Beginning next year, a lot of Louisiana high school classrooms could look like Wes Sebren's: equipped with welding gear, safety goggles and circular saws.
Sebren, a teacher at West Ouachita High School near West Monroe, is at the forefront of public schools' response to a 2009 law passed by the Legislature that encourages teaching skills that students will need in the work force.
The law created a "career diploma" that _ in an effort to reduce the dropout rate _ will go to students who opt for lower academic standards in math and English, while taking classes such as welding, woodworking and small engine repair.
Sebren has been teaching such classes in rural Louisiana for more than a decade.
"I try to teach them to have pride in their work," Sebren said. "The finished product needs to be something they're proud of."
Roughly a third of the state's high school students drop out or otherwise don't graduate. That figure is down since 1996, when 46 percent didn't graduate.
Statewide, the new curriculum hasn't been fully formed, and only 12 of the state's 68 public school districts have offered freshmen the option of taking the career track. Most high school administrators said they will begin offering the track next school year.
Educators said they expect skills classes will be popular with parents and students who aren't academically inclined and expect to attend community or technical college after high school, rather than four-year colleges. High schools already offer a range of blue-collar preparation classes _ woodworking, small engine repair, farm animal care _ but not with the emphasis of a degree track.
"Kids will get into it because their ambitions seem to be to get prepared for work in electronics, welding, carpentry," said Kent Davis, West Carroll Parish's schools superintendent. "I feel like (the new diploma) will be very beneficial to our kids, the ones that are not going to go to college."
But the curriculum and diploma have critics _ including national education advocates _ who said it's just a way to lower academic standards: more children will graduate because high school will be easier and students will learn less. They warn that career diploma graduates will lack skills in reading, writing and basic math skills because they will have an easier path through the state's standardized tests.
Students who choose the career track can take skill-focused electives that could lead to certification at a technical or community college.
One group of students will be most affected: those who, under the old rules, couldn't pass standardized tests to advance from the eighth to ninth grades. Critics warn the new system will encourage those students to avoid improving their English and math skills. Instead, the critics argue, they'll simply choose the career diploma path _ a move that makes it far easier to pass the mandatory standardized tests.
Some parents disagree, and say they want their children to have both: basic academic skills plus practical work force skills.
Aline Snead, mother of a junior at West Ouachita High, said her son, D.J., might pursue the academic diploma _ but she's encouraged that he also shows an interest in small-engine repair, a subject he's also studying at school.
"College is my plan for him. But I'm glad that he'll have skills, that he'll be ready for the work force, if he doesn't go to college," Snead said. "This is not dumbed-down school, it's not easier. It'll just be different, more practical."
She said D.J.'s interest in Sebren's engine repair class has coincided with a jump in all his grades: the former "C" math student is now an honors math student, she said.
Sebren said welding is his most popular class. Students learn the basics _ connecting two small scraps of steel _ before moving on to large projects.
One advanced student, Justin Beard, a 19-year-old senior, is nearly finished with a steel barbecue pit, complete with 20-inch smoke box. Sebren said projects like the barbecue can complement a student's math studies: Beard must calculate the exact angles where the pieces of steel get welded together. And Beard will also calculate how much to sell the pit for when it's done, Sebren said, by considering the costs of materials and labor.
Like those basic math skills, Sebren said it's key that his students keep up their English skills, even as they learn more hands-on skills in his classroom.
"They've got to know how to write, if they're going to write an invoice or an estimate," Sebren said. "They may have all the abilities, all the skills, but they also have to know how to present themselves. They have to know the basics."