Ten young men graduated from Prince Tech's electrical shop
five years ago. Today, there isn't a licensed electrician among
them. In some ways, that failure is a failure of their school,
and a consequence of the global marketplace.
February 13, 2005
By PENELOPE OVERTON, Courant Staff Writer
Five years ago, 10
cocky young men graduated from Hartford's Prince Tech, armed
with high school diplomas, three years of vocational education,
and the expectation of lucrative careers as electricians.
Inside their ramshackle trade shop, they had studied the National
Electrical Code, muddled through load calculations, wired the
school's new welding shop and come to know each other like brothers.
As technical high school graduates, they thought they would
easily land jobs in a field that was in demand and where salaries
started at about $24,000 a year.
"They were a good group of boys," said Bill Zisk,
the teacher in charge of Prince Tech's senior electricians in
1999. "Good with their hands. Some of the best natural mechanics
I've ever had."
But today, not one of the Prince Tech crew has his electrician's
license. They need the license, typically obtained in three to
five years, to earn about $52,000 a year and protect them from
layoffs during tough economic times.
One got a college degree but is looking for work. Two joined
the military. One's in prison. One works at a car wash, another
as a handyman. Of the four still in the electrical field, two
have not been able to pass their licensing exam, while the other
two haven't finished the training required to sit for the test.
In some ways, their failure to get licensed is the failure of
Prince Tech. It also represents a broader educational crisis
plaguing technical schools across the nation, which are facing
increasing federal pressure to raise academic standards and help
American businesses compete in a global marketplace.
While some of the Prince graduates chose to leave the field,
others say they would not have failed the licensing exam if they'd
had better math and English instruction at Prince. Some claim
some of their shop teachers did not know how to control or reach
students. And some say the school did little to help them land
A.I. Prince Technical High School regularly ranks at or near
the bottom of any comparison among Connecticut's 17 state technical
high schools. Students score poorly on state math and reading
tests and national vocational exams.
And the system as a whole fares only slightly better. Fewer
than one out of five of the system's 1999 electrical shop graduates
have gotten an electrician's license. Prince is one of six schools
that have yet to produce a single licensed electrician from the
Class of '99. The failures of the electrical shops are mirrored
in many of the technical high school programs, where few seniors
can pass written national trade exams or state reading and math
The technical schools' new superintendent, Abigail L. Hughes,
is the first to admit the system is broken, haunted by low academic
performance at many of the schools. She's been working to reform
the system, raise admission standards, bolster math and reading
instruction, hire better teachers and improve teacher training.
The changes are coming quickly. But they're coming too late
to help the 1999 electrical graduates of Prince Tech.
The Class Of '99
Five years after leaving Prince Tech, Bertrand Edward, the shop's
lone college graduate, is looking for work as a school guidance
counselor. Jose Viera and Carmelo Serrano, known as the shop's
heartbreakers, joined the military.
Albert Deleon, the guy who loved fast cars, works at a Hartford
car wash. Freddie Resto, the one who would stay up all night
playing video games, is a handyman in Groton. Class clown Ziggy
Rosario is in prison for dealing drugs.
Damion Murray and Jamal Nasrudeen, hard-working sons of immigrants,
have good jobs in the field, but can't pass the electrician's
exam. Paul Russello has worked for four different electrical
shops. It's likely that Ray Lopez, the son and brother of union
electricians, will be the first of his class to get his license.
Most union apprentices pass the state exam on the first try.
If Lopez passes in May, he says, it will be because of what he
learned in the union, not Prince Tech. The Hartford native said
he's not bitter, but he is blunt.
"I am where I am because of my dad, my brother and the
union, not Prince Tech," Lopez said during a recent break
from an evening trade theory class that all union apprentices
attend. "If Prince Tech was all I had, I'd be flipping burgers."
But Bill Chaffin, Prince Tech's new principal, said faculty
members do the best they can with the students they get. Freshmen
with fifth-grade reading skills are not uncommon. Some are hungry,
live in violent, drug-ravaged homes or are having children. They
struggle to graduate, much less master a trade, especially one
as complex as electrical.
Their gritty stories unfold in a dingy, rundown building that
is waiting for a renovation project envisioned when Ray Lopez
was still a child. The school has no quiet classroom where students
can learn electrical theory. Fist-sized holes pock the electrical
shop's only whiteboard. Shop lights flicker on and off.
Chaffin believes a new building
and Hughes' new initiatives, especially the math and reading
labs launched this year, will make Prince Tech strong. "We're making great strides," he
said. "But it is going to be a very long road."
`Oh Man, The Math'
Damion Murray strolls through the chaotic construction site
with heavy tools hanging from every belt loop, a diamond earring
hanging from both ears and hard-bitten tradesmen hanging on his
He is an apprentice who has
failed the state license exam three times, but a single word
sprawled on his hard hat - "superhero" -
hints at his status among coworkers.
The men laugh at his jokes as he figures out where the architect
of the new science wing at East Hartford High School wants him
to put electrical boxes.
His boss, Tom Beaudoin, a
Prince Tech alumnus who owns T&T
Electrical Contractors Inc. in Hartford, says the 25-year-old
apprentice is one of his best electricians, licensed or not.
"Life is good," Murray says while he installs a digital
clock. "I work inside where it's warm. I make good money.
I got my own place, with new furniture. I buy a new car every
The handsome East Hartford man is talented, easygoing and diligent,
but he lacks the ninth-grade math skills needed to get into the
local electrician's union or pass the all-important state electrician's
He raised his score from a
44 to a 52 to a 54, but he needs a 70 to pass. Murray can't
seem to calculate things such as electrical loads and wire
capacity. He calls it "a test problem, not
a real-world problem."
It's a skill Murray admits he never mastered, even when he was
at Prince Tech. Although he didn't study for his first test,
he says he's studying now.
"I'm a good electrician," he says. "Ask
my boss. ... He knows I know what I'm doing. But the math,
oh man, the math, it's killing me."
`Forgot Our Brains'
Murray isn't the only one
from his old shop who can't pass the state exam. Nasrudeen,
who works with Murray at T&T, has
failed three times. Nasrudeen can't finish the test in the allotted
time because he can't read fast enough.
Nasrudeen says getting his
electrician's license would mean an extra $4 an hour on most
jobs. On government projects, his pay would almost double. "That buys a lot of diapers," says
Nasrudeen, who is eagerly awaiting the birth of his second child.
The answers he needs are buried in the National Electrical Code,
which can be used during the test, but the manual is as thick
and as dull as a Kansas City phonebook. Nasrudeen's well-worn
copy is underlined and highlighted.
He studies it a few minutes each night in his neatly manicured
duplex in Hartford's South End. It doesn't help that English
isn't Nasrudeen's native language. The earnest Guyanese native
came to the U.S. 11 years ago, when he was 14.
Prince Tech represents a wasted opportunity for Nasrudeen. He
had a chance to learn a trade for free. Now he will have to pay
$400 to $800 for a license prep course just to pass the state
Nasrudeen hated high school theory class, where teachers spouted
abstract ideas that seemed to have no application in the real
world, but he knows his failure to master those lessons, as boring
as they were, is hurting him now.
"They taught us how to use our hands," he said. "We
forgot our brains."
State records show that more than a third of 1999 tech graduates
who took the state electrician's exam failed it. Most who failed
did poorly on the parts of the exam that require calculations
and code book references, records show.
When Beaudoin attended in the late 1970s, Prince Tech still
had difficult entrance exams and accepted only the best students
who were determined to become licensed electricians, carpenters
or machinists, he said.
"Getting into Prince Tech was an honor," he said. "You
Now, lackluster academics limit the number of licensed electricians
and strong college applicants who come out of the state's technical
schools. It also leads to lower standardized test scores.
And poor test scores have hurt the system's reputation, making
it hard to attract top-notch recruits and a racially diverse
student body at a time when Hughes wants to raise admissions
On Their Own
Jose Viera thrived at Prince Tech. The Newington teen ran cross-country
and track. His silky voice and playful smile got him a lot of
attention from girls. His I'll-try-anything-once philosophy made
electrical shop an adventure.
Viera was 19 when he graduated. Though bills from the birth
of his son, Nathan, were mounting, he was not worried because
he had his trade. But getting the trade job that Prince Tech
had promised turned out to be hard.
"They didn't have much career counseling," Viera recalled. "I
found my first job in the classifieds. It took months of calling
up place after place after place. In the end, I took the first
electrical job I could find."
He worked one year at RCI Electrical in Newington, but he didn't
like it. It had little in common with what he had liked about
electrical shop - where he felt he was always learning something
new and enjoyed the camaraderie of classmates - and he hated
working outside in the cold.
Like most of his classmates, Viera chose electrical shop way
back in ninth grade with little thought of what it would actually
mean to do that for a living. He stuck with his boys, plain and
In the summer of 2001, Viera quit RCI and enlisted in the National
Guard to earn money for college. He wanted better for himself,
he said. He enrolled in Manchester Community College in 2003
to study forensic science.
"I'd always wanted college, but you didn't hear much about
that at Prince, probably because none of us had any money," said
Viera, who dropped out of the community college after a semester
when his Guard unit was called up for active duty.
When he is not on active duty, Viera installs expansion joints
on power plant smokestacks for Industrial Air Flow Dynamics Inc.
of Glastonbury. But his electrical skills come in handy when
he is building and blowing up bridges in the Connecticut National
Guard's 250th Engineering Unit.
"Lots of blueprints," he said. "Plus,
I guess it's a good idea to have someone who knows something
about electrical theory wiring the C-4. I probably wouldn't
be handling the explosives without Prince Tech."
Looking back, Viera wishes Prince Tech had organized field trips
to different electrical job sites and offered more out-of-school
production jobs. And somebody should have at least mentioned
college, he said.
When Beaudoin graduated from Prince in 1979 and went on to Boston
University, students could expect that and more.
"Our shop instructors lined us up with jobs," Beaudoin
said. "Not just the top guys, although they got the best
ones, but everybody. Now the kids are on their own."
`Not Bad, Just Bored'
Albert Deleon was a class-cutting, out-of-control teenager who
got away with everything at Prince Tech. He'll tell you all about
it as he makes change for a customer at the Mr. Sparkle Car Wash
in Hartford's Parkville neighborhood.
He has worked out of the small,
windowless booth at this popular Latino hangout for five years.
He now manages a small staff of car washers. "It ain't a big-time job or nothing," he
said, "but it's all right for a guy who can't drive."
For years, Deleon was part
of the local street-racing scene. He lost count of all his
traffic tickets, but he had always gotten off with a small
fine. "I wasn't bad, just bored," he
said. "Minor stuff."
That was until Deleon got
drunk and cracked his car in two while running from a race
night police raid. This time, the judge came down hard. He
served 30 days in jail - "the hardest days
of my life," he says - and won't get his driver's license
back until 2008.
That ended Deleon's dim hope of becoming an electrical apprentice.
Electricians, especially green ones, must drive to jobs all over
Deleon doesn't blame Prince
Tech for his problems. He doesn't know if any amount of interventions,
detentions or suspensions could have saved him. "The teachers didn't bother with me," Deleon
recalled. "I liked it like that."
He loved wrestling or playing basketball in shop. The only disciplinarian
was a teacher famous for his ability to drop a boy to his knees
with one jab to the back. But mostly, Deleon recalls teachers
hiding out inside air-conditioned offices, venturing out to take
attendance or assign homework he never did.
Most shop instructors arrive at a state technical high school
with a good deal of experience in their trade but little to no
formal training on how to teach. They may know how to wire a
baseball stadium but have no clue how to manage a classroom or
reach students with a range of abilities or learning styles.
Mr. Z's Rules
Bill Zisk was an exception. When Deleon was a senior, Prince
Tech hired Zisk to take over the electrical shop for a year.
Zisk grew up in public housing. His widowed mother struggled
to pay the bills. He was no stranger to urban poverty and violence
when he arrived in Hartford.
Mr. Z ran a tight ship. No cursing on the job. Shirts had to
be tucked in. No sagging pants, even if it meant the boys wore
belts made out of electrical wire.
At first, they hated Zisk, whom they called The Warden, with
his new rules and his weekly meetings to discuss personal progress.
But a truce was declared by the second week.
"I showed them respect," Zisk said. "They
liked that. Then, what do you know, they got better, and boy,
they really, really liked that."
By the end of the year, Zisk
had the kids painting the electrical shop in the school's trademark
purple and gold and wiring the welding shop. "Little Freddie" Resto
remembers that Z could break even the most complicated electrical
theory down into small and seemingly simple parts.
When Zisk gave the seniors a day to take his own version of
the state electrician's exam, every one of them passed it. At
the end of the year, Zisk accepted a permanent teaching job at
Vinal Tech in Middletown.
"We learned a lot from Z, even though we didn't want to," Deleon
recalled as he was showing an off-roader how to wash a muddy
Jeep. "Maybe we'd always wanted to learn, deep down. Who
knows? For one year, he got to us."
Even when Ray Lopez is laid off, which happens every now and
then, he still earns more from a week's unemployment check than
Deleon does from a 60-hour week at the car wash. A union man
definitely has an edge, Lopez said.
Lopez's dad wanted him to
go to college, but when Lopez decided to "stick with what I know" and
get into the family trade, his dad and his older brother, who
belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers,
started preaching the benefits of a union life.
"It was union this, union that," Lopez said. To persuade
Lopez, who was reluctant to sign up for the union's intensive
training program, his brother and father showed him their paychecks. "The
money got pretty good pretty fast."
In Connecticut, someone who wants to become an electrician must
find an employer willing to train an apprentice in a program
of electrical studies and work that is outlined by the state
Department of Labor.
Some opt to join one of Connecticut's four electrician's unions.
The nonunion contractors require their apprentices to meet state
guidelines through a three-year program, but the union courses
are five years long.
Upon completion, the apprentice takes the state license test.
State regulations exempt technical school grads from electrical
studies. Although this seems like a perk, some state officials
believe the three-, four- and five-year gap in theoretical schooling
hurts them when it comes time to take the state test.
The unions require apprentices, tech school grads or not, to
complete five years of education, including hands-on training
at different jobs during the day and twice-a-week electrical
theory classes at night.
Lopez says he learns best by doing. He didn't respond well to
Prince Tech's drill-and-kill style of teaching. He yearned for
hands-on work, but he knew that he needed to beef up his knowledge
of electrical theory to get his state license.
"I needed to see the theory in action to really get it," Lopez
The union's mix of daily work and nightly theory seems to work.
Over the last five years, only two of the 70 apprentices coming
out of the Hartford union have failed the state license test.
Those two passed on their second try.
But most Prince Tech grads can't even make it into the union.
Each year, Prince Tech sends a bus full of students to the union
hall to take a basic math test used to evaluate would-be apprentices.
Most years, nobody passes.
Lopez plans to take the state electrician's exam in May and
expects to pass. Everybody at Prince Tech always thought he'd
be the first one. He had ambition. And it doesn't hurt that when
you shake his family tree, an electrician falls out.
"Books are hard for me, always have been, but give me half
a chance and I'll make good," said Lopez, who is saving
up to buy a townhouse. "I ain't afraid to work. I'll get
my hands dirty. Just give me a chance to take my shot."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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