Aiding “opportunity youth” at Pima Vocational High School in Tucson

Tucson, AZ | Submitted by Michele Ray

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In 2000, Pima Vocational High School opened its doors. But there wasn’t a flood of students from a new housing development. That year, they served seven students, all of whom had challenges succeeding in a traditional classroom setting.

A part of the Pima County government, Pima Vocational High School is accredited by AdvancED. The school was created to identify and serve “opportunity youth” who are neither working nor in school. In Pima County today, this is the situation for 13 percent of those aged 16-24; a figure that the Arizona Education Progress Meter aims to decrease to 7 percent by 2030. These youth are often seeking help with employment and education, but don’t know where to find the appropriate resources.

Thankfully, the team at Pima Vocational is dedicated to helping these students return to the classroom and finish their high school diploma. Their two sites now enroll a combined 120 students, with three teachers, a tutor and a case manager at each campus. Beyond academics, the team will assist students with everything from child care and food security to transportation and housing challenges. It’s a unique student body with unique challenges, and the team is well-trained to assist them in completing their education goals.

Students at Pima Vocational range in age from 16-21. Some struggle with homelessness, others have dropped out of previous schools. But all are aiming to further their education and brighten their future. But before they can enroll at Pima Vocational, they must attend a two-day orientation to learn more about the school’s expectations. Potential students are rarely turned away, but they have to make the choice to commit to the high expectations at the school.

To supplement academic instruction, the school makes vocational training mandatory. Three classes will prepare students for employability by teaching them soft skills such as professional workplace behavior, interview skills, the importance of appropriate work attire, and more. Once these classes have been completed, students are eligible to participate in an internship as part of their school day. Made possible by community partners, this real-life work experience can take place anywhere from a hospital to the county communications office. Youth get the opportunity to form valuable networking connections, and the stipend and school credit are always appreciated.

But work experience isn’t enough if a student lacks direction for their career path. Educators work with them to complete personality assessments and career research to ensure that they graduate with a career portfolio and goals for the immediate future, whether that’s continuing on to community college, trade certifications or heading directly to work.

The team’s hard work doesn’t go unnoticed – students at the school increase their skill level by a few grades within their first six months. They have graduated nearly 700 students to-date, many of whom are the first in their families to graduate from high school. The employment rate among recent graduates is close to 80 percent, and more than ever are expressing interest in continuing on to coursework at Pima Community College. Here are a few things they had to say about their experience at the school:

  • “The teachers treat you like adults, not like a punk kid. The class sizes were small so you had a lot more one-on-one help from teachers. If you’re in a traditional high school and have 30 kids in your class, you may not even raise your hand. At Pima Vocational, it was more like a family.” – Student
  • “I can’t tell you how impressed I was. Because of the relationships my children had with their teachers, they enjoyed going to school. Pima Vocational gave them their confidence back. I tell anyone I talk to, if they have a kid who is struggling to check out Pima Vocational.” – Parent

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