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For once, it was parents who had the homework assignment.

Eighty years ago, in late March 1939, survey forms were distributed to Carlisle-area families listing new courses the high school was preparing to launch with the start of the 1939-40 school year.

It was up to parents to gather input from their children on what courses they may desire to take as part of the expanded curriculum. A meeting was scheduled for April 11 to brief the public.

The Sentinel reported on this push by local educators to capitalize on the promise of enhanced state and federal funding. The groundwork that spring continues today in one of the few school districts in Pennsylvania to operate its own independent vocational-technical school.

The origin of the current Center for Careers and Technology could be traced back to before late August 1938 when the school board hired Edgar Eastep of Altoona as the director and coordinator of vocational education.

Early advocate

Estep had experience as a teacher in the vocational department of the Altoona school system where he was in charge of that district’s night classes. Carlisle hired him for $2,400 to plan the introduction of the new courses.

One goal of the April 11 meeting was to provide parents with information on how to help their children with course selection for the coming school year. Estep led the briefing with support from Superintendent J. Wesley Potter, who had persuaded the school board to embrace an expanded program of vocational offerings. The meeting was held in the auditorium of the old Lamberton school building.

That spring into the summer, Estep wrote a series of columns that were published in The Sentinel under the header “Vocational Education.” Each column addressed a key question associated with providing that type of instruction. In the April 15 edition, the question was to what extent should reimbursable classes develop skills?

While some innate ability is essential for success in the classroom, it is not the goal of vocational courses to turn out workers so skilled in a single process that they become high-volume production workers on the assembly line, Estep wrote. He argued it is the responsibility of industry to develop a speedy and efficient workforce.

“The purpose of vocational education at public expense is not to serve the industry as such, but to benefit the worker by providing a plan of instruction which will insure not only initial employment ... but will enable the worker to keep pace with changing conditions,” Estep wrote. He added federal funds should be focused on the “how” and “why” of instruction providing students with knowledge on standard practices and the technical side of a trade or profession.

The June 10 column by Estep offered insight into why Carlisle educators made the push for a vocational education curriculum at the high school. Interviews with local employers revealed that the best workers in industry were not the people who grew up in town, but on the farms surrounding Carlisle.

“When asked why this condition exists these men told us that young people from the farm know how to work and can produce more in a day than can our average high school graduates,” Estep wrote. “We were also told that our high school people in many cases expect too much from industry and are unwilling or unable to make the necessary adjustment from the school situation to industrial work.

“Realizing that our school was failing to adequately prepare the large percentage of our graduates who will enter industrial employment, the school board acting on the advice of these employees and the recommendation of the Industrial Survey Committee voted to set up a program of vocational education,” Estep wrote. “Training students for useful employment in industry, on the farm or in the home is recognized as a function of modern education as college preparatory or cultural education.”

New wing

Five months later, on Nov. 10, an estimated 1,000 residents visited the new south wing of the Lamberton building during an open house and dedication ceremony. “(They) found new pride in the great technical high school and the enlarged education it represents,” The Sentinel said.

The new wing, which cost taxpayers almost $195,000, consisted of a cafeteria on the first floor along with three shops for courses in carpentry, mill and cabinet woodwork and auto mechanics. The second floor was outfitted with two clothing laboratories along with a homemaking suite that included a kitchen, living/dining room and a fitting room.

The guest speaker was Paul L. Cressman, director of curriculum for the state Department of Public Education. He said the enlargement of the high school program to provide vocational training was a fulfillment of the dream of Thaddeus Stevens, a Pennsylvania lawmaker and early advocate of a free public education for all.

Potter saw the wing as a restoration of the original intent of a Carlisle education, which began 103 years prior with the goal of hands-on instruction. “He (Potter) said the vocational aspect of education was nearly forgotten in the desire to shape courses to prepare students for college,” The Sentinel reported.

A month later, on Dec. 12, the newspaper ran a story urging the managers of Carlisle industries to make use of the opportunity to hold evening training classes for their employees at the high school.

Such classes could be taught by a shop foreman or other qualified employee who then would be paid by the school district. The district, in turn, would be reimbursed 100 percent from state and federal vocational funds.

On Feb. 9, 1957, The Sentinel ran a front-page story in support of a new method of instruction at Carlisle High School called the “three weeks about plan.” Under that method, students in the vocational courses spent three weeks in the shop during which the first hour of each day was devoted to theory.

The three weeks of shop was followed by three weeks of “book work” with an emphasis on instruction in English, U.S. history, “Problems of Democracy,” mechanical drawing, related science, related mathematics, health, safety and physical education.

“When a student finishes three years of a trade course, he has had 1,600 clock hours of instruction and work given him by teachers who, themselves, have had no less than six years (of) experience in their particular trade.”

The 1957 article said 56 boys were enrolled in vocational courses during the 1939-40 school year.

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Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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Education/History Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.