By Brent Curtis
Looking for an education on matters of national relevance, Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders dropped by Rutland High School on Monday where he asked students at the Stafford Technical Center for advice.
"I want to have an informal chat," Vermont's independent senator told a gathering of about 25 students. "You could be very helpful to me. I want to know what's on your minds and what you think the government can and should be doing."
Sanders said he chose to visit the technical center because he wanted answers to national questions about raising wages, providing good-paying jobs and training a skilled labor force.
It would be a stretch to say that he left the school with a road map for addressing those issues, but the 40-minute dialogue may have afforded Sanders a compass for the direction the country should take.
The senator heard from a number of high school seniors learning and practicing a range of vocational skills who all agreed that their educations would have been incomplete without the skills they learned in the field.
"It let me know what I want to do in the future," said Kayla Plouffe, a second-year culinary arts student.
After spending her first year in culinary arts learning from books and in the classroom, Plouffe is spending her senior year working as a prep cook at the new Legends restaurant in the Diamond Run Mall.
While her classroom learning has been valuable, Plouffe told Sanders that her education would have been incomplete if she hadn't had an opportunity to work in the field.
"You can't learn how to chop onions, shred carrots and bake a cake from a book," she said. "Well, OK, maybe you can. But it's not as much fun and you can't eat it."
Samantha Boekemann, a second-year health careers student, told Sanders that she received her license to work as a nursing assistant at the end of her first year in the program. This year, she is working with recovering patients at the Rutland Regional Medical Center. After graduation, she plans to go to school to be a respiratory therapist.
"I like the program, I like it a lot," she told Sanders when he asked her about her Stafford training.
The students' stories seemed to align with the senator's own beliefs about education.
While some students thrive in conventional classroom settings, others can only tap into their potential by learning hands-on, Sanders said.
"People learn in different ways," he said. "There are some automobile mechanics out there who can rebuild cars with their eyes closed but who dropped out of school because they weren't learning anything."
Sanders also said he was glad to hear that Stafford students were being taught skills that would prepare them for changes in their industries.
In the school's carpentry careers program, for example, students are taught energy-efficient ways of building houses — a skill that Sanders said they would need in the rapidly changing energy markets of the future.
"Efficiency can cut fuel use by 40 percent," he said.
While Sanders' intention was to focus on what he could learn, students and faculty at the high school took advantage of his visit to find out what they could about the future of higher education funding and threats to federal funding for schools.
Sanders said that after years of not keeping pace with tuition rates, adjustments to federal loan and grant funding was being made in Washington along with loan interest rates and a forgiveness program for loan-holders who work in either nonprofit or municipal fields for at least 10 years.
"Quite frankly, it's the best higher education legislation that's been passed in decades," he said.
He also reassured school administrators that proposed cuts to federal Perkins funding, which pays for 10 percent of the Stafford Center's budget, wouldn't make it past the Senate.
"Bush hasn't been getting his way and we're not letting him get his way on this," Sanders said.
By Brent Curtis
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