Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Torrance vocational program among 72 in state facing closure

At a time when career-tech education has become increasingly scarce in public high schools, a 46-year-old center of vocational education in Torrance remains one of California’s most thriving campuses of its kind. But now its very existence is in jeopardy.

Torrance vocational program among 72 in state facing closure

The Southern California Regional Occupational Center or SCROC is facing state budget cutbacks. SCROC is one of the most robust vocational training facilities in Southern California. Sayah El-Habbal takes blood pressure of fellow student Jiyeon Park during Principals of Biomedical Science class. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)
The Southern California Regional Occupational Center or SCROC is facing state budget cutbacks. SCROC is one of the most robust vocational training facilities in Southern California. Sayah El-Habbal takes blood pressure of fellow student Jiyeon Park during Principals of Biomedical Science class. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)

Mollie Penny is an aspiring hairdresser who, come June, will not only graduate from Torrance High, but also complete the 1,600 hours of hands-on-hair experience necessary for obtaining her California cosmetology license.

Jessie Gonzalez does not have the option to take art or video production classes at City Honors School in Inglewood, yet the high school senior has been offered an internship at Northrop Grumman because of his developing skills in 3-D imaging.

Both are among the 9,000 South Bay students who annually attend the Southern California Regional Occupational Center in Torrance – a hulking hub of vocational education activity whose official shorthand moniker is SoCal ROC, but which is better known by its earlier acronym: SCROC.

At a time when career-tech education has become increasingly scarce in public high schools, the 46-year-old center remains one of California’s most thriving vocational campuses.

But now its very existence is in jeopardy.

SoCal ROC and other regional occupational programs across the state appear to be in danger of having to completely close come July – a potential consequence of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed school-funding overhaul, coined by the governor himself as the “local control funding formula.”

“That would be a travesty to the South Bay,” said Christine Hoffman, SoCal ROC’s superintendent, adding that the center has educated half a million residents since its inception in 1967. “SCROC is an icon here.”

Hoffman believes the problem she discovered – namely, that SoCal ROC is slated to receive zero dollars next school year under the governor’s proposal – is a fixable oversight. But she isn’t taking any chances.

She has written letters, traveled to Sacramento and appealed to sympathetic state legislators such as Sen. Ted Lieu and newly elected Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, both of Torrance. She discovered the problem in January, but her efforts to get the word out have been picking up.

Muratsuchi, in particular, is in a position to help. Despite his newcomer status, the former Torrance school board member landed a spot on the Assembly’s five-member subcommittee on education financing.

“I have a hard time believing that the governor intentionally wants to eliminate such a successful career-tech education program,” said Muratsuchi, who was elected to the post in November. “But I’m fighting to make sure we save SCROC.”

To that end, he has written and plans to soon introduce a bill, AB 1214, that would spare the program. He also plans to broach the topic at the next subcommittee meeting on Tuesday.

With its cluster of large, boxy buildings set back from Crenshaw Boulevard near Wilson Park, SoCal ROC almost resembles the campus of a community college, but one whose primary customers are high-schoolers.

Campus serves 6 area school districts

While it is among 72 regional occupational programs across the state, SoCal ROC operates under a model so unusual there is only one other like it in California.

Unlike the other programs, which offer courses on the campuses of existing high schools, SoCal ROC exists as a campus unto its own, serving ninth- through 12th-graders from the six school districts in its joint powers agreement: Torrance, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, El Segundo, Inglewood and Palos Verdes Peninsula.

(The other one with its own separate campus, Metropolitan Education District in Santa Clara County, also serves six school districts.)

For decades, SoCal ROC has bused in and educated – free of charge – high school students from those six districts. (The Centinela Valley high school district serving students in Lawndale and Hawthorne was once a part of the consortium, but pulled out in 2011-12.)

The students typically come to SoCal ROC after their regular school day to take career-oriented courses not on the menu at their high school campuses. They receive high school credit for the courses, some of which satisfy requirements for the state’s two major university systems.

But the main attraction is the eclectic offerings themselves, which include plumbing, banking, auto shop, nursing, dental assisting, engineering, welding, fashion design, video-game design and even pet health and grooming, to name a few.

Adults can attend for a modest tuition, and high school students from districts outside the consortium can enroll free of charge, provided there is space and they can find their own transportation.

Classes are typically taught by industry professionals. Bob Schuchman, who teaches 3-D character design and animation, has an impressive portfolio of high-profile logos that includes Smirnoff vodka, Vintage Chevrolet Club of America and the Rug Doctor carpet-cleaning machine. He said SoCal ROC can be a great fit for the student who is ambivalent about the traditional high school setting.

“We don’t have a sports team, we don’t have to worry about the big man on campus,” he said. “None of that exists here.”

Unpleasant surprise in budget

And yet, a rising number of college-bound students are enrolling in SoCal ROC from the affluent corners of the consortium, including places such as the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

“Those students you normally wouldn’t expect to see taking career-technical education, they are seeing the value of getting that head start,” Hoffman said.

As for the scare over funding, Hoffman said she discovered the issue at the beginning of the year. For decades, the state budget has included a line item for the state’s 72 regional occupation programs. Normally the annual allocation falls somewhere between $400 million and $500 million, about $7 million of which goes to SoCal ROC.

But in January, Hoffman was stunned when she saw, in Gov. Brown’s proposed budget, the amount assigned to regional occupational programs this year: zero.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that that’s a problem,” she said.

So does the goose egg mean SoCal ROC will be no more come next school year?

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance, was noncommittal.

“We recognize there are some unique situations, such as this joint powers agreement,” he told the Daily Breeze. “We are willing to have further discussions with them as this process moves forward.”

The zeroed-out budget is the result of the governor’s attempt to simplify the state’s Byzantine school-funding formula by bringing more local control to individual school districts.

What’s changed?

Historically, about 30 cents of every dollar that has gone from the state government to local school districts has come with strings attached to a long list of mandated programs, such as school safety, gifted and talented education (known as GATE), summer school, special education, and, of course, regional occupational programs.

Brown contends that the model – with its layers of bureaucracy, mazes of regulation and deference to test scores – is wasteful and wrongheaded, as well as overly top-down.

“The higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students,” Brown said in his State of the State Address in January.

His proposal to cut the strings attached to certain programs – known in education speak as “categorical programs” – means individual school districts will receive larger lump sums to spend as they see fit.

Brown’s proposal actually builds on an earlier move by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008-09 to temporarily remove the spending requirements on many of those categorical programs. Brown’s plan does two things: adds more spending flexibility by stripping away even more categorical programs, and seeks to make permanent the terms of Schwarzenegger’s initiative, which was set to expire in 2014-15.

In response to SoCal ROC’s Hoffman, Palmer pointed out that the strings attached to the regional occupational programs had already been snipped by Schwarzenegger back in 2008-09.

“In other words, there’s no change,” he said.

But Hoffman disagrees. In every year prior to this one, she said, the budget has included a line-item for regional occupational programs to the tune of about $450 million. This is the first time it has actually been zeroed out.

In previous years, school districts and county offices of education across California continued to run most of their regional occupational programs, even though they had the option not to.

“Flexibility for the ROCP (regional occupational centers/programs) was in name only,” she said. “What is different now is that there is no money budgeted in the state pot for ROCPs. That is a huge difference.”

Alternatives for students

To make up for this potential cut to career-tech education, the governor’s proposal does include a request to give individual school districts a boost – to the tune of $215 per high school student. But Hoffman says even if all six school districts in the South Bay consortium opted to hand over their entire allocation to SoCal ROC, the center would find its annual budget nearly chopped in half. In other words, it would still need to close.

This would mean that hair stylist students like Penny would have to find another way of earning her hours of experience. That can be completed at many private schools, but tuition runs upwards of $17,000 a year.

Sarah Muller, a senior at South High in Torrance, has been taking medical-assisting and other classes oriented in health care at SoCal ROC. She now knows that she wants to be a pediatric nurse, and she will take courses to that end next year at California State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson.

“I wouldn’t have gotten all this hands-on experience at my high school,” she said. “The teachers all work in this field, so they know what they are doing.”

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