Massachusetts vocational schools are a big success story, but are they shutting out those who might need them most?
Photographs by Mark Ostow
KELSEY CLARK, A SENIOR at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School, is showing a visitor work from her graphic design portfolio. There is a pointillism-style poster she drew for an assignment to promote a rock concert (she says it left her practically drawing dots in her sleep). A brightly colored infographic poster that she designed documents the benefits of physical activity—a natural topic of interest for the three-sport varsity athlete who competes on the school’s soccer, basketball, and lacrosse teams.
A friendly 17-year-old with an easy smile, Clark says she loves the mix of traditional academics and career-focused technical education at the school, and she has excelled at both.
“It’s the perfect fit for me,” says Clark, who was the salutatorian—second in her class—at the Catholic middle school she attended before arriving at New Bedford voc-tech in 9th grade.
Last summer she had an internship through the school designing brochures in the marketing department at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford. In the fall, she is heading on a merit scholarship to Stonehill College, where she plans to pursue her passion for art and design with an eye toward working in marketing or advertising.
Clark doesn’t fit the preconceived idea of a vocational school student. But today’s vocational-technical schools in Massachusetts are also a far cry from the “dumping ground” they were often characterized as in the past, places to steer non-academically oriented kids who were struggling to keep up in school.
Vocational schools are, in fact, emerging stars of the state’s education system. They have been on a steady rise that has many of them now outperforming their conventional counterparts on standardized tests and graduation rates. Today, they find themselves in the sweet spot of education thinking, as terms like “career pathways” and a new appreciation for applied learning that might connect to future employment take hold. Vocational schools are drawing thousands of academically solid students, and sending many of them on to four-year colleges as well as to two-year community colleges and other post-secondary training programs.
But their success has given rise to a troubling situation that would have been hard to imagine years ago: The demand for seats at vocational schools is now so great that some of the students who in the past would have gravitated to them—those drawn to a particular trade or to the idea of hands-on learning, or not overly engaged by full-time “book learning” in a conventional school setting—are getting turned away.
State regulations allow vocational schools to admit students on a competitive basis, and critics say that is screening out the very kids who might most need the applied learning of vocational schools to spark their interest in school and stay on track.
“The right kids aren’t getting in,” says Scott Palladino, principal at Wareham High School on Cape Cod. “The kids who need to learn a trade, those hands-on kids, aren’t getting accepted.”
“We talk about no child left behind,” says Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini. “We are excluding thousands of kids from getting the education they deserve by running our voc schools like elite prep schools.”
Some vocational schools have very low enrollment of special needs students and English language learners, a pattern for which some charter schools have drawn criticism. And vocational schools have become a particularly favored choice for middle-class families in urban communities where district high schools struggle with high dropout rates, disruptive students, and other challenges.
Many of the schools have solid academic offerings and boast state-of-the-art facilities for vocational programs, supported by a state funding formula that sends voc-tech schools about $5,000 more per pupil than district high schools.
While some vocational schools have unfilled seats, many of those serving the state’s Gateway Cities—former industrial centers such as New Bedford, Worcester, and Fitchburg—are now oversubscribed. According to a report issued last year by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, 3,200 students were on waiting lists at Massachusetts vocational schools for the 2015-16 school year. Gateway Cities account for roughly one-quarter of all public school students statewide, but they were home to 53 percent of those unable to land a spot at a vocational school.
The high demand for seats has created what a 2016 report from Northeastern University called a “peculiar paradox” in Massachusetts vocational education.
“Some still think that these schools are reserved for students who cannot succeed in the state’s comprehensive high schools,” said the report. But vocational schools are, in fact, now in such demand, it said, that they are leaving behind students “with lackluster academic or disciplinary records, often with fewer family resources, who have historically benefitted the most from career vocational education, and who now must compete for vocational school slots with better-prepared students—many of whom are college-bound.”
“It’s a Catch-22, there’s no question about it,” says David Ferreira, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, a statewide organization representing vocational school leaders. “What’s clear is some of the youngsters who used to be able to get into voc schools no longer get in because it’s ability-based and is based on a set of standards approved by the Department of Education.”
Mitchell Chester, the state education commissioner, says, “I think of it sometimes as, our voc schools are victims of their own success.”
If there was a single turning point that sent the state’s vocational schools on their upward trajectory, nearly everyone agrees it was passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act. A 1984 federal measure, the Perkins Act, pushed vocational schools to beef up the academic side of their program. But it was the state law passed a decade later that provided the clear incentive for vocational schools to take academic outcomes more seriously. The law brought millions of dollars in new education spending, but also demanded accountability for results, introducing the MCAS exam in math and English, which all public school students in the state had to pass in 10th grade to receive a high school diploma.
Many vocational school leaders reacted with alarm and lobbied against being held to the same standard. Their schools were not focused on academics, they said, and their students were not, for the most part, looking to continue their studies beyond high school. But state officials held the line, insisting that there would be no exemptions from the new graduation requirement.
For vocational schools, rather than proving to be their undoing, introduction of the new graduation requirement became a defining moment that led them to dramatically ratchet up their academic programs and standards, moves that have a lot to do with why the schools are in such demand today.
“What looked like a curse ended up being a blessing,” says Robert Gomes, community outreach coordinator at Greater New Bedford voc-tech. “We had to meet the challenge.”
Today, MCAS pass rates at vocational schools are generally higher than at many traditional high schools. Many vocational schools redoubled their focus on academics, putting particular work into helping students who arrived below grade level in basic math and English skills. Dropout rates, meanwhile, are far lower than at comprehensive schools, with an annual rate of 0.7 percent at regional vocational schools compared with 2.2 percent at traditional high schools.
State regulations allow vocational high schools to admit applicants using up to five criteria: middle school grades; attendance; behavior record; an interview; and guidance counselor recommendation. No standard can count for more than 50 percent of the admission score. In practice, grades, behavior, and attendance are the three factors voc schools generally weigh most heavily.
Critics of the selective admission system say choosing students based on those factors clearly explains some of the better outcomes at vocational schools, especially those that are oversubscribed.
The mainstays of the state’s vocational education system are 28 regional schools, each of which operates, in effect, as its own independent school district. There are also nine vocational schools operated by school systems, primarily in larger urban districts; two agricultural vocational schools; and a variety of vocational programs offered within traditional comprehensive high schools.
In all, there were 48,000 students in some type of vocational program in the state in 2016, or roughly 17 percent of all high school students, according to the Mass. Budget and Policy Center report.
The schools have a 50-50 divide between academic and vocational programming, with many using a schedule of alternating weeks between the two components.
Part of the growing appeal of vocational education, say school leaders, is the flexibility and options they give students. Many of the program areas they offer, such as electrical shop or medical assistant training, can lead directly into the workforce or apprentice programs. While good jobs generally require some type of post-secondary training, a majority of job openings in the state between now and 2022 will require something less than a four-year undergraduate college degree.
But those same electrical shop or health career students also have the foundation to go on to a four-year college for electrical engineering or to nursing school. Given the soaring cost of higher education, vocational students and their families often feel they are getting a head start and a clearer sense of a career path following college.
CREAM OF THE CROP
It’s a Wednesday evening in mid-March and more than 500 people are seated at long tables adorned with white paper tablecloths in the sprawling cafeteria at New Bedford’s regional vocational school. The occasion is the school’s semi-annual advisory board meeting. Vocational schools are required to assemble advisory boards made up of practitioners in the fields in which they offer programs. The board members, many of whom supervise voc-tech students on field internships, provide feedback on the school’s curriculum and make sure the programs are keeping up the with latest changes in training and technology.
There is an added buzz in the air because Gov. Charlie Baker is the guest speaker at the dinner. Baker has become a huge fan of the state’s vocational schools, regularly extolling them as the unsung workhorses of the K-12 world and a vital part of the state’s workforce development system. “I’ve always said Massachusetts lives by its wits,” he tells the gathering. “But in the end, for us to be truly successful, you have to be successful.”
By almost any measure, the New Bedford school is just that. The regional voc-tech school accepts students from New Bedford, Fairhaven, and Dartmouth, with well over half of the 2,170 seats taken by New Bedford residents. While vocational schools statewide send almost 60 percent of their graduates on to post-secondary education, more than 80 percent of New Bedford voc-tech grads pursue further education. The school is also an indispensable pipeline to the workforce needs of the South Coast economy.
“This school is a jewel in the region. It puts out a lot of quality craftsmen,” says Norman Fredette, owner of Norman’s Enterprises Construction Corp., an Acushnet contractor, and member of the advisory board. “They show up on time. They learn the work ethic,” he says of the students who have done field placement internships at his company.
“We’re the lifeblood of Southeastern Massachusetts,” says James O’Brien, the school’s superintendent.
No one disputes that fact, least of all Jon Mitchell, New Bedford’s mayor, who praises the school in remarks at the dinner before Baker. But Mitchell is also one of the loudest voices saying vocational schools are not fairly serving students who might most need the high-quality programs they provide.
“Voc-tech schools have every reason nowadays to recruit the highest performing and best-behaved students. That practice is leaving out in the cold the types of students who had most benefited from vocational education,” he says in an interview. “Someone who for whatever reason might not have thrived in a mainstream classroom but who could take apart a car—those who fit that profile are the ones who would thrive in a vocational setting, and those types of kids are not getting in now.”
O’Brien says behavior and attendance in middle school are the most important admission factors, and that students who have good records on those will generally be accepted even if they were not academic standouts.
Lower-achieving applicants do get accepted, but the school’s admissions profile is heavily skewed toward higher-achieving students when compared with students entering district-run New Bedford High School.
Mitchell provided data from the New Bedford school department showing a breakdown of standardized test scores for all the city’s 8th graders from the 2015-16 school year based on whether they were admitted for 9th grade to the vocational school last fall or landed at New Bedford High School, which, like all district public high schools, must take all students.
New Bedford students took the PARCC test, which was being piloted as a possible replacement for the MCAS exam and divides scores into five categories. Of the 300 students admitted to the regional vocational school, 44 percent scored in the top two categories in English, compared with 27 percent of the 394 students who enrolled at New Bedford High School. For math, 41 percent of those admitted to the voc school were in the top two categories, while just 13 percent of those heading for the city’s district high school scored at those levels.
There are also very big differences in the populations of special education students and English learners. At New Bedford High School, special education students account for 19.7 percent of the student population, while 20.8 percent are English language learners. The comparable figures at the regional vocational school are 6.4 percent and 2.7 percent.
“It’s just hard to justify that disparity,” says Mitchell.
Statewide, the numbers flip. Nearly 25 percent of the population at the state’s vocational schools are special education students compared with 17 percent at conventional schools, according to the 2016 Northeastern University report.
Many vocational schools do have high special ed populations. At Greater Lowell Technical High School, for example, which draws 85 percent of its students from Lowell, special education students account for 21.6 percent of the student body, while they make up only 10.7 percent of students at Lowell High School.
But New Bedford voc-tech is not alone in enrolling far fewer of these students than the district systems it draws from. The same pattern is true, for example, of Diman Regional Vocational Technical School in Fall River and Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical School in Upton.
The Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg has a lower percentage of special education students than all 12 of the feeder school districts it serves, and lower percentages of English language learners and students from low-income households than 10 of the 12 districts.
“They’re creaming,” says Mayor Mark Hawke of Gardner, one of the larger communities in the Montachusett district, who has been trying for years to call attention to what he says is an uneven playing field when it comes to vocational schools.
O’Brien, the New Bedford vocational superintendent, says he has worked with the local immigrant assistance center to spread the word about the school among English language learners and has gone on the city’s public access television. “I don’t want to close the door on any student,” he says.
O’Brien says part of the problem is the New Bedford school system is no longer allowing him or his staff to make recruitment presentations to 8th grade students. Districts concerned about losing students from their own high schools have “built an iron curtain around their middle schools,” says O’Brien, a tug-of-war between district systems and vocational schools that he says is playing out in many Gateway Cities.
Tensions over vocational school policies have been brewing for several years. The conflict prompted Chester, the state education commissioner, to appoint a task force in 2013 to look at vocational school policies. The group included a handful of district superintendents and vocational school leaders as well as Hawke, the Gardner mayor.
“The vocational schools benefit from an admissions policy which, to a lot of us, flies in the face of what a public school should be doing,” says Andre Ravenelle, superintendent of the Fitchburg schools and a member of the task force. “No one is doing anything illegal. But the regulations and the law around this are flawed, and what we’ve been trying to do is get somebody to look at this issue.”
The state made a few minor changes to regulations following the task force meetings. But district leaders say it amounted to tinkering at the margins. “The most transformative suggestions we were making never saw the light of day because the system is so entrenched,” says Ravenelle.
The biggest potential change would have been to move vocational admissions to a lottery system, the process used by oversubscribed charter schools. It would not solve the problem of more demand for vocational seats than supply, but it would mean all students would have an equal shot at gaining a spot.
Bob Dutch, superintendent of the Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School in Bourne, says he asked area employers who sit on his school’s advisory board what they thought about the idea of a lottery admission system. “They were strongly opposed to that,” he says. “They certainly don’t hire by lottery, and wouldn’t want us having students, who are their future workforce, come here by lottery.”
Any talk of replacing the competitive admission system based on arguments of equity and fairness runs head-on into the argument that vocational schools operate with dual missions. They are public schools designed to provide valuable skills and education to high school students, but are also engines of the state economy and talent pipeline.
“Our mission is to develop the workforce for the local economy,” says Dutch.
Still, he acknowledges the dilemma posed by today’s strong demand for vocational seats. “There are students who could benefit by what we do who aren’t getting the opportunity,” says Dutch. “One of the things that concerns me is that there are students who 15 years ago applied to Upper Cape and were able to get in who today are not able to get in. I look at those graduates. They own businesses, they’re paying taxes in the community. What would have happened to them if they had not come to Upper Cape?”
GROWING THE PIE
The air is thick with the smell of diesel fuel and auto shop supplies on the ground floor of South High School, a large, district school in Worcester. If there’s a way forward out of the conflict over vocational education in the state, part of the answer lies in the warren of workrooms here.
This is the third year of a diesel technician program at the school, and interest in it is strong. “It’s an incredible program. It’s really taken off,” says Diane Lynch, the school’s principal.
This year, 27 students are enrolled. School leaders hope to have the diesel program approved by the state as a full-fledged vocational offering, a designation of curriculum and facilities quality that also triggers the roughly $5,000 in additional per pupil funding that vocational programs receive.
There is a desperate need for diesel technicians in the area, says Shawn Baillargeon, the course instructor. A student who graduated last year recently stopped by and said he’s making $28 an hour as a certified diesel mechanic. “That’s pretty good for a high school graduate,” says Baillargeon.
Programs like this are a key part of the strategy to address the strong demand for vocational education. Given the high costs of construction, and projections of flat or declining school enrollment in many communities, state officials say the answer is not to build more vocational schools, but instead to have district high schools add more vocational and technical programs and to make better use of existing voc-tech facilities through partnerships with district high schools.
“I think the solution to this ultimately is going to be expanding vocational programs in comprehensive high schools and building more career pathways generally across the Commonwealth,” says Jim Peyser, Baker’s secretary of education.
The timing of the diesel program’s start at South High School could not have been better for Mark Magaw, a soft-spoken 15-year-old who eagerly signed up for the tech classes when he arrived last school year as a freshman.
Magaw is exactly the sort of student some say is getting left behind in today’s era of competitive vocational education admissions. In 8th grade he applied to Worcester Technical High School, the city’s highly regarded district-run vocational school, but wasn’t admitted, he says, “due to some grades.”
Several of his classmates in the diesel program also got turned down by Worcester Tech, which has the biggest waiting list of any voc school in the state and has seen gains that are so impressive it drew President Obama as the school’s graduation speaker in 2014.
It was a particularly tough blow for Magaw, who spent spare time in middle school at the Midas repair garage his father manages in nearby Marlborough and had his heart set on pursuing auto mechanics at Worcester Tech. “I used to help him in his shop,” he says.
“I think they’re very grateful there’s a program here,” Lynch, the South High principal, says of Magaw and his classmates.
Maureen Binienda, superintendent of the Worcester public schools, says the pendulum had swung so far toward the idea of all students aiming for four-year college that schools were ignoring those for whom that might not be a good fit.
“Here we are in 2017, we’re saying ‘college and career ready,’” says Binienda, citing the new, more balanced mantra of US high school education. “We have the college, but where is the career?” she says of the heavy college-going focus of traditional high schools, many of which shut down vocational programs in recent years.
Vocational schools in Massachusetts are thriving precisely because they are mastering that dual standard, giving students practical hands-on experience that can lead directly into good paying jobs or training programs in the workforce, but also equipping them with the solid academic foundation needed to go on to two-year or four-year colleges if that’s the path they choose. Traditional comprehensive high schools are playing catch-up.
State officials acknowledge that students interested in vocational programs—especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds in Gateway Cities—are being left behind by today’s competitive-admission voc-tech schools.
They say they’re willing again to examine voc-tech admissions policies, but emphasize that the real solution is to grow the state’s overall vocational education capacity. “Ultimately this is about how do we expand the pie as opposed to figuring out how to better sort the kids into one program or another,” says Peyser, the state education secretary.
A $1 billion economic development bill signed last year by Baker included $45 million, to be awarded over three years, for capital costs for vocational programs at comprehensive high schools, vocational schools, and state community colleges.
The state is also promoting more collaboration between district and vocational high schools. Massachusetts was one of 10 states recently awarded $2 million grants to support those efforts through a program called New Skills for Youth, jointly funded by JPMorgan Chase and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The state also recently awarded $700,000 grants from another program to seven schools to promote vocational-technical partnerships.
Worcester received a $122,500 grant that is bringing 15 students from the city’s alternative high school to Worcester Tech for a class in basic machining for advanced manufacturing. Another program being developed would bring 62 district high school students each semester to Worcester Tech for semester-long afternoon programs in four areas—allied health, manufacturing, technology, and construction—all of which can lead to industry-recognized certificates.
Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School received $117,000 to develop a vocational program in facilities management that it will operate from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. for students who attend the five district high schools in the region it serves.
The efforts look like steps in the right direction, but they still confer a kind of second-class status on students not accepted to full-time voc schools. Palladino, the Wareham High School principal, says he hopes students at his school will take advantage of the program at Upper Cape Tech, but wonders if a student who may already not be excited by school will want to add more hours to his or her school day. “I question how many kids at Wareham High School are going to be willing to go there in the afternoon,” he says. “I hope I’m wrong.”
In March, Fitchburg High School submitted an application for state approval of a vocational program in radio and television broadcasting. The school’s principal, Jeremy Roche, shares the frustration of Ravenelle, the district superintendent, about the regional vocational schools drawing better students while leaving others behind. But he says district schools can’t just sit on their hands.
“We have to also take some of that onus of responsibility as well,” he says. “If families are saying, ‘your school doesn’t offer enough to prepare my kid for college and career,’ we have to do a better job of serving the students and being as creative as possible.”
If adding more career and technical programs to traditional high schools helps to address some of the concerns raised about vocational schools leaving kids behind, it is also raising new potential points of conflict.
State regulations don’t allow district high schools to add vocational programs if their community is a member of a regional voc-tech school offering that program. The rationale is to avoid saturating an area with an oversupply of graduates trained in a specific field. But the policy didn’t seem to anticipate students at district high schools who were shut out from programs because they weren’t admitted to a voc school, or that some vocational schools would be unable to meet the workforce needs of area employers.
Fitchburg High School recently started a health care program, but it may run into obstacles if it applies to be a state-approved vocational program—and gain the $5,000-per-pupil in added school funding that comes with it. Ravenelle, the district superintendent, says the restrictions are unfair since there are no limits on vocational schools making themselves more attractive by adding AP courses or other programs already offered at area high schools. “It’s a one-way street,” he says.Tim Murray, the CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and lieutenant governor under Deval Patrick, has been working to expand vocational programs across the state. He co-chairs a group called the Alliance for Vocational Technical Education, founded three years ago, which has brought together vocational leaders, employers, community organizations, and state officials to try to address the high demand for vocational education. For the sake of students and the state’s economy, he says, the conflicts need to be worked out.
“How do we increase access rather than continue fighting over a limited number of seats? We can’t just go in our corners,” Murray says of the sparring between districts and vocational schools. “Collaboration is going to be key, and I think there are going to be increased incentives at the state level to work together.”