring. The new building, set to open in 2010, also will have room to add another program and to move existing criminal justice and fashion and merchandising programs out of portables.

In the shorter term, the center will begin offering math instruction on the campus, a strategy that has worked well elsewhere in the state.

At the Clark County Skills Center in Vancouver, Wash., enrollment rose by more than 50 students this fall in part because the school added a math program that teaches concepts tested on the WASL. The school also has classes for another 60 students needing language arts and social studies instruction.

In both cases, it has allowed the students to meet graduation requirements while enrolled in vocational classes they find motivating, said Dennis Kampe, the skills center’s director.

“We have had more requests than we have been able to accommodate,” Kampe said.

The Vancouver-based skills center tries to make the academic lessons relevant to their trade-oriented students.

In English class, diesel mechanics students aren’t learning Shakespeare but do write about the viscosity of oils. Carpentry students might face a math problem that asks them how much concrete they need to pour a foundation without wasting money.

Back in Everett, Helm, the carpentry teacher at Sno-Isle, wants to see enrollment in his program rebound. He hopes the skills center is able to offer math instruction that meets students’ needs and state requirements.

From his perspective, much of what’s needed is already in place in his class.

“You are measuring,” he said. “You are figuring area. You are figuring volume. You are estimating. Everything you are doing is math, but a lot of people don’t see it that way.”

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or

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